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Educators from the Museum at Eldridge Street Observe Create Ability Program in Action at MoMA

on Thu, 01/12/2012 - 11:39pm

Storytelling was the theme at the two Create Ability sessions at the Museum of Modern Art on December 18th.  Create Ability combines hands-on artmaking with a gallery visit for individuals with learning and developmental disabilities and their families.  The two sessions on this day both had the same format and were led by three freelance MoMA educators who have been trained to work with visitors who have disabilities.

Sarah Verity, Director of Visitor Services, and Jan Kampel, a retired teacher and experienced docent, from the Museum at Eldridge Street observed the morning session for ages 5 to 17 and their family members.  The afternoon session was for ages 18 and up and their family members, and was observed by Rochelle Goldstein, a retired special needs professional and docent from Eldridge.  As described in an earlier post, these observations are part of a three-year program to increase the accessibility of museums for people with Autism. As part of the grant, which is generously supported by the FAR Fund, the Museum Access Consortium is documenting the experience of the staff at the Museum at Eldridge Street as they learn from other cultural institutions around New York City and pilot their own program for students who are on the autism Spectrum.

The sessions at MoMA on December 18th took place in a designated classroom with worktables set around the perimeter, as well as in the galleries, during regular public museum hours.  As the Create Ability participants arrived, some with their entire family including siblings, others with their mothers or a sister, and settled down at the tables, the leaders engaged them in conversation, greeting newcomers as well as repeat participants and determining who spoke Spanish.  One leader, doing a lot of the talking, was from Spain and explained that was why she had an accent.

The leaders soon launched into a discussion about what was going to happen during the rest of the session.  Expectations were set for the experience.  The group was told that after a visit to the galleries there would be a printmaking session back in the classroom.  Brayers were held up and there was a discussion about the process and that the end result would be black ink printed onto colored paper.  Participants were advised to think about the color of paper they would choose.  The components of storytelling; character, setting and plot, were discussed.

Everyone had received a color-coded nametag from the desk.  The colors were used to identify small groups, each to follow a different group leader into different parts of the museum.  Rochelle, from the Museum at Eldridge Street, took not of the small group size, four to five participants with their family members.  There was a discussion abou tthe rules for museum behavior, with an emphasis on "no touching," and then everyone left for the galleries, one group at a time.

The museum was crowded with visitors as the groups made their way to individual artworks.  In front of each work of art, everyone int he group was asked to be seated.  The  morning group of children and family sat on the floor.  The afternoon group of adults sat on stools they carried with them.  Group leaders explained later that sitting was essential to keeping the participants focused.  It also allowed other museum visitors to view the artwork.  The participants seemed oblivious to other visitors, with the exception of one gregarious youngster who briefly smiled and waved to several people.

A group of people in a gallery is sitting on stools and looking at a painting.  An educator stands next to painting.

Photograph courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

Each group visited three works of art.  The first question posed to the group was always, "What do you see?"  the leader gave a little information about the artist.  For Rousseau, it was that he was French, self-taught, and had never left France.  This information related directly to the discussion of what the group was looking at.  For instance, the awkwardness of the drawing in The Sleeping Gypsy related to being self-taught.  The stylized exotic settings related to the fact that he had never left France.  The leaders made sure that all participants shared in the discussion, a somewhat challenging proposition with an especially articulate and outgoing personality in the group.  Discussion was both with the group at large, and between the participants, one to one, and in response to the leaders' prompts and questions.  This allowed for the shyer youngsters in the group to be heard, sometimes through the voice of a parent.  The group of adults in the afternoon were not shy and obviously felt comfortable speaking up.  they also turned to others in the group, introducing themselves and having short conversations.

Jan Kampel from the Museum at Eldridge Street later commented that there was a definite progression in the galleries.  Discussion in front of the artworks kept to theme of storytelling; talking about the people depicted, the setting and what might be going on ("What happens next?"), but was kep open-ended at the same time.  One of the participant's parents said that these sessions at the MoMA had made all the difference for her and her son, as far as the experience of visiting a museum.  She was personally delighted to learn more about the real Christina in one of her personal favorite paintings, Christina's World, on this visit.

Reassembled back in the classroom, the group was led in further discussion about storytelling.  The characters, settings, and storylines observed in the galleries were listed on a whiteboard.  Favorite stories were shared.  Then the artmaking process for creating one's own story was demonstrated.  A thin sheet of Styrofoam was going to become a printing plate, with marks made by a wooden stylus.  Images and textures were encouraged, words discouraged, since everything would print out backwards from the way it appeared on the plate.

While the group was busy creating their prints, the educators from the Museum at Eldridge Street had a chance to think out loud among themselves about how they might bring their observations back to their own museum, which will be hosting a pilot program in the coming months for students from P94M who have Asperger Syndrome.  Eldridge Street's staff will apply teaching methods learned by observing MoMA's Create Ability program, as well as other museums' programs, to two classroom-based visits and two museum visits on themes related to immigration and art and architecture for two local classes.

Three adults painting at a desk.

Adults painting at a Create Ability program in November

Photograph courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

Sarah Verity said that it had been helpful to see the sessions in practice, rather than just being told about methodology.  A few things that were reinforced for her were the importance of having a theme and having every part of the program relate back to it, using inquiry to guide the discussion, and giving very clear, direct instructions.

Jan noted that in the galleries there had been a focus on an object to help tell a story, without much peripheral information and that the entire time in the galleries was under 45 minutes.  Jan said that normally she talks a lot on the tours that she gives, but that she would be talking a lot less now.  She thought that at Eldridge she might be able to focus on a replica version of a Torah, with the group creating one of their own afterwards or they might look at the stained glass window and then create their own.  Sarah thought they might be able to do a whole program on different kinds of stars with the theme focusing on the Museum's new stained glass window.

Final prints made by each of the Create Ability sessions on the 18th were taped up to the wall to dry and for the group to see.  At the end of each session, a period of ten minutes is reserved for participants to volunteer to present their artwork to the group.  The group leaders also pointed out features in the prints such as texture. Each participant was applauded after sharing.  Everyone was encouraged to leave their prints behind to become part of a curated exhibit at MoMA March 24th-April 16th, 2012.  The exhibit will have an opening reception on March 23rd to which Create Ability participants and their families will be invited, as well as the general public.