Tag Archives: Smithsonian

Part #4 Reflective Essay: Teen Ambassador @nmafateens

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Continuation of Teen Ambassadors Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art Guest Post

Amyra Demonstrating Project Math FestNote: This post was written by Amyra Hasan, a student in the Teen Ambassadors Program, to fulfill the requirements of her capstone project for the “International Studies and Law” academy that she is enrolled in. It is a reflective essay about her experiences during the training portion of the Teen Ambassadors Program.

For most people, Africa began when the Europeans decided that the continent was merely a meal they could slice and take for themselves with no regard to the millions of rich and proud people living there. They devoured Africa, ravaged it, and had the audacity to blame its poor condition on the people themselves. For a lot of people now, Africa and black America is still perceived that way. I, as an Asian, have virtually no ties to this continent. I, as an American, could have easily swallowed this imperialist narrative, the product of a Eurocentric education system, without thinking critically about it and moved on with my life. The problem is that I choked on it.

I could not accept this so passively. Africa is the cradle of humanity; surely it couldn’t be as simple as this right? I kept this idea tucked away in the back of my mind as I refocused on getting through the end of junior year. Afterwards, it came up again as I was considering my career path and my future college plans. I had my heart set out to be a humanitarian working to improve the lives of people in less developed countries like Indonesia, my own country. So far, I joined an International Studies and Law program, but I needed something more concrete. I needed something that would give me firsthand experience with different cultures other than my own, something that would simultaneously aid in developing practical skills and broaden my worldview.

Working as a teen ambassador for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art not only fit all of these requirements exactly, but it also answered these burning questions I had about Africa. I gained confidence when I gained friends in such a short span of time. I developed my social skills as I slowly got to work more and more with the public. I came home with newfound passion that I realized I hadn’t felt in years: talking excitedly about everything that happened that day, feeling satisfied and productive as I watched those previously empty weekend hours fill up quickly with schedules.

Even though the artistic aspect of the program was not initially my main interest, I realized art is much more valuable than what most people, including me, give it credit for. Art can be a conversation starter into deeper issues about society, which is precisely what I plan to do as a humanitarian and advocate. I may not work specifically with African countries in the future, but it was especially during this experience I vowed to do my best to bring awareness to the hundreds of diverse societies living inside it. I want to show people that Africa is not one monolithic culture ravaged by disease and poverty, but it is just as capable as anyone else of producing unique and beautiful art. On a general level, I want to show people that all art is equally beautiful and equally valuable, just as all people are.

This is really what extracurricular opportunities, such as the Teen Ambassadors Program, strive to achieve. As Americans, we don’t realize the enormous amount of privilege we have. Our public education system teaches to standardized test after standardized test, leaving no room to learn to appreciate the world for how it is and to learn how to make it a better place. By experiencing Teen Ambassadors as an extracurricular program, I learned that practical experience is just as crucial to being a well-rounded person as a classroom education. I refuse to be passive about the ideas I consume. Like getting nervous before a tour, I must learn to hold it down and speak with conviction, to take an active role in my life so I can help other people do the same in theirs.

 

Part #3: More Lessons Learned and Big Questions from Case Study @nmafateens

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We’ve been quiet on the Teens in Museum blog about the Teen Ambassadors Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been busy. Quite the contrary! It’s been a busy few weeks for our Teen Ambassadors, as we launched into the nitty-gritty of training: learning the building blocks for a tour. In the meantime, we’ve also had the opportunity to provide our students with special opportunities, such as the chance to attend the press preview and opening for the Divine Comedy exhibition, and a chance to sit down with our head of Public Affairs and chief librarian to discuss a range of careers available in museums.

Over the past few weeks, our Teen Ambassadors were ask to select two artworks in our Conversations exhibit that they loved, and then respond to these pieces. They then researched these artworks and pieces, and then gave a five-minute talk in the public galleries on their findings. After we gave the students feedback, each student chose a partner whose selected artworks corresponded with his or her pieces. The students then worked on discussing comparisons between the pieces and elarning their partner’s works. These pieces will be the building blocks of their tours. Our work with the students over the last few weeks has provided us with several “lessons learned” and reflective opportunities.

Lesson #1: Get all relevant medical information from your program participants.
One of our participants has a reoccurring medical condition that occurred while at our program. Although it was not serious, we had no prior knowledge on this condition, or on any other medical conditions or allergies that the students have. From this incident, we learned that we have to collect documentation on any medical conditions or special needs that might affect our programming. For future teen programs, we plan on beginning with a parent meeting, where we will provide confidential worksheets for parents to fill out regarding medical conditions and other information. It seems obvious in hindsight, but in our rush of planning curriculums and envisioning a program, we overlooked this basic step, and we definitely learned a lesson we won’t for’et.

Lesson #2: Provide specific guidelines about what we want from the teens.
When we assigned the students “Interpretive Challenge” research assignments on two artworks that they selected from the Conversations exhibit, they were the five-minute gallery presentation we wanted them to develop. While the student presentations on a whole were really good, the students’ research was not as rigorous as we’d have liked to have seen. Our “Interpretive Challenge” activity was modified from an exercise completed by our adult docents. Many of our adult docents have advanced degrees and intensive experience in the art world, so when we tell them to “research a piece of art”, they more or less know to draw a broad context around the piece. When we asked kids to do this, they provided really rich interpretations based on their observations and own worldviews, but some of their readings lacked in artist biographies, theme of the exhibitions, and art historical context. While we did some research on our own to add some facts to these pieces, we’d like the kids to do this research in the future. To do this, we realize we need to ask our kids to answer very specific questions in their research (such as “give three facts about the artist”). For our first round of Teen Ambassadors, we helped write up some additional research and interpretation for them, but this led us to grapple with our educational philosophy and led to our first big question, which we think might be shared by anyone doing a basic program.

Big Question: How much of the tour should be generated by us, and how much should be generated by the kids?
We have a great group of kids; they make great observations when given the chance to closely look at art and objects, they are wonderful storytellers, and they aren’t afraid to let their personalities shine through when talking about art. It was a highlight of our program to give them a chance to research and study pieces and take some ownership over their pieces, and then have a chance to teach their peers about these pieces. However, there are certain basics that we believe that every gallery experience facilitated at NMAfA should include, and certain contexts that we as interpreters should pass on to audiences who are familiar with art but may be new to non-Western art. At the same time, we don’t want our students to be reading off a script. So how to balance? We’ve been experimenting with scripting certain elements of the student’s tours—introductions and conclusions, for example, which we’ve noticed that any new docent or educator may struggle with—and we’ve given them additional facts to sprinkle through the gallery. It’s still a give-and-take process as we experiment with what works and what doesn’t, so we look forward to thinking more on that in the next few weeks.

Lesson #3: Spend as much time as possible in the galleries.
Many of our early sessions were held in our executive conference room, but I realized when the students were giving their gallery presentations that they seemed much more relaxed in the conference rooms than they did in the galleries. As it’s Cherry Blossom season in DC, the past few weeks have been really crowded with tourists. Couple that with some really sensitive alarms in the gallery, it’s no wonder that the galleries are unfamiliar and a bit scary to the kids (honestly, during the Cherry Blossom Festival, the galleries are a bit scary to me!) Our last session was spent almost entirely in the galleries however, and I realized the need of being in the galleries as much as possible in the future. I like to think of learning as one of the more elevated blocks on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In order for learning to happen, the more basic needs—comfort, security, etc—need to be met. By providing kids the opportunity just to hang out and be themselves in the gallery, we are building their comfort levels so they can properly study and learn the artworks. They’ll then be able to convey that to the audiences that they’ll start working with in the next month.

Speaking of the future, we’re onto recruiting for a summer class of Teen Ambassadors! Reflecting as part of the Teens in Museums blog has been very beneficial for my own program planning, and I look forward to having the chance to implement my own lessons learned.

Photos:Teens at Press Preview

We’ve been trying to expand the range of opportunities available to our Teen Ambassadors by tapping them into other Museum events. Here, Teen Ambassadors Nick and Emily attended the press preview for The Divine Comedy. Emily writes for her school’s newspaper, and will write an article about her experiences. Both had the opportunity to mingle with museum staff, artists, and professional journalist.

Julia presents in the gallery.
Julia Gallery Presentation

Amyra, Emily and Nick after the press preview.
Nick Emily Amyra