Friday, June 1, 2012

New Museum Theory: Young and Old Reconnecting with Art

MoMA's program, launched in 2009
Over the past year, I have taught two classes about museum theory and application (Curatorial Studies and New Museum Theory). The courses have been populated by students in Art and Art History primarily, although English and History majors have enrolled also. This cross-pollination among the students is exciting for me to observe and to facilitate as students bring ideas from their disciplines to the conversations.  

One of the things that we discuss in these courses is how museums shape knowledge. By this I mean the ways in which museums help us to understand history, geography, majority and minority cultures. Museums also help us to understand what art (or history or science or...) is, why objects were collected, and what relevance they have for us today.  I have often thought of this as the shaping of new knowledge, but what about knowledge that has been submerged and/or lost to the ravages of time?

Thinking about new and old knowledge (or knowledge that once was), I reflected on the place of objects. All objects have stories and it's up to us, as 21st-century viewers, to allow the object to tell its story. How do we experience an object? Under what contexts? With what authority? 

I was reading an article brought out through NPR about the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. which runs a program for people with Alzheimers. Their program is based upon the Meet Me at MoMA program at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. (For info on the Met's pioneering program, launched in 2009, click here.) The story on NPR told about the Kreeger's program, giving information on how their efforts aim to connect middle schoolers with those with Alzheimer's. When viewing a work from the Kreeger's collection, Monet's Sunset at Pourville (pictured below). 
Monet's Sunset at Pourville, featured in the Kreeger's program
Paired together, teams of seniors and students observe the painting's figures along the beach. "It kind of seems romantic," one student offers. The caregiver for one of the Alzheimer's seniors contributes to the conversation also, chiming in, asking her husband to imagine himself inside the painting. She asks if he would like it there: "Oh, yes. Very much so," he answers. Gordon, an art lover in his 70s, found out about the Kreeger program through his Alzheimer's support group. A female student asks her senior companion whether he perceives the scene as calm. "Pretty calm," he answers, and adds: "Salty, salty, salty air. Whenever you go to the beach you can go into the sand."The students and the seniors are connecting through art. They are telling their own stories while learning about the story that Monet puts before us. 

The Kreeger's program is small, focused, and offers enriching opportunities for all involved. Beyond the personal connections and the knowledge being shaped, the program offers much-needed stimulation for all involved, especially the Alzheimer's folks.  Derya Samadi, who runs the Kreeger's Alzheimer's program, says art museums have always been places of refuge and stimulation for her, and they serve the same purpose for men and women with Alzheimer's."There's something about being in the stimulating environment," Samadi says. "It's there for them; they haven't lost it. They just can't connect to it. So you're just trying to open up channels for them." 

This story about the Kreeger's program, and the existing program at MoMA, remind me of the broadened audiences for art and the ways in which we might engage them. To read the full story about the Kreeger's program, click here

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