Laura: Today we are going to be talking with Elizabeth Benskin, who is the Director of School and Teacher Programs at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Elizabeth we are excited to be talking with you today! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today.
Elizabeth: I’m very glad to be here, thanks for inviting me!
Laura: So, before we talk more specifically about the BMA and the programs offered there, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and how you got involved working in the world of museums even before you to be working at the BMA?
Elizabeth: I came via a very circuitous route, I actually started as a religious studies major as an undergrad and my focus was on East Asian religious traditions, mostly Buddhism in China. I actually ended up in a masters program that was interdisciplinary and I started to take courses in the history of Chinese art and the history of Japanese art. I really started to get excited about the visual expression of these ideas that I had found so interesting as a religious studies major. I decided I wanted to do something with art history, but wasn’t quite sure [what]. I was also interested in education, so I actually taught in Oakland public schools for a year. I really enjoyed that but it wasn’t quite right, and I found myself in a Goldilocks situation where I was kind of bouncing around. I ended up taking an internship at the Freer Gallery of Art and at the Arthur and Sackler Galleries which are the Asian Art Galleries at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. And it just clicked, it just worked for me. I appreciated being able to use the objects to teach about the ideas. That’s sort of how I came to be at the BMA. I was at the Freer and Sackler for about ten years, and then when an opportunity opened up at the BMA- I thought, it would be nice to shift and work with a new collection.
I had just started working with American Art when I was at the Freer, because it has a really wonderful collection of American Art- including Whistler’s Peacock room. So I decided it was time for a new learning experience, and so I came to the BMA.
Laura: Cool! I didn’t realize you had started out in public schools! That’s so perfect for our conversation today. I knew you had been with museums previously, but I didn’t realize you had worked in public schools. That’s pretty neat- I’m glad you have that background because I think it will guide our conversation today. Our audience is almost entirely educators so as a follow-up question, what would your advice be for teachers, or even students, who are interested in transitioning into working at a museum, potentially as a museum educator or maybe in an alternate role maybe as a curator?
Elizabeth: Sure. So in my experience, and this may be because I worked in an Asian art museum- which in the United States is a bit of a niche, but I’ve found that museum educators come from a variety of backgrounds. I’ve worked with people who are trained as anthropologists, architects, artists, teachers, ethno-musicologists, just a really wide variety. I think the common thread amongst everybody was that they all had a passion for helping communicate about the artworks, helping bring people together with the artworks and the ideas that were being expressed, and helping people have personal experiences around those. I wouldn’t say there is any one path to becoming a museum educator. There are also Museum Studies and Museum Education degree programs. I’ve worked with people who have gotten those degrees and who really have a passion for the field. So there are lots of ways to enter the field. It is tight in terms of the number of positions available. But my advice would be to try and get an internship or to volunteer at a museum to really get the experience of working there. You can study the theory of museums quite a bit but museums are hugely complex and each one is really different and I think that there is nothing like the value of the experience you get from spending time interning or volunteering. Now I also know that most internships are unpaid, which is a basic barrier for most people. A lot of museums, including the BMA are working to remedy that to make the positions more accessible for anyone who wants to explore museum positions and to come in and have some experience working behind the scenes or on the floor. So my internship was invaluable at Freer and so that’s why I recommend it, but again there are so many different ways to enter.
Laura: Yeah, I would think if nothing else the internship would at least allow you to network and get to know people. There might be some communication in terms of people who are already working at museums about interns who are interested in moving into positions.
Elizabeth: Yeah, there are also professional organizations such as the National Art Education Association which has a museum education division. I encourage people to take advantage of that if they can. Their annual convention is usually a really great networking event and inspiring too. And then the American Alliance of Museums is another professional organization that can be really great too.
Laura: I’m also in a group called “Young Museum Educators in the Baltimore Area” on facebook. I joined it a while back, and although I am not a museum educator I do a lot of work with museum educators and with teachers in the public school system, so there are facebook groups out there as well. I also want to be really mindful of your time so let’s pivot and talk for a few minutes about the BMA specifically and some of the programs offered there. I know you guys offer student group tours and also some teacher workshops as well as some online resources. Can you elaborate for teachers who might live in the Maryland area about the programs you regularly offer?
Elizabeth: Sure! I’ll try to remember all of them.
Laura: You don’t have to remember all of them, you can just give us the highlights!
Elizabeth: Yeah if you can send listeners a link to connect people with what we have. At the outset I should probably say that the BMA is free. So if teachers are interested in coming on their own, or bringing a group of students- their individual entrance and the group tours are free. We offer a lot of high school tours, we offer a variety of them. They range from Highlights (a cross collection sampling), to tours of our special exhibitions, to thematic tours (such as stories and art). Those are generally about an hour and they are lead by our volunteer docents.
We also have specific partnership programs for Baltimore City and County schools. So for teachers who are in those districts in Baltimore City we have Close Encounters, which is a multiple visit program for fourth grade students. This year we worked with 30 classes, and this program has been in place since 1982. It’s a long-standing program that starts with the docents going into the classroom for orientation with the students, and then they come to the museum for three thematic tours, and then finally for a studio art making visit. So applications for that go out in the spring, if there are any Baltimore City teachers who are interested in having their fourth grade class participate, please let us know. It’s a great program.
We are also part of an optional curriculum for Baltimore City and County Public Schools, Developing Language and Literacy through The Arts. It’s a six week program where teachers work with students focused on artworks at the BMA, as a way of developing their Language skills. We do it for Pre-K and K, and the culminating activity is that they come to the museum to see the artworks and talk about them together.
Laura: Is that curriculum available for all the Baltimore County Public School teachers?
Elizabeth: It is! So, I believe you can contact Sherry Fisher if you are interested in getting a copy of the curriculum.
Laura: Maybe we can link it in the show notes or something, that’s a really unique thing to be offering. That’s really cool.
Elizabeth: So the other thing we have going at the moment is an Art, Mindfulness, and Peace-Building Program with the Baltimore City Public Schools 5th grade. We are partnering with Beyond Conflict, which is an international Peace-building organization and the Holistic Life Foundation, which is an organization that offers mindfulness meditation and yoga practices to Baltimore schools and communities. So we are testing and evaluating through a pilot program and might expand it.
Then in terms of what we offer teachers, we have teacher workshops which we typically offer for each new exhibition or reopening of an installation. We have one coming up on April 28 on the Jack Whiton exhibition. Teachers can apply online and teachers can register using those. Those are typically experiences where teachers have privileged access to the exhibition, get a special tour, have an art making activity, and discuss ways of connecting what they’ve seen in the exhibition to their classroom curriculum.
Laura: Oh that sounds amazing! And very up our alley in terms of Arts Integration. Are you part of developing those activities that the teachers are doing in those programs where teachers are making the connections between the art in your exhibitions and their classroom content?
Elizabeth: Yeah so typically, I do some of the direct teaching, or my colleague who is the Manager of School and Teacher Programs does some of the direct teaching with the programs that we’ve developed. We sometimes bring in teaching artists for more studio focused activities. So for example with the Matisse Steven Corn Exhibition we brought in someone who is more of a Color Specialist because color was such an important aspect of that exhibition.
Laura: Education Closet has a pretty wide audience, including lots of educators in other countries. For teachers who maybe live farther away, who might not be able to travel to the BMA, how would you recommend they connect with their local art museums?
Elizabeth: In the DC and Baltimore Area, we are really fortunate to have so many free museums, so I understand that on a national and international level that is frequently not the case. What I would say to teachers is that you should check to see, regardless of whether there is an entrance fee, whether the museum itself offers free school tours or other school experiences. Frequently they do! I would look to see if there are professional development opportunities available there. If they are doing it right they should be personally inspiring, but also professionally helpful. They should also check museums on a national level for free resources and lessons. We have a free E-resource that goes out eight times per year during the school year- so every month during most of the school year. We also have robust teacher resources available online with lots of information and images and lesson plans- and lots of museums have those and they are downloadable for free. So if people have digital access, then they can look world-wide for resources.
Laura: I know a lot of times, museums will have certain exhibitions online- digitally available so that if you are not able to make it to the museum in person you can utilize the online resource instead and show the images to your classroom that way.
Elizabeth: Exactly, so there are lots of ways of bringing the artworks and information into the classroom that way.
Laura: Finally, before you go, can you tell us about any exciting current or upcoming exhibitions happening at the BMA?
Elizabeth: Sure! I’ll give you my three favs. The first is Spencer Finch, Moon Dust- which is going to be installed where our Fox Court is and where our American wing is, near the historic entrance. It’s opening on February 21st and it’s the chemical composition of actual moondust from one of the apollo missions collected into a light instillation. It’s going to be a really fantastic instillation and it also offers a really fantastic STEAM connection.
Laura: Yeah! It sounds like chemistry, visual art, light…
Elizabeth: The next I would recommend is the Stephen Towns- Rumination and Reckoning. It’s actually a quilt show by a local artist, Stephen Towns. The quilts are really exquisite and it includes an entire series on the Nat Turner rebellion so there is an interesting history connection for any teachers who want to do an arts integration focus around that.
Laura: … and literacy as well. I see a lot of paper quilting as well in terms of bringing things to a classroom where there might be limited materials. Using paper and glue and materials that most classrooms commonly have to make some connections.
Elizabeth: Right, yeah. I love that connection between quilting and collage. When you don’t have the time or the materials, or all the sewing skills to make those connections in other ways. And finally we have an amazing exhibition coming to our Thalheimer Gallery- Odyssey: Jack Whitten Sculpture 1963- 2016. So this is a show focused on the work of Jack Whitton most of which he did… He is an African American artist known for his modernist paintings, but he went to Crete and for forty years he worked on a body of sculpture work which has never been seen before. This is an exhibition we have co-organized with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it shows some of his paintings, which are truly beautiful, but also this sculptural work which takes inspiration from both African Sculpture and Aegean Art. So, I highly recommend that. It is opening on April 22nd, it is a paid ticketed exhibition but school tours for it are free. And, it’s a rare opportunity because Jack just died about two weeks ago. We have an audio guide with his own commentary. It’s an extraordinary opportunity, with his passing being as sad as it is, to explore the work that he created.
Laura: It’s kind of amazing too, you know that in the days leading up to this exhibition he must have been really proud of the culmination of this work that has been happening since 1963.
Elizabeth: I didn’t personally meet him, but some of my colleagues did and they said he was really excited, which was really nice to know. So there is an opening day community event on April 22nd, so that’s open and free to the public as well. And yeah, we hope that people will take the opportunity to come and see this exhibition, which I think is really special.
Laura: Yeah! I will check on your website, or maybe you can email me some links so that we can include them in the show notes so listeners who are interested they can just click through to your site. If you have anything available regarding upcoming exhibitions also, student teacher programs, we will try to put as much as we can in the show notes, so that our audience can click through and find all the awesome stuff you were just talking about. Thank you so much for chatting with us today! I appreciate you taking the time, and I know this will be very beneficial to our educator audience.
Elizabeth: I think that would be a great connection!
Baltimore Museum of Art Page: www.artbma.org
Upcoming Exhibitions: https://artbma.org/exhibitions/upcoming.html
Special Programs for Educators: https://artbma.org/educators/index.html