I've spent a relatively equal amount of my career in two roles - museum educator and art history teacher. As such, I have been exposed to a variety of touring techniques as well as an understanding of types of resources available to teachers through museums. Here are some of my suggestions for taking your class field trips to the next level:
- Go to the museum before your field trip - this is so important for a successful field trip for numerous reasons, yet is often overlooked by many teachers. By going ahead of time, you give yourself the opportunity to see new exhibitions on display, check to ensure pieces you want your students to see are not down for restoration or loan, and, above all else, it gives you a chance to spend time with the art, see new pieces and be personally inspired and moved by the work. I've found that after I spend an afternoon in the museum, I come to class the next day inspired and excited to share that experience with my students.
- Book a guided tour - At certain institutions it can be tempting to not book a guide because some of the older docents at some museums seem to be a bit out of touch with younger audiences, however, many docent programs are attempting to incorporate new touring strategies and some museums have switched to paying Gallery Guides (typically artists and art students) who offer a fresh and informed perspective. I've found that blending a 45 minute guided tour with 45 minutes of activities I lead afterwards has been a nice balance.
- Communicate with the docent/guide before the tour - As a former gallery guide, I found it so helpful when teachers would let me know about the group's dynamics and give some sort of direction for what they wanted from the tour ahead of time. It was a fun challenge to cater the tour to their particular needs and it was inspiring to see the students particularly connect with works related to class discussion. As a teacher, I've had great success when working with docents at local museums. For example: I recently taught Art History Survey I and my local art museum had very little Western work from before the Renaissance. I spoke with the docent to share my frustration that the work in the museum did not relate to my course content and he created a tour of the Asian collection that specifically coincided with the time period we were studying in Western art . He would set the time frame based on Western history and then share art from that time period in the East.
- Get your students excited! - Whenever we are studying an artist whose work is on display in the museum we are going to for our field trip, I make a point of mentioning it to students to help them anticipate what will be on the tour and to have pieces to look forward to. I also mention that our reproductions in the book don't provide the depth of understanding that looking at an actual artwork does - the chance to examine the finish of the piece, the choice of frame, impasto, scale, etc. Also, I share why I am so excited about the field trip and what experience with artworks means to me. For example: I often share with my students how I feel a kinship of sorts with the artist when I stand in front of their artwork much in the same position/relationship as they did when working on the piece.
- Encourage students to ask questions - For some students, field trips are their first time visiting an art museum, and in general the sterility of some museums intimidates some students. I encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity of having an expert on the museum's collection take us on a tour and let students know that questions are completely appropriate within the scope of the tour. I also try to ask a few questions toward the beginning of the tour to break the ice a bit and inspire students to pipe up a bit!
- Give students guided time to examine an individual piece- In a recent post, I noted how I've been inspired by J. Armstrong's writings related to affection for art stemming from fascination and intimacy - "being engaged in an especially personal and private way." As such, in my classes and in field trips, I have begun integrating quiet time for students to individually examine artworks for about 10 minutes. I integrated this in to my last field trip by asking students to bring a notebook to the field trip and by setting them loose in one particular gallery with the only instruction being to select one work that draws you in and spend ten minutes looking at it without talking. They can jot down notes, sketch, write a poem, or simply look - no expectations. It proved to be some students favorite part of the trip, and they noted they had never really visually analyzed and broken apart a piece to that extent before.
- Integrate some group analysis/interpretation - I've recently started incorporating some group exercises into my field trips, and they've proven to be a nice break from listening to docents as well as giving students a chance to express their personal views. One that I recently learned in a a training and have had some success with is breaking students into groups of four or five and setting them each up with a particular work in close relation to each other. I ask all of the students to write down one word that they feel relates to the piece. Then I have them pass their notebook to another student and they have to construct a sentence using the word given to them. Then, as a group, they arrange their sentences to form a paragraph which they share with the other groups in the class. Often, the results are quite poetic! I've found this exercise to be empowering as there are not right or wrong ways to approach, and it fosters some great dialogue as they work in groups.