Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Visual Thinking Strategies

Back in November I attended the New England Museum Association's conference in Boston. I still have mixed feelings about the conference, mostly because November is so busy with my job, and spending two days away from the office seemed like a waste of valuable time. The conference was so crowded I did not get to attend as many sessions as I wanted to, and some of the ones I did attend were not too useful for me in my current position. What I did get out of it was a chance to connect with people who do what I do, and that is what makes the trip worth it. It also really makes me want to host the FPIPN conference in Portsmouth next spring.

One of the sessions I did attend was on Visual Thinking Strategies. Although I was unaware of the term as it was meant in the session, I have inadvertently been teaching using VTS since I was in college. Thinking back on it, someone must have taught it to me, just never used the term. I'm not sure if it was my parents while they dragged me to museum after museum or if it was in college classes on art history or museums but someone must have used visual thinking strategies on me. The session at the conference basically went through the kid's program at one of the mill museums in Northern Mass. They showed photographs of child mill workers from the early 20th Century and asked the kids what they think about the photo and why, then showed them modern photos of child labor around the world, and did the same. While the presenters were walking us museum folks through their kids program I was flashing back to an experience just out of college when I put together and ran a summer camp.

I was working at Historic Northampton, the director had given me a chance right out of college and I was so overwhelmed. But I did manage to put together a one week summer program for kids teaching about life in the year 1875. Every morning when the kids arrived we all hunkered down on the carpet in the tiny classroom behind the gallery, and I would bring out a stack of images: photos of New York and Boston in the 1870s one day, greeting cards the next, advertisements the next. We would look at the images and I would ask the kids what they thought about the kids in the photos, about the products advertised, about what things were considered beautiful, or cool or … My questions were much more leading than the actual VTS questions, which are just: “What is going on in this picture?” and “What makes you say that?” but we used the images to spark some really good discussions. The kids did not have to know a lot of history going in to the discussion, they just had to look at the image and they could take part.

Last week we were talking about a new summer camp program here at the museum that would focus on food. We brought up food in art and in advertising, and wondered how to incorporate that into the camp program, well that is easy! Giving a kid an image and asking them what is going on in the picture can be a fantastic way to establish a shared vocabulary, a jumping off point, a reference for all the other crafts, recipes, garden tours that take place over the week. I don’t get a lot of chances to work directly with visitors any more,  but sitting in on the camp planning session was a lot of fun, and reminded me how much I like visual thinking strategies.

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