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A Participant Shares Her Experiences in a Follow-Up Program: “Artstars” Bring Young Visitors Back

by Miya Elizabeth Bernson

“It’s a lion!” “Um … a tiger!” “A bear?” Oh my, it’s a group of wiggling and giggling elementary school students, temporarily transformed into experts on two stone animals that once guarded the entrance to a Chinese tomb and now bare their sharp teeth in a museum gallery. A fast-paced dialogue whips back and forth between the students and their tour guides, with as many questions as answers from both sides. What is it? What do you think it is? What was it used for? What clues do you see that tell you? What is it made of? How? Who? Where? Why?

The hubbub dies down as the guides speak and the students peer intently at blazing eyes and curved claws, finally whispering that magical phrase: “Oh! I understand.” The docents have taught their eager audience, while at the same time encouraging the students to observe and experience the art on their own terms. Docent Kasia Prouty emphasizes the importance of learning to “see things through other people’s eyes,” and the motto of her tours is “it’s all about perspective.” But, who better to provide a youthful perspective for this youthful audience than another young person? Kasia, like her fellow docents, is a teenager.

In an innovative program led by Fred Wong at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, fifteen 8th through 10th grade students like Kasia undergo extensive training in public speaking, Asian history and culture, touring techniques, and art, finally becoming the knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and entertaining junior docents known as “Artstars.”

The Artstars combine their passion for art and their acquired information and skills to lead young audiences on interactive and dynamic tours unlike anything young people might expect from a museum — an institution that many of them characterize as boring and “stuffy.” In their tours, the Artstars have set about to convince everyone that museums are vibrant, interesting, fun, and most of all, welcoming, even to younger audiences. After all, says museum director and creator of the Artstar program Mimi Gates, “why not take risks, have fun, and empower youth?” In the five years since its inception, the Artstars program has done just that for both the students who have toured the museum and the Artstars themselves.

Who are the Artstars?

Recruiting new Artstars is a year-round process that culminates in application and selection in early fall. Potential junior docents find out about the program through a variety of sources, from word-of-mouth and local newspapers to museum membership and teacher education mailings. Fred also contacts Seattle public school principals and maintains connections with teachers around the city, many of whom frequently bring their students to the museum for Artstar tours. Proving the impression Artstar tours make on their audiences, some Artstars-to-be (myself included) first became interested in the program by being part of an Artstar tour audience. After filling out an application with short essay questions, applicants are invited to a group interview. Finally, fifteen students are chosen to bear the title of Artstar.

The Artstars represent a variety of ages, schools, races, and backgrounds. Ms. Gates believes “engaging youth from diverse communities broadens and enriches the museum, grounds the museum in the community, and creates an enthusiastic audience.” In the case of Preya Afman, it was a desire to explore her Asian roots that brought her to the program. Adopted from India, volunteering at the museum is a way for her to learn about Asian culture and “what’s important in their societies versus what’s important in ours. Their view on life is reflected through their art.”

Training: Physical, Emotional, and Intellectual

Artstar training is intense — three hours every other Saturday from September to May— but Artstars make the commitment, some coming to the museum from as far as two hours away. During a typical Saturday training session, the group may, for example, learn from a guest lecturer about Hinduism, look at Hindu sculpture, tell stories of Hindu gods to incorporate into tours, do yoga in the “Garden Court” (the Indian sculpture gallery), and then snack on Indian foods. Fieldtrips to Buddhist monasteries, other local museums and art galleries, and Seattle’s Japanese garden enhance the training experience, as do the veteran Artstars who return to help new students and continue their own learning.

Pieter Zilinsky, the touring and public speaking guru for the Artstars, uses the Indian concept of “rasa” to describe the Artstar philosophy for both training and touring. Rasa refers to art eliciting a physical, emotional, and intellectual response in the viewer. To produce a physical response, the training sessions emphasize “doing: hands on, noses and knees wet, elbows greased.” Artstars learn calligraphy, embroidery, painting, papermaking, and many of the other techniques used to create the art objects they will describe in their tours, including ceramic workshops at a pottery studio. Pieter says of the Artstars, “If they’re so very successful, very enterprising, very daring, it’s because on a physical level the Artstars program allows the [decent] to do things with the materials. So when you come into a porcelain gallery, the Artstar has had his/her fingers, and nose, and elbows in those materials and speaks in a physical-colored relationship about those objects.”

Intellectually, Artstar tours stress imagining, looking at, and understanding rather than just knowing about an object. Fred says, “If you tell people ‘This is what I imagine,’ you don’t have to stick to facts.” However, carefully chosen facts are an important key to understanding. Therefore, the training sessions always include learning activities: listening to guest lecturers talk about Asian religions; reading information on Chinese history; learning about the development of written Korean; or just looking at the labels on favorite pieces.

An emotional approach to experiencing art is instilled in Artstar docents from the very beginning of Artstars receive instruction in yoga, while surrounded by Indian sculptures, as part of their training to become docents. Photo: courtesy of Miya Elizabeth Bernson the training, when the docents choose their favorite piece and then explain their reaction to it. Pieter stresses how essential provoking a reaction is. Even if a third grader doesn’t know anything about underglaze techniques and can’t imagine physically creating a ceramic bowl, if he says “I would not have that in my bedroom,” the tour has been a success because the student is participating actively in his own tour experience by looking at the art and responding with a personal opinion.

Audiences and Tours: Making Connections

The usual Artstar tour audience is approximately fifteen children, anywhere from age 8 to 15, from a local elementary or middle school. Artstars connect with their audiences by recognizing the characteristics of a young audience, touring in pairs, making tours interactive and fun through stories and activities, and tying the tour together to encourage understanding and interest in the art both during the tour and into the future.

Recognizing the rewards of touring with children, Kasia glowingly describes their energy, creativity, curiosity, and especially active participation: “When you’re in elementary school, even if you don’t know the answer you want to raise your hand and get in there, and the older you get, the less you want to raise your hand.” Kasia and Preya love the questions the children ask. Ranging from serious to silly, each reflects a genuine fascination with the art and an attention to detail and meaning that most adults do not express. Several galleries have statues with missing arms, or heads displayed separately from headless torsos. Preya remembers, “One kid asked me if the reason the statue was broken was because I dropped it.” The children’s understanding of the art is much more imaginative. Ask them to imagine a certain object upside-down or backwards or windblown or in flight to prove a point about the meanings of shapes, and they can do it, sometimes seeing things in ways the Artstars had never tried before. Kasia says of the kids, “They’re just right on. They know what it’s about.”

The Artstar docents and their approach to tours are ideally suited to their audiences. Closer in age and experience, Artstars are less intimidating to children than adult docents and, Kasia notes, are more likely to “let loose and have fun” when giving tours. Pieter says, “They are able to engage them on a level that is not too distanced from their own experience. . . . They go in with their listeners as partners, and not as stars or docents or authority figures.” From training and instinct, Artstars know how to get in tune with their audience, and are flexible enough to adapt.

The saying “two heads are better than one” is nowhere more true than in an Artstar tour, always led by a docent pair. This setup is beneficial to both audience and guides, as the dynamic relationship between two Artstars creates visual and intellectual interest for the audience while allowing greater confidence and spontaneity for the docents themselves. Sometimes it’s a matter of endurance; giving the usual two consecutive hour-long tours requires more stamina than most docents have alone. Also, a partner is there to “catch you when you fall,” says Preya, and fill in information you don’t know. One Artstar may love to talk about Japanese tomb figures while the other is more confident talking about painting; however, more often the combined tour pair is more than the sum of its parts. Pieter believes the “confirmation of a successful pair Artstar tour is when one Artstar starts a sentence and the other Artstar finishes that sentence and the audience has discovered something new.”

Audiences love having two tour leaders. The visual stimulation of seeing two people waving their arms or acting out a story is important. More important to the success of the Artstar tours is the intellectual component of pairs touring the public in an open dialogue about the visual arts. Artstar tour leaders talk to each other as well as to the audience, and this exchange not only makes giving information less “preachy” and one-sided, it also encourages students to see touring the museum as a dialogue. Pieter describes the parallels between what audiences experience on a tour and how they will approach the art when they return to the museum unguided. What he poetically calls the “dialogue from star to star” suggests the dialogue that visitors can have in their own minds when viewing art. Encouraging dialogue between Artstars and between audience and guide is the first step in establishing an interaction and an understanding between audience and art. In this respect, Pieter sees a function of the Artstars as “animated catalysts.” One of the main manifestations of the “Artstar-as-catalyst” is being a storyteller. Stories hold younger children’s attention, engage their minds, and impart information and understanding without lecturing. For example, the story of Vishnu’s rescue of the Earth Goddess is a favorite. The children sit in a circle on the cool stones of the Indian sculpture gallery and listen to a tale of magic, trickery, animals, and defeating evil demons —while being introduced to the gods and themes of Hindu mythology. Instead of a lesson on the beginnings of Buddhism and abstract concepts like enlightenment, the story of the handsome prince named Siddharta Gautama, and his achievement of enlightenment as the Buddha, sparks young imaginations to envision the prince turned holy man. Best of all, the stories have illustrations: the art objects, and the Artstars themselves.

An Artstar tour, like an Artstar story, is a physically interactive experience. Artstar training emphasizes attention to the physical aspects ot being a tour guide, so Artstars will often be found demonstrating yoga poses, flailing imaginary swords against imaginary demons, and miming how to use a potter’s wheel. In turn, the touring students are often invited to “act out” the art, forging a connection to the viewers’ senses that makes them look closer. One of the most amazing experiences I have ever had in the museum was stopping my tour at a Japanese screen that shows dozens of black crows engaged in flying, fighting, and cawing. Taking a chance on an improvised activity suggested by another Artstar tour, I told the students that they could disregard the museum rules for just five seconds. However, in those five seconds, they had to be one of the crows on the screens. We spent a moment each choosing which crow to be. At my signal, the quiet gallery erupted into a tumult of hoarse cawing, hopping, and pecking. The students had become crows, flapping their wings madly; one student even pulled his arms into his jacket and waved his sleeves as very convincing wings. After five seconds and a few puzzled looks from the security guards, we stopped. The children were beaming, having seen more potential for interactive fiin and imagination in a museum than they had thought possible. I had noticed during the melee one child standing alone, quiet and still, and I asked him afterwards why he hadn’t chosen a crow to imitate. “I did,” he said, and pointed. Sure enough, he had noticed the one crow in the entire screen that was standing silently.

While Artstar tours revolve around improvisation and imagination to connect the audience and the art, each also incorporates several elements to tie together the different parts of the museum. The most important is a theme, chosen by the Artstar pair before each tour (Artstar tours are completely student-created and unscripted). Some general themes focus on different materials used in the collection or comparing the art associated with different cultures or religions. Themes can also be tailored to the specific audience: gods, warriors, and weapons for a group of energetic young boys, or ceramics for a group that has just worked with clay at school.

Beginnings and conclusions, starting at a certain important object and ending at another object that gives a new understanding of the theme, give the tour completion, while transitions give it direction. To transition between rooms, you compare and contrast objects — “Does this piece use the symbol of the mirror differently than the one we just saw?” To transition between exhibits, you draw the audience’s attention to the change – “We are leaving China and entering India. Do you see any of the same people we saw in the Chinese Buddhist gallery?”

The most engaging way to guide the audience as they move through the museum is to treat each tour like a scavenger hunt. As Fred says, “Plant an idea . . . look for something as you go.” Suggest at the beginning, “Let’s count the different kinds of animals we see,” and for the rest of the tour, students will be saying, “I saw a dragon! A dog! A chicken!” They will scour every object in every gallery for animal figures, rather than walk passively by. Then, tie that small idea to a bigger idea, a major theme, “Why do you think these cultures used so many animals in their art?” Drop clues: “And in the other side of the museum, we will see this same object made of different materials. Will you find it?” They always do.

Our purpose as Artstars is simple: in our tours, we plant a “set of experiences” in our young visitors, which will bring them back. That’s our motto and message for every tour, for every activity: “Come back. Bring them back to the museum.” What keeps young audiences coming back for Artstar tours is the fun and interactive approach of the Artstars. Artstars imagine and improvise their own realities, encouraging kids to do the same during tours. By using their five senses, audiences experience the art rather than just being told about it. By hearing and seeing Artstars perform stories, museumgoers incorporate magic, mystery, and wonder into the reality of a stone statue.

Finally, by being encouraged to open their minds, ask questions, and foUow their imaginations, students in the museum create worlds of heroes and tigers from the art they see. In these worlds, a silent boy can be a silent crow. Wherever that crow flew when the schoolbus pulled out of the museum parking lot, he will one day decide to rejoin his cawing brothers on the painted screen — and that boy will return to the museum.

Miya Elizabeth Bernson is a junior at Lakeside High School, in Seattle, WA, and a four-year veteran of the Seattle Asian Art Museums Artstar program.

Bernson, Miya Elizabeth. “A Participant Shares Her Experiences in a Follow-Up Program: ‘Artstars’ Bring Young Visitors Back,” The Docent Educator 10.2 (Winter 2000-01): 8-13.


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