Friday, July 1, 2011

Donna Merkt, Curator of Education at the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art talks about her 'hands on approach'

Interviewing Curator of Education, Donna Merkt for the Creative-Native Project in Oklahoma
Donna Merkt, Curator of Education at the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art brings enthusiasm and innovation to the museum's educational programs which are attracting growing numbers of schools and visitors to the museum. Here is an interview with Donna, an individual who is passionate about what she does. 

How did you come to be attracted to this field of work?

I’ve always known that I had to have a career in art.  I was fortunate in that way—always having that direction.  Education was also an early career choice.  My mother was a high school English teacher.  Also, I grew up presenting workshops and demonstrations for a variety of community organizations. 

Why did you choose to use educational work at a museum?

My love affair with museums has been long term.  My mother often teases me when I mention past exhibits; she’ll say, “you saw that exhibit; you were in a stroller, but you saw it!”   I still remember the first time I saw a shrunken head (at the science museum in Fort Worth, TX). It made quite the impression on me.  Interestingly, I never really pictured myself working at a museum as a child.  Any place that could be home to priceless art (or shrunken heads) just seemed like an exotic land—you can visit but not take up residence.  Then, I was offered a museum internship as an undergraduate art student and realized that there are real people behind the scenes in these places and that I was one of them.   It was a giddy, silly feeling.  I felt incredibly nerdy and wonderfully elated.

Doing education work at the museum is exciting.  For one, my job allows me to teach from actual objects, rather than from a book.  Also, I get to work with a variety of ages.  I’ve had experience teaching the very young to the very old and everyone in between.  My audiences are incredibly diverse, which has given me a wonderful opportunity to experience how differently people learn.

Could you tell us about some of the programs you have created that have been most fulfilling for you?

The Mabee-Gerrer’s most successful student program (and my favorite), Start with Art, uses art and artifacts from the museum, as well as student art activities, as departure points for lessons in all of the subject areas.   The program was designed for 3rd-6th graders, but has been popular with all student age groups. 

Students visit the museum and have a 30-40 minute tour in a specific focus area: ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Europe, or the Hudson River School. The focus areas allow the students to visit the museum multiple times and have a different experience each time.

The tour is followed by an art activity and an educational game that is tied to the focus area.  For example, for the ancient Egypt program, students make a cartouche and learn to write their names in hieroglyphs.  They play Pharaoh’s Challenge, which teaches them the resources needed for building the pyramids, but it is loud and fun just the same.

The teacher is supplied with an educator’s guide containing supplementary classroom materials, including an additional art project and activities for all subject areas, to continue the learning experience at school.

Student evaluations reveal that the program is 90% awesome.  The biggest complaint we receive is that students want to spend a longer time at the museum.  That’s one complaint that I can’t help but take as a compliment.
Donna talks about the Hudson River School and how they have designed an educational program around their collection of this period at the museum.

We talked previously together about our philosophies on education and found quite a lot of agreement in what is important. Can you tell us about your philosophy?  How does it differ from the mainstream approach of today's schools?

As a museum educator, I have to look at education from a different perspective than most traditional educators.  It really comes down to a simple question:  “What do you teach a student when you have two hours or less?”  (That is how long students are generally at the museum.) The answer is--not much--at least not much that a student will truly learn and retain.  Thus, I’ve come to realize that the best possible approach for me as a museum educator is to facilitate a positive experience at the museum that will encourage a student to make a connection, to feel a spark of curiosity that will lead them to try and learn more on their own.  Maybe that spark will lead to a book or to a website; hopefully, it will lead to further exploration in the classroom; ultimately, we hope it leads back to our museum or to another museum where the learning experience will continue. 

I truly believe that the primary goal of museum education should be to endeavor to inspire the practice of life-long learning.  That seems to be where my approach differs from today’s schools.  Unfortunately, due to the prevalence of mandatory standardized testing, many schools are forced into a position that puts too much emphasis on memorization and leaves very little room for exploration and creativity. 

The Mabee-Gerrer’s student programs are designed to act as a departure point for further classroom-based learning.  The supplemental classroom materials include an art project and suggestions for activities that are designed around the ideas of object-based and student-centered learning and help meet the needs of diverse learning styles.  These activities promote critical thinking and creativity, while meeting the requirements of standard learning objectives in all subject areas.

How do you link art with other subjects and why?

Since we are speaking of connections, art is a fantastic conduit!  When students examine historic art objects they are making connections with other cultures and with history.  They are examining an object created by another human being, in another place, in another time.  Furthermore, with a little critical thinking, this activity can go from art observation to a critical exploration involving all subjects.

For example, let’s use as a departure point an amphora from ancient Greece.  We can talk social studies easily—amphorae were trading vessels for fish, oil, grains, wine.  That gives us plenty of discussion topics concerning geography and commerce.  Further ponderings on the artist himself provide opportunities for an exploration of vocation, home life, and even government.  If the amphora is painted with scenes or symbols of Greek mythology, we can discuss religion and tie that into language arts.  For an exploration in math we can examine the proportions of the painted figures; or perhaps the scene is divided into registers and can lead to a use of fractions.  We could examine the proportions of the amphora itself or figure out its volume.  Science might seem a bit of a stretch, but not when you learn that it is a chemical reaction during the firing process that leads to the black coloration that composes the scene painted on the pot.  A discussion of how scientists date and conserve the pot could lead to further scientific inquiry.

Creating art can further enhance those connections.  If a student creates an artwork inspired by a historical and or culturally significant artifact or process, the connections becomes even more tangible.  Furthermore, the student is actively participating, investing time, energy, and creativity, and engaging in critical thinking and problem solving.  Making art as part of the education process gives the student ownership of the learning experience and helps them enjoy it, which certainly aids in retention.

The museum has an incredible collection of work in the climate controlled rooms 'behind the scenes' that are an expansive resource for study by the museum and other museums and scholars. Donna is showing us a sketchbook by one of my favorite artists of the Hudson River School, Albert Bierstadt.

Given that you are attracting so many more school groups to visit the museum and take part in your programs, what are you doing to facilitate this?

Primarily, I am working to attract more volunteers to help.  It takes a special kind of person to be an effective docent, a volunteer museum educator.  They must be patient, willing to learn, comfortable speaking publicly, and enjoy the company of students. It also takes quite a bit of training and supplemental education to be a docent. I’m working to update museum docent materials and provide that training and education.  Furthermore, I also need volunteers to help with day to day functions that keep the program running smoothly—cleaning tools, organizing materials, even cutting clay into blocks. 

I've also worked at streamlining the reservation process, everything can be done online now. This saves me time both during the booking process, as well as in collecting information for donors.  Many of our visiting school groups receive scholarships for program fees and/or busing from the Inasmuch Foundation and private donors.  The donors want to know where their beneficiaries are coming from and if their funding is helping those in need.  It is--we work with a high percentage of disadvantaged youth and Title 1 schools.  Most of our student beneficiaries come from the surrounding 10 counties, but we have had groups travel as far as 3 hours one way to participate. 

I understand that the Sackler Foundation was very impressed with your programming and the education guide that you developed for their Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands exhibit at the Mabee-Gerrer, saying it was the best one they had encountered. Can you talk about that experience?
I developed the education guide for this exhibit as part of our Start with Art program.  The guide was actually very much like our other Start with Art guides, containing information about the exhibit, a suggested art project and other activities for the classroom.  I certainly appreciated the wonderful compliments bestowed on the guide by the Sackler Foundation; however, I have to admit that the incredible exhibit and accompanying written materials by the exhibit curator, Dr. Trudy Kawami, made my job much easier.  The ancient grasslands people were an intriguing people, sharing many similarities with the indigenous people of the North American plains.  However, their trade, of both goods and ideas, with Imperial China and their role in facilitating trade via the Silk Road brought in other interesting facets.  I was able to find great maps and primary documents about the trade on the Silk Road that greatly enhanced the education guide.

What are the rewards for you personally?

My favorite rewards are the small ones: a drawing from a visiting student, a card from a senior group, a hug from a camper.  I like to know that I’ve had a positive impact on our visitors’ experiences.

I can think of one experience that really put it in perspective for me.  After participating in Start with Art: Ancient Egypt, a student told me, “This isn’t a museum—this is a mummy seeing, card playing, cartouche making FUN place.”   That was it for me, my reward.  I had him; connection made.  He loved his visit.  He enjoyed learning.  Hopefully, he will continue going to museums and some day he will take his children into a museum and show them the mummy, or the shrunken head, or the Raphael.  I hope he sees that same spark in the eyes of his children that I saw in his. 
Donna L. Merkt
Curator of Education
Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art
1900 W. MacArthur Drive
Shawnee, OK 74804
There are many exciting things happening at the Mabee-Gerrer Museum of Art! 

Creative Arts Camps for ages 5-13--Knights, Sea Monsters, Masks, & More!

Teen Art Clinic--an intinsive 3 day art clinic for students ages 13-18

Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-American painter best known for his lush, sweeping landscapes of the American West. In obtaining the subject matter for these works, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Though not the first artist to record these sites, Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the 19th century.

Albert Bierstadt's Looking Down Yosemite Valley (1865),Birmingham Museum of ArtBirmingham, Alabama

Storm in the Rocky Mountains (Mount Rosa), 1886,Brooklyn MuseumNew York

Bierstadt was part of the Hudson River School, not an institution but rather an informal group of like-minded painters. The Hudson River School style involved carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. An important interpreter of the western landscape, Bierstadt, along with Thomas Moran, is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain School.[1 
People would pay to come to the unveiling of these paintings as this was before photography became widely used and this was their way of seeing the magnificence of the west.

Arthur M. Sackler (August 22, 1913, BrooklynNew York – May 26, 1987, New York City) was an American psychiatrist, entrepreneur and philanthropist.
He attended New York University School of Medicine and graduated with an M.D. In 1960 Sackler started publication of Medical Tribune, a weekly medical newspaper. He established the Laboratories for Therapeutic Research in 1938. He earned his fortune by gaining the rights to import and sell Valium in the United States.
Sackler was also a scholar of the arts. He endowed galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University in Beijing, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., and the Jillian & Arthur M. Sackler Wing at theRoyal Academy, London. His brother, multimillionaire Mortimer Sackler, endowed the Sackler Library at the University of OxfordEngland.
Among these buildings that bear Sackler's name are noteworthy designs by major architects. Especially important is his Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, one of only four structures in the U.S. by James Stirling, widely regarded as the leading British architect of the 20th century.
Arthur M. Sackler's daughter, Elizabeth A. Sackler, is a benefactor of the arts and sponsored the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum which opened in 2007. His grandson, Michael Sackler-Berner, is a musician based in New York City.

“Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands from the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation” presents for the first time a major sampling of steppe art from the renowned collections of the late Arthur M. Sackler, M.D. Curated by Trudy S. Kawami, Ph.D., Director of Research for the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, the exhibition presents eighty five works illustrating the personal decorations and equipment of the horse-riding steppe dwellers of the late second and first millennia BCE. The bronze belt buckles, plaques and weapons of these ancient horsemen are ornate, technically sophisticated, and richly patterned. Animal motifs like antlered stags, wild boars, and birds of prey are a primary theme. The exhibition reveals how these steppe cultures used the animal world as a source of symbols to indicate tribe, social rank and connection to the spirit world.
“Ancient Bronzes of the Asian Grasslands” brings to life the complex cultures that flourished across the Asian grasslands from northern China and Mongolia into eastern Europe. It shows how they influenced, and were influenced by, the culture of dynastic China, and illustrates the important role of the steppe peoples in facilitating trade and travel along the Silk Route across Asia.

The exhibition is organized by the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, New York. Arthur M. Sackler, M.D. (1913–1987), a research psychiatrist, medical publisher, connoisseur and collector of art, established the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation in 1965 to make his extensive art collections accessible to the public. The Foundation collection has more than 900 works of art including Chinese ritual bronzes and ceramics, Buddhist stone sculpture and the renowned Chu Silk Manuscript, the oldest existing Chinese written document. 

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