Meet Me at MOMA – Program for Adults with Dementia

After my trip to the Jewish Museum, I walked through Central Park, past the Metropolitan Museum of art (which I had not yet visited and was still disillusioned by), and continued down the Museum Mile.  I stopped for lunch at a small deli on Park Avenue, then traveled down to the Museum of Modern Art.   I found out about the MOMA Accessibility programs through the Museum Access Consortium of New York, and the staff was gracious enough to respond to my emails and invite me to observe one of their accessible programs.

At MOMA

The program I attended is called, “Meet Me at MOMA.”  More information about this program is available on the MOMA website at: http://www.moma.org/meetme/index. The website explains that at the program, attendees will, “look at art in the galleries with your family and friends…. Discuss art with specially trained MoMA educators who discuss themes, artists, and exhibitions.”  This event is offered monthly to all people with dementia and their families and/or care partners.  The museum website also offers a guide for designing a similar program to “Meet Me at MOMA” program at your own museum.  Information about this exciting opportunity is available online at: http://www.moma.org/meetme/practice/museums#museums_designing

I want to share some of my experiences with this program, and some of the comments that attendees made while on the tour.  As stated above, the program I attended was created for adults with dementia.  The group I was with was made up mostly of elderly people with some younger caretakers and family members.  As we went through the galleries, our guide Paula stopped at 4 important pieces throughout the hour to ask questions and get feedback from participants.  We looked at Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh, Mademoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso, Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp, and Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth.

As a side note, I am not an artist nor an art historian.  My own views of these pieces are irrelevant, but I will say that I really enjoyed the honesty of some of the participants when describing these works of modern art.

Visiting with Starry Night

The first piece we visited was Van Gogh’s Starry Night. As another side note, the museum was closed for this program, and being in a small group, I was able to get up close and personal with this piece – it was amazing.  The guide asked such questions as, “what are we looking at? What are your observations?”.  Participants had insightful answers such as, “it looks like lights when you take your glasses off” and that looking at this painting made an individual feel that there was, “nothing little about twinkle twinkle little star.”  Others thought that the village seemed to be overwhelmed by the sky, the artist used, “blobs of paint”, and that the painting conveyed the feeling of a cold night by using cool colors.  The guide also asked, “What feelings would you say describe the work?” Answers included:  overwhelming, peaceful but the sky is exciting.

Talking about Picasso

Next we ventured into another room to view Mademoiselles de Avignon by Picasso from 1907.  Participants were invited to study the piece and make observations and comments.  Most agreed that the painting showed lots of women, but that they aren’t real women.  The general shape, eyes, and bodies are strange. They aren’t soft bodies but instead are hard and square, and the eyes are crooked.  When the guide asked, “where are they?” answers included: Hell, a scary place, and a studio with drapes.   People described this painting as:  an image of despair, being of women, but the 2 women on the right side are not human, staring at us, there is no life, nightmarish, aggressive, painted by a man but women are masculine. A particularly insightful participant pointed out that perhaps the women are  hiding their identity behind a public masks, and the African style masks are one step further to hiding their true selves.

Discussing Duchamp

The intriguing sculpture Bicycle Wheel by Marcel Duchamp was the next piece the group visited.  The comments on this piece were some of my favorite.  Participants said that this piece presented both a challenge and a possibility.  This was countered by another person who claimed the piece was simply absurd – there are no possibilities here!   Someone else asked the question, “What makes this art? Because it is in a museum?”  This led to the every-important discussion of what art is, and how something can “become” art.  The point was made that if this piece were in your basement it would be seen as trash, or as something in need of repair.  Another person said that this sculpture was “not enough to be art in a museum.”  The guide asked what it needed to become worthy of being in an art museum.  The honest answer was, “It just doesn’t turn me on.” It was then discussed that this was intended by the artist to be art , and that anything can be art, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like it.  Another participant said that the piece represents art on a pedestal by putting a bicycle wheel on a stool.  One man, who said he was a painter, said he feels that his art, and any art really, isn’t art unless someone looks at it and reacts to it.

Lastly, (my most favorite part,) the gallery guide asked, “What did the artist do to make this?”  The simple and succinct answer? “He drilled a hole.”

Commenting on Christina’s World

The last piece we visited was Andrew Wyeth’s painting Christina’s World from 1948.  One person said that the landscape looks like western Kansas where she grew up.  The group agreed that the subject seem to be seeking something;  the house is her goal.  She is an attractive woman, graceful, but it seems that something is wrong with her.  She is desperate, disabled, yearning to walk, has no muscle tone and chafed elbows, and she resides in a bleak and barren landscape.  The painting is spare and realistic, while the colors reflect a grim mood.  Others pointed out that while she is struggling, her pink dress is not desolate.  She has a hard life, but she is pushing and determined.

Throughout the session, the gallery guide would often repeat questions, comments, and answers more loudly so everyone could hear them.  She was also very patient with the audience and made sure that everyone was comfortable and understood what was going on.  The program was very enjoyable, and the participants seem to have a great time and be involved in an engaging exercise that helped their cognitive powers.  The question and answer system seemed to work well in engaging the participants, and it seems that this would be a great way to engage any audience.

The museum also has a lot of other access programs, that I hope to explore more in the future.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum, NYC

When I started researching museums that are working extensively with accessibility, especially accessibility for people with cognitive, developmental, or learning disabilities, I was fortunate to find the Museum Access Consortium of New York City.  This was one of the main reasons I chose New York City as my main research hub; there is a huge concentration of museums, and the citizens of the metro area value and support museums to a greater extent than many other areas of the country.  The MAC website led me to several different museum websites where I was able to learn about programs available to people with special needs.

The Jewish Museum

The first museum I visited was the Jewish Museum at 5th Avenue and 92nd Street, which is principally an art museum.  There I met with Dara Cohen, the School Programs Coordinator.  The museum offers several types of programs for people with special needs including: access school programs,  visitors with sight impairments, hearing impairments, dementia, and learning or developmental disabilities.  The museum also works with all general access groups including groups with autism, emotional disturbances, and more.

Our discussion focused primarily on their programs for learning and developmental disabilities.  The Jewish Museum adapted their current programs for special needs groups that cater to groups with fewer children.  The museum has specific access educators and hopes to train all educators sometime soon.  Educators contact the school teacher in advance and talk with the teacher to adapt the programming; this provides more avenues for participation by the students.  Dara made it clear that even with planning, there is still a lot of “on your feet” teaching and critical thinking involved with presenting programs to children with special needs.

Accessibility at the Jewish Museum

Being an art museum, the programs are very visual; they have a studio art component for all elementary age groups and access groups of all ages.  For participation they might pick out a shape from the art piece and hold it, look at it, make the shape with their body, count the times the shape appears, etc.

The museum also holds  Sunday Workshops 4 times per year, that are open to the whole family, not just students.  The audience is generally people with learning and development disabilities. This program was adapted from MOMA and Met offerings that were changed to fit the Jewish Museum.  Dara estimated that 95% of students who attended these workshops have autism, a small percentage have Down Syndrome, and the rest of the percentage is made up of other disabilities or multiple disabilities.  In the morning, the workshop is set up for children ages 5-17, which generally seems to skew to the 5-12 age group.  The afternoon is for 18+ adults.   Tours are led by an access educator, and they have gallery and studio time for a total time of 1-1.5 hours.

Kehinde WIley, Napoleon leading the army over the alps, 2005

A recent example of a Sunday workshop activity was done in conjunction with the Kehinde Wiley exhibit.  The group spends half an hour in the gallery with the works of art, and the gallery guide engages all members of the family with the art and subject.  Wiley’s art is generally a African American male subject in traditional portrait form with an elaborate backgrounds which are inspired by Jewish paper cut-outs.  In the studio, the family has a photocopy of one of the subjects that they can place on different backgrounds to explore how background, color, and shape can change the mood and expression of the art.  In the studio, the family creates a paper cut out from butcher paper that they can use as their own background for a family portrait taken in the studio.  Parental involvement is important at these workshops, and the museum wants to expand into a family day event with school partnerships.  Attendance at the workshops varies, but including the family (siblings, parents of the special needs child) there are usually 15-20 people in attendance, with 7-8 of the attendees being the special needs child/adult.  These programs are fully funded through grants, and they are free for the families.

Dara is responsible for all access educator training, and the group of educators meet 4-5 times a year to duscuss teaching strategies about specific art pieces, listen to talks by consultants to help on certain things such as dementia, general management, strategies, different disabilities, and more.

The Jewish Museum started creating these programs to expand and diversify their audiences.  They looked at who was coming to visit the museum, and then explored how they could better serve them.  It seems as if art museums have an easier time at adapting programs and drawing in the special needs audience.  One reason for this might be that art museums are more about experimenting with concepts and the abstract.  Concepts at history museums are somewhat more challenging to adapt.

Some tips that the Jewish Museum shared when working with special needs audiences are:

  • Sometimes open-ended questions can be very abstract.  If students are struggling to respond verbally to open-ended questions, try asking more concrete questions or narrowing the focus (i.e. focusing on a particular part of the painting like the figure or the figure’s clothing or the sky instead of asking general questions like “what’s going on in this painting”)
  • Sometimes yes/no questions can be useful, despite the fact that museum education courses usually stress the importance of asking open-ended questions.  Yes/no questions should be used in conjunction with open-ended questions, and with other activities that allow students to participate non-verbally (i.e. through sketching, movement exercises, etc.)
  • Giving the students the language to use helps (is this hard or soft?)
  • Reaching out to accessibility groups benefits other groups and the museum as a whole (wheelchair ramps can be used by people with strollers or knee problems)
  • Sensitivity and awareness training is important – educators are not the only ones who need to be trained
  • Security guards need to have some level of training to be comfortable working with people is disabilities.

I had a wonderful time at the Jewish Museum (in spite of being 10 minutes late because of a subway mishap), and I want to thank the museum and Dara Cohen for having me and discussing their programs openly with me.

Doctoral CANDIDATE Updates

Again, you may have noticed I have not been posting as much lately.  There are several excuses I could throw at you, but instead I will give you some quick updates!

– I spent most of the past month working on my dissertation proposal and online doctoral portfolio for review by my dissertation committee.  I defended them both on Friday, April 27th, and I passed!  I’m now officially a doctoral candidate and can start the long, arduous task of writing my dissertation.  Luckily, I’m really passionate and excited about my topic, so it should be an enjoyable process (other than the obvious struggles with bureaucracy, formatting, technology, etc).

– On that same note, I have been working on merging my professional blog with my doctoral portfolio, so let me know what you think of the site changes around here!

Sun Studio Visit with TAM

– I went to the Tennessee Association of Museums conference in Memphis in March as one of their scholarship winners… if you kept up with my twitter at all you know some of what went on there, but that only scratches the surface.  I have a blog in the works to review more of the conference, the sessions, the sights, and of course my own presentation on sensitivity and awareness of disabilities at museums.  Stay tuned for that in the coming weeks!

– I’ve also been finishing up teaching Explorations in Public History.  My students have been writing blogs that I post on their website, http://explorationsinpublichistory.wordpress.com/.  Check back soon, because I will be posting their final projects in the next week!  They were a wonderful class, and I look forward to seeing them as new public history professionals in the future.

– Next week I will head to New York City for a research trip!!  I will have all kinds of updates on my dissertation and ideas to talk about once I get back.  I am fortunate enough to have meetings set up with people from the Intrepid Museum, Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Transit Museum, Museum Of Modern Art, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Coney Island USA, and people from the Museum Access Consortium.

Liberal Arts Awards Banquet

– As for other updates… I won the Bart McCash Memorial Scholarship for Graduate Students again this year!  My dissertation committee chair shared with me last week that Dr. McCash was his step-father and an influential person in his life personally and academically.  I’m honored to have been chosen as the recipient of a scholarship named for such a great person.

– I was elected to serve as the Graduate Student Association president for the 2012-2013 academic year.   I’m looking forward to serving the 3000 graduate students at Middle Tennessee State University!

SGA Awards

 

– April finished up my term as a graduate senator for the Student Government Association.  Serving as a senator was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot.  Surprisingly, I was elected “Best All Around” senator, and the graduate students were named “Best Friends” by the Senate Superlatives.  We were treated to a lovely banquet on campus on my birthday, which I consider to be MTU’s birthday gift to me.

– So I had a crazy end of my academic semester, not to mention I bought art, had a birthday, watched a lot of trash TV, finished the Game of Thrones books, spent too much time looking at Tumblrs, got a radical haircut change,  and reorganized all of my bookshelves.

This summer should be more conducive to blogging, if I can squeeze it in among writing and researching the dissertation, traveling, working as a camp counselor at Camp Will in Franklin, Tennessee, and some quality lake time.  I have plenty to write about, so keep coming back!!

Thanks, as always, for reading.