The opportunity to design and pilot an outreach program for the Education Department of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, began when two anthropologists who had lived among the Kuba people of Zaire donated over thirty Kuba objects to the Museum for use as a teaching collection.
How would we use these beautiful objects to show students a “slice of life” of the Kuba people? How could we design an exciting program that would help students relate a relatively obscure culture to their own lives and the world at large? What pathways to learning about the Kuba culture could be created to nurture individual differences in how children learn? How would we plan the logistics of such a program? From the beginning, we knew this particular project would set the stage for the approach to other outreach programs for The Chrysler Museum of Art. As the project emerged and took on a life of its own, a number of considerations in planning and implementing any outreach program came to light.
Collaborating with Schools
The first and most important step for the project was to invite curriculum specialists from regional school systems to be a part of the planning. We also talked directly with teachers from public and private school systems in the area. We listened as they told us that the program should match the Standards of Learning for art. social studies, and English curricula at the appropriate grade levels. In the end, we also included activities related to the math and music curricula. Curriculum specialists advised us the teachers would appreciate pre- and post-visit materials and activities that help put the program into context for the students. The curriculum specialists also offered advice on class sizes and fee structures.
Researching the Kuba objects in the collection and the history of the Kuba people was a necessary step in the program design. What we learned about the fascinating Kuba people and the individual objects provided us with ideas for exploration of the culture through the experiential activities of the outreach program. The research phase of the project was also important because it was necessary for the presenters of the program to master the content. Our research became the text for training future presenters of the program.
After six months of collaborating with educators and researching the people and objects, it was finally time for the real fun to begin—designing activities for the classroom. Our goal was to devise participatory activities that serve numerous purposes. One purpose is to allow students to examine the objects. That was easy. We borrowed an activity from Alan Gartenhaus’ Minds in Motion: Using Museums to Expand Creative Thinking. The activity encourages children to make hypotheses as to how mysterious objects were used following a brief discussion of how curators and anthropologists examine objects to determine their uses. Having students carefully handle the object is a meaningful element of this activity. During the pilot period, many of the students’ imaginative conjectures came surprisingly close to what early explorers of the Kuba culture thought.
There were further goals for the activities as well. We knew they should be flexible enough to take into account differences in grade levels and disciplines of the classes taught. In addition, the activities needed to respond to the differences in how children access information. We also wanted some of the activities to be multidisciplinary and to work for any grade level. Finally, we wanted to develop activities and materials that would enable students to relate the Kuba culture to their own lives and the world at large, allowing them to recognize the many characteristics and needs that people have in common regardless of their cultural differences. The rich Kuba culture inspired us to include activities that center on characteristics of the culture such as: contemporary music from Zaire; the naming ceremonies of African children; the Kuba monetary system; proverbs and fables that speak of everyday Kuba life; drawing activities related to royal dress; and the game of Wari which requires strategic thinking and great patience.
As these and other activities developed, they were divided into classroom protocols for elementary, middle, and high school levels with a different theme for each level. Pre-visit packets provide background for teachers and students, include slides of everyday life in Kuba villages, and suggest activities and discussions that can be used before the classroom presentation.
Planning the Logistics
Before the program could go into the classroom, logistical considerations needed to be worked out. We found these “minor details” key elements in the success of the program. While the Education Department of The Chrysler Museum of Art is the first point of contact for interested schools, we found it to be essential that the presenter speak directly to the teacher in advance of the program. This allows teachers to make decisions about the presentation’s length and focus. It also enables the presenter to take care of the museum’s needs such as the most appropriate classroom size and setting, how the fee should be paid, and the need for special audiovisual equipment. We learned that the length of the program should be flexible enough to accommodate the various schedules of schools. It was decided early in the planning of the program that it is most appropriate as a hands-on classroom activity for a limited (forty or fewer) number of students and not appropriate as an assembly program.
Piloting and Evaluating the Program
Many of the educators with whom we collaborated were happy to pilot the program in their systems. We presented the program to a number of grade levels from second through high school during a three month period. Scheduling visits and taking the objects to the schools proved to be less of a challenge than we expected. Suitcases with wheels and plenty of bubble wrap helped immensely. One of the greatest challenges of piloting the program was not knowing individual classroom situations from school to school. We learned to expect the unexpected, such as a teacher who left the presenter alone in the classroom with an unruly group of students. Other surprises were pleasant ones, such as the class where a local businessman who had sponsored our visit was present and actively participating with the students. With a few surprises under our belts, we learned to go over every last detail with teachers before the visit.
Evaluation of the Kuba Outreach Program was done by engaging students, teachers, and curriculum specialists. Students and teachers completed an evaluation at the conclusion of the program. Curriculum specialists, who had been present during the early stages of the project, were brought back together after the pilot period to see and hear the results of their initial efforts and to offer recommendations for further refinements. Evaluation proved to be a valuable tool in the development of the program. Through this process we learned that, above all, the opportunity to examine or carefully handle the Kuba objects as an anthropologist might engaged students from all grade levels successfully. We also learned that this opportunity was an important element of the program from the teachers’ perspective. Teachers let us know that the interdisciplinary approach to the classroom activities was important to their curricular planning. Students’ questions and reactions to the pilot presentations influenced the inclusion of additional activities into the final design of the program.
Hitting the Road
Now that the pilot period for the outreach program has ended, the task of promoting the program has begun. We have learned that some schools would like to have the program come to them, but they cannot fund the modest fee that covers our costs. To generate enthusiasm, we have offered to present the program, with the fee waived, at facuhy and PTA meetings and for organizations that might be recruited as sponsors. We are also pursuing grant funding for the program to be made available for a specific grade level throughout the entire school system.
Planning the Kuba outreach project provided us with a blueprint for the design of future programs that will take a part of the museum into the community.
These lessons can be applied to any outreach program:
Collaborate with schools early in the planning of any outreach project. Find out the needs of the school system you hope to serve. Listen to what teachers, administrators, and students have to say!
Produce a document, no matter how informal it may be, that will serve as a required training manual for anyone presenting the program.
Design program activities that actively involve the students. Teachers do not need a museum outreach program for a simple slide lecture. Convey the excitement of the museum in the classroom activities you present.
Provide pre- and post-visit materials such as slides and activity suggestions.
Do not overlook planning the logistics of the program. The most exciting museum outreach presentation can turn into a disaster if details such as the number of students or the length of the program are not agreed upon in advance.
Get feedback from the first few presentations even if you are not able to conduct a pilot program. A simple evaluation form filled out by teachers and students will provide a wealth of information.
Be willing to invest some time to promote the program in order to get it off the ground. Although a fee may be charged by the museum to cover the costs of presenting the program in the classroom, waiving the fee for potential sponsoring organizations will go a long way in generating classroom visits.
Trish Pfeifer and Ellen Henry are contract educators with The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk. VA. Ms Pfeifer was previously an art educator, the curator of the Children ‘s Museum of Virginia in Portsmouth, VA. and a member of the exhibition design team for Inventure Place in Akron. OH. Ms. Henry was the education director of the Peninsula Fine Art Center in Newport News. VA. and the museum representative to the Virginia Fine Arts Leadership Coalition. Ms. Henry has contributed other articles to The Docent Educator, including ‘Art Teachers in Museums. ” which appeared in the issue “Research and Trends in Education” ( Volume 5. Number 2).
Pfeifer, Trish and Henry, Ellen. “Designing an Outreach Program,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 4-5+.