Museum Educator Days 2017

By Sanna-Mari Niemi

This year’s Museum Educator Days (Museolehtoripäivät), organized by The Finnish Museums Association, were held in Turku on the 21st and 22nd November. The seminar summoned together about 80 professionals from the fields of museum education and audience engagement. Two days were filled with case studies, varied workshops and discussions that left me full of ideas – some of which I’m presenting here for you, too.

Museum educators at the Old Town Hall in Turku. Photo: Sanna-Mari Niemi

The first seminar day had its common thread in solidarity, inclusiveness and empathy. Talks reflected the role of museums in bringing knowledge of diversity, and helping to create a dialogue between people from various backgrounds. In a nutshell, many of the examples encouraged museums to take an active part in tackling even the more challenging aspects of education. We were asked the question: how do museums, art and culture relate to the notion of a good life? I guess the actual question here, though, is not whether they can bring positive effects but how to measure and demonstrate these. The presentations dealt with tolerance, wellbeing through culture, and opening art collections to fresh viewpoints and queer gaze.

Ermin Škorić from Segerstedtinstitutet in Göteborg’s University shared experiences of the Tolerance project, whose mission is to spread knowledge and develop methods against recruitment of violent ideologies and racist organizations. The topic is as timely as ever. The Tolerance project works tightly together with schools which gives it continuity and outreach many museums can only dream of. The students between 14–16 years are mixed in groups outside their regular ingroups and meet on a regular basis, three times a month during one school year – sounds fantastic compared to museums, where time spans for workshops are usually very limited. At best, the practice gives pupils both a safe environment to express themselves and become more self-aware, thereby learning to resist violent ideologies. But to create such a safe space from a mixed group of people demands time. Maybe in the future something of a similar scale could be developed in a tighter cooperation between museums and schools in Finland as well? Museums provide a multi-faceted learning environment, and museum educators are experts in making the best of it. I found it surprising to hear that the Tolerance project hasn’t yet been directly cooperating with museums or heritage sites (except for the general notion that 40.000 Swedish pupils go to an excursion to Auschwitz each year). Let’s hope that the on-going Taidetestaajat (Art testers) project activating 8th graders throughout Finland can give valuable information about the needs of youth and education and give rise to ideas in the future.

Many of the speakers provided interesting web resources to projects related to culture, wellbeing and education. For instance, Taikusydän, a Turku-based multisectoral coordination centre for arts, culture and wellbeing is worth checking out. Their links to further material (projects, on-going education etc.) and a network for researchers active with these themes can be found on their web page.

Johanna Ruohonen shared some experiences of creating a queer-themed guided tour at Kirpilä Art Collection, a house museum in Helsinki that hosts an impressive private collection of Finnish art from the 1850’s to the 1980’s. This approach has given a novel perspective to Juhani Kirpilä’s art collection: besides a guided tour, the theme also shows on the walls of the house museum, in the new collections display (the museum updates its displays regularly, for the reasons of mediation and preservation). Guided tours have been popular and brought new audiences to the museum, showing that there’s a rising demand for new approaches to presenting art history and collections. Ruohonen also introduced a wonderful new initiative by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, Museum Vision. It gives museums a possibility to fund their innovative projects in exhibition design and audience engagement. So, stay tuned for the first application period starting in February 2018.

One of my favourite parts of the Museum Educator Days were the 7-minute quick-presentations. They provided many concise sparks of ideas and practices – and were fun to hear. Among these pitches was an idea of using webinars as a method for school cooperation. Webinars could make museums accessible also for those schools that are located far from museums or lacking travel funds, so this is worth keeping in mind.

Workshops were mainly held at Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova. Photo: Sanna-Mari Niemi

Day 2 concentrated around audience engagement and user-centered design in museums. Minna Raitmaa from Kiasma gave a presentation of Finnish National Gallery’s audience-centered design processes that seemed luxurious for many of us working in smaller museums. But many of these ideas can (and should) be scaled to fit one’s needs, and useful tools for using tight resources economically and purposefully. To be able to provide meaningful event programs, museums need to know their audiences. Or, even better, take the audience together to plan the projects from as early as possible. Outi Putkonen presented Mediatarinat jakoon! (Sharing media stories!) workshop outline of the Museum of Technology. Here, the activities were designed for a very specific target group and had clearly defined aims. What’s best, they have shared a pdf handbook of the project.

On both days, we got to choose workshops at the Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova museum. I attended the ones dealing with augmented reality (Digital lies or time travels to the past? AR as a method for museum pedagogy) and speed dates with art pieces. The workshop on AR left me somewhat disappointed: many cool museum-related AR projects have already been done as a project, but after the projects have ended there hasn’t been enough money for actually launching and regularly updating the applications so only one of the many examples had been opened for general public. Typical, but such a shame. So, I’ll talk more about this latter workshop.

On a speed date with Nora Tapper’s artwork Fence (2017) in the 8th Turku Biennial. Photo: Sanna-Mari Niemi

Speed dating is usually something that is done in bars, but in recent years Cupids have also been pointing their arrows inside museum walls. Last summer we even witnessed a marriage of a couple having first met in a Match Made in Museum -event in the National Museum of Finland, since the bride thanked the museum in social media (speaking of museums changing lives!). Singles nights in museums have taken multiple forms, but one can well go on a speed date with art with a group of friends, a bachelor(ette) party, work team etc. Aboa Vetus & Ars Nova has produced a Speed date with art -service that is a lot of fun and a quirky way to see modern art. I enjoyed the tour led by their museum educator Janna Jokela. Here are some facilitating questions: what can you learn from a ‘person’ in a meeting of a few minutes? What would you like to ask your new acquaintance? What can you learn from their character and maybe past experiences? And most importantly: could you imagine setting up a second date?

Some ending reflections: I was particularly pleased to see that many of the presented projects were based on research, thereby seeking substance to support their methods. It was also useful to see various frameworks for assessing excellence in audience development. Whether it’s in forms of excel sheets, presentations or publications, the ability to make the results visible is vital in understanding effectiveness and justifying the need of museum education and strategic audience development – and it helps in sharing best practices with others.

I would like to give my warmest thanks to all organizers, speakers and participants for the friendly atmosphere and many inspiring ideas!

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