Thursday, April 25, 2013

Keys to the gallery

Never a dull moment - especially come April, when all the school year's chickens come home to roost. So today - with last weekend's conference, Queer Christianities 2, seminar fellow selection, Santideva, Boston, tulips, Mount Kailash and Zaytuna College still on my mind - I had the pleasure of presenting at the conference Museums and Higher Education in the 21st Century: Collaborative Methods and Models for Innovation at Baruch College, with U, a cool new Lang administrator.
We had fifteen minutes to talk about the relationship of Lang and the Rubin Museum of Art, a relationship I've long been a part of, and decided to talk about planning (U) for improvisation (me). Our gambit was that the two institutions' Deweyan commitments to experiential learning have allowed us to develop a remarkably fertile relationship of mutual trust and playfulness. This relationship made possible not only unique and valuable learning experiences for students in courses bridging the two institutions but unique and valuable courses, which neither institution could have generated on its own.

We called it "the keys to the gallery." We started with a scene from a course one of my religious studies faculty taught using the Rubin. He knew the galleries well enough that he let the class explore on their own before one of them chose an object for discussion, and then let discussion flow around it, until it flowed to another work, and then another. To an observer it might look random and directionless, but his preparation, and the wisdom of the museum's curators, made it possible for the course both to cover essential material and to take forms appropriate and unique to that group of students. That was scene one, made possible by the instructor's giving students the keys to the gallery.
Scene two tells a similar story but at the course-development stage. Instead of an instructor bringing a group of students into a gallery, a college brings its faculty (as it were) into the museum's standing collection and upcoming exhibitions and lets some of them choose what to work with. This really is the way the Lang-Rubin courses have been generated, more out of administrative laissez faire than Deweyan conviction, but it has allowed a very distinctive curriculum to emerge. At first, the courses were ones you could have predicted, looking at the college's departments and the museum's collections: "Tibetan Buddhism," "Himalayan Art," "Mandalas," etc. But with time - once folks got to know each other - the partnership gave birth to courses appropriate and unique to the relationship.
I was there in part because that happened on my watch. I told how a trip to the Rubin with one of my first year seminars ("Religion in Dialogue," though I was remembering "Secularism at the Crossroads") had set me thinking about how a course one of whose anchors was the Rubin might explore the variety of ways in which religious objects are placed and presented in museums. The museum educators I asked about the possibility thought one might explore religious objects throughout the city - in religious settings, museums, commercial settings, private houses, etc. And they liked the idea enough to take it on themselves, generating the innovative and successful course "Divine on Display" for Religious Studies. This in turn generated another course, "Sacred Symbols," which found a home in the Arts in Context program. These cool discipline- and institution-transcending classes emerged from the friendships which the partnership had made possible, but also from an administrative set-up - explicated by U (all the pretty powerpoint slides are her work) - which gave faculty the the keys to the gallery.
So that was pretty neat, and I was able to illustrate with other courses which emerged from the matrix of the Lang-Rubin relationship, like one which thought outside the boxes of both college and museum called "Buddhism in New York," and another which went still farther afield, becoming a summer study program in Tibet. But what stole the show was scene three, a story about our seminar fellows.

Baruch College also has a close relationship with the Rubin, and its first year program has been bringing new students to the museum during orientation for a while. The museum proposed the same to us - that's me again, now with my First Year Chair's hat on. Based on our experience generating those distinctive courses I thought we might do something more creative, and so the seminar fellows - the peer advisers who run the weekly First Year Workshops each Fall - had a 90-minute training as museum guides one week, halfway through the semester. The head of the outreach program initiated them not only into the museum's etiquette (never point at a work of religious art but gesture with an open palm) but into their pedagogy (plant people in front of something and wait for them react to it) as well as giving access to a database which provides background on each piece. The seminar fellows then brought their classes to the museum the week following on their own. They were free to do whatever they wanted: we gave them (yes) the keys to the gallery.

The results weren't unmixed. One of the swottier seminar fellows felt she had to pretend to be an authority on Himalayan art and was found out (or thought she was). Most, however, took it in their stride. "Look," they said to their first years, "I've only been here a few more times than you have, but they did tell me a thing or two about what's going on here and this - gesturing at a statue or tangka - is a pretty good example; isn't it gorgeous? It has an amazing history too..." It's kinda like what they were doing as seminar fellows in the first place - college students a few years ahead of the new arrivals but still making their way through the same college's wonders and puzzles. I gather some others said something along the lines of "I'm not sure why we're here - nearest museum to school, I guess - but it's got some awesome stuff; since we're here, we might as well make the most of it. I really like this piece..." Most took the trust we placed in them and rose to the occasion.
Best of all were two seminar fellows who were uncomfortable with the Rubin - what's all this Asian stuff doing in New York? - and integrated the museum into ongoing discussions about diversity, representation and cultural appropriation. When I reported that these seminar fellows had assigned their students an angry article about shallow and disrespectful appropriation of Asian religious symbols in American popular culture ("There comes a point where you are now a walking caricature of another culture by exotifying and romanticizing their culture and that’s offensive and dehumanizing") I could tell we had struck a nerve. Getting this right matters!

In closing we returned to a scene like the opening scene, except that there was no instructor in sight, just students and a somewhat more experienced student, none of them specialists or even devotés of the museum's collections. Here was something new and dangerous, something none of us would have come up with on our own, and I could tell at least some of the assembled museum educators were really intrigued by it. Everyone had been talking about the need to open up to new audiences and allowing students their own experiences, but I dare say nobody had allowed it to go so far...

A little anarchic we may be, but there is method to our madness!

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