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Kids as Curators

By Laura Wolff Scanlan | HUMANITIES, September/October 2000 | Volume 21, Number 5

The Seattle Art Museum is changing the way people use museums and see exhibitions. A new website teaches children in grades six through ten how to create their own exhibitions. With the click of a paintbrush, students go through a step- by-step curatorial process. Guided by animated characters--Mona and Pablo--students choose digital images from the museum's permanent collection. They can take their time collecting and returning to a notebook until the selection is complete. "Eventually they create their own exhibition and voila! With all the work they have done, they will come up with great html pages of their exhibition," says Christina DePaolo, the website manager. "Then they can send out an exhibition opening via e-mail to all their friends."

In May 2001, the Seattle Art Museum will add another innovation. As part of "Treasures from a Lost Civilization: Ancient Chinese Art from Sichuan," one of the museum's art studios will be transformed into an archaeological pit where objects were discovered in Sanxingdui in 1986. Visitors will don virtual reality goggles to view the stages of the process, from the broken shards unearthed at the dig to fully restored objects.

"We wanted to give people the opportunity of experiencing the mystery and detective work that makes archaeological finds so exciting," says Jill Rullkoetter, the Kayla Skinner director of education and public programs. Beverly Harding, museum educator for family and art studio programs, says the Sichuan objects are different from objects recovered from a tomb discovery since they were ritually broken and burned from the thirteenth century b.c. to the third century a.d. "In the virtual experience, in the studio, visitors will experience sequentially three different layers of a pit so that they get a sense of the context of these objects that they're now going to see reconstructed and beautifully conserved in the galleries. They are going to see them the way the archaeologists saw them which is broken, burned, tossed in, and that in and of itself really revises our understanding of Chinese art history." She continues, "The virtual experience is the only way that we could reconstruct that experience . . . but until you see that image of a layer of elephant tusks and then a layer of broken bronze masks and life-size figures of horses and then a layer of jade and gold fine objects--busted apart--it just doesn't have the same impact."

But there are challenges in incorporating technology in a museum setting. The question for museum personnel is how does a museum build and manage a new way of working?

Kathleen Peckham Allen, museum educator for school and teacher programs, has gone back to school herself, taking a distance learning course. She is studying broadband technology. Broadband, a high-speed cable system that is one hundred times faster than the average desktop computer, provides for interactive communication by the convergence of video, audio, text, telephone, and graphics. "Broadband can go two ways. It can turn into interactive shopping or it can turn into high-quality programming. I hope we can push it towards high-quality educational programming."

Eventually, broadband will be used to provide other forms of distance learning such as teacher institutes and workshops, tours for schools too far away to visit, and guest appearances by museum curators. Allen muses, "What if they had a preparatory lesson being broadcast directly from the museum and they could preview what the galleries looked like? They would be more prepared when they actually came here." Seattle is developing a pilot program with Thomas Jefferson High School in Auburn to integrate broadband technology. The museum hopes to extend distance learning to the rural areas of King County, beyond the Cascade Mountains, as well to the southern and eastern regions of Washington.

The Seattle Art Museum integrated technology with exhibitions three years ago when it hosted "Leonardo Lives: The Codex Leicester and Leonardo da Vinci's Legacy of Art and Science." Central to the exhibition was the Codex Leicester, a folio of Leonardo's script, sketches, and diagrams illustrated on both sides of eighteen sheets folded into seventy-two pages. Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, purchased the Codex at a Christie's New York auction in 1994 for $30.8 million. It came to Seattle in 1997 when Gates loaned the manuscript, kept in a custom-built, climate-controlled vault in his home, to the Seattle Art Museum.

The fragility of the codices meant they were placed in temperature- and light-regulated cases. The sheets were lighted one at a time, not longer than a minute each cycle. But a bigger barrier existed for visitors. Not only is the Codex written in cramped, sometimes scribbled Renaissance Italian, it is written in Leonardo's signature mirrored script.

To break the barrier, twenty-four computer stations were installed along a gallery wall in front of the display cases to translate the script. With a click of the mouse, a visitor could scroll up or down, viewing the pages in Renaissance Italian, modern Italian or English, forward or backward. The translations were superimposed over an image of the original to preserve the connection between Leonardo's ideas and drawings. Gates's Corbis Corporation developed the translating device, called a Codescope.

"This exhibition has been a model," says DePaolo. "It could have been a very esoteric experience. Being able to walk over to the computers and actually read the pages brought it alive for some people." Rullkoetter said it was important that the computers be "right there in the gallery and look and feel like a part of the whole exhibition."

Ted Kalmus's students at Billings Middle School in Seattle visited the Codex and "thought it was cool." While teaching a social studies unit on Renaissance Italy, Kalmus, who is assistant director and language arts teacher at Billings, took the seventh and eighth grade students to view the Codex and other Renaissance works--often dry subjects for thirteen- and fourteen-year olds. "It takes the background information for the students to be willing to be engaged," says Kalmus. "Although they occasionally are connected to an image, for them to get to that next level of analytical engagement, the background information is crucial. It makes them feel very powerful."

Besides having the class research the website, Kalmus collected a CD-ROM of the exhibition, transparencies of art objects, and bibliographies of Renaissance figures for the students to study beforehand. The materials were provided by the museum's Teacher Resource Center. With students in tow, Kalmus headed to the museum only to encounter a problem. "The only breakdown was that their support materials were so good that if you took them seriously and taught the vocabulary for looking at the pieces of art, we had kids asking questions of the docents that the docents weren't prepared to answer."

Back in the classroom, to their teacher's pleasure, the kids engaged in lively conversations, moving from Leonardo's Mona Lisa to the more modern interpretations of Andy Warhol's silkscreen of overlapping Mona Lisas and Marcel Duchamp's version of Mona Lisa sporting a mustache and goatee. Kalmus was pleased with the students' reactions to the art as they showed a "willingness, with the background information, to spend time with a specific piece, which I think is a profound thing for a middle schooler to do."

Two years ago, the museum began having students from South Shore Middle School and Washington Middle School create their own exhibitions. Students got to go behind the scenes into the storage areas with curators to look at works, handle the objects, and write identification labels. Education and curatorial staff visited the students in their classrooms to teach the exhibition process. The first exhibition, "Reflections in the Mirror: A World of Identity," explored themes such as change, personality, and death. The exhibition was on view in the museum from April 23, 1998 to June 13, 1999.

For the second exhibition, "Eleven Heads are Better than One: Sixth Graders Connect with SAM" (for Seattle Art Museum), the students compared Asian and non-Asian art. The comparisons resulted in exhibitions centered on spirituality, adornment, and power. The exhibition was on display from April 1999 to April 2000. Like "Reflections" before it, the exhibition now has a permanent home online on the museum's website.

"This project started in a very nontechnological way," comments Allen. For her it raised an interesting question: "How can we take things that we have already done or know we can do and rethink them for the new technological environment?" She believes the answer is to reformulate programs that have proved successful by using the technology that best suits the project. In addition to developing a curriculum for teachers that will be available in the Teacher Resource Center and online, Allen "sees the potential for student-curated exhibitions being brought into the broadband distance learning environment."

Will adding a virtual tour of the galleries and the objects decrease museum attendance, including school tours? Allen answers, "That was a question seven or eight years ago in the museum community in general. If you put your images on the web, will people not come to the museum because they could see it online? I think, across the board, we have found just the opposite. People want to see the real thing."

Rullkoetter addresses another issue: "There are some museums . . . worried about people sitting in front of computers once they get in the museum. I would say that is not a concern of ours either. We do not find that people will plunk themselves down in front of a computer terminal and sit there for hours. They are not ignoring the art. I love to see people in the museum, and there are so many different ways they can spend their time."