Professional Practice

Connecting With Museum Educators (Ep. 316)

In today’s episode, museum educator Kara Fedje joins Tim to discuss her work, her studies, and her ideas for connecting museums and schools. Listen as they talk about making all spaces accessible, working with partners in the community, and how teachers can begin collaborating with their local museum educators. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Today I want to talk about museums and museum education and how teachers can hopefully connect with museum educators to offer some new types of opportunities for our students. And this seems maybe a little more important to me than usual, just because personally I’ve been thinking a lot about museums. My wonderful hometown museum here in Omaha, the Joslyn Art Museum, just closed for renovations and new construction last week, and it’s going to be closed for two years. I can’t go back until 2024. So my last visit there last month was pretty bittersweet. I went and I got to see all of my favorites that were there and I think I appreciated them more because they weren’t going to be there. I knew I wasn’t going to see them again for a while. And the museum will still do programming. They’ll still have a presence in the community, still offer classes, different locations, but it’s obviously not the same.

It’s different when you can’t go visit. And so anyway, with that closure and just thinking about all of the things that we might be missing out on, it got me thinking about whether or not we appreciate what our museums have to offer. You know, whether we take advantage of all of the opportunities that are out there. And I would say as a whole, as art educators, we do not. And that’s not to place any blame. We all have a million things on our plate. We know how difficult it is to find time to do something extra.

But today, I guess I want to highlight those opportunities that are out there and maybe think when we do have the time, when we do have the capacity, how we can make those connections. So I want to talk today about how we can get together with museum educators and take advantage of the opportunities that are out there. And my guest today is going to be Kara Fedje. She is a museum educator and current doctoral student at Florida State University. She has just a plethora of ideas on how to make museums more inclusive, how to help foster that sense of community and that sense of belonging that we’re always looking for. So let’s talk to her, let’s find out more about how she wants to make the museum accessible to everyone and what we can do as teachers to play a part in that endeavor. Kara Fedje is joining me now. Kara, how are you?

Kara: I’m great. How are you?

Tim: I am doing great as well. We’ve been trying to put together this podcast interview for the better part of a couple months.

Kara: And we’re here, we’re so excited.

Tim: So I guess to begin with, can you just tell listeners a little bit about yourself?

Kara: Yeah, of course. First, let me just say a huge thank you, Tim, for having me on The Art of Ed University podcast. I’m so stoked to be here. I am a fellow Iowan as well and so it’s nice to have that connection with The Art of Ed University.

Tim: Yeah, that’s awesome.

Kara: Although I know you podcast all over the world, so. My name is Kara Fedje and I’m a doctoral student and graduate assistant at the art education department in Florida State University. And before my PhD, I had been a museum educator for the past 10 years at various Midwestern museums. And one of them you actually might be familiar with, it’s called the Des Moines Art Center.

Tim: I actually drove through there last weekend on my way to a wedding. So, yes.

Kara: Nice.

Tim: I love the Art Center in Des Moines.

Kara: Yeah. It’s an incredible gem in the middle of Iowa. And it’s a mid-size museum and I got to work there fortunately for three years and I’m really just passionate about all things art. I love to weave tapestries, but I also geek out on everything museum-related. And in fact, this morning, the reason I’m so great is I got to participate as a facilitator at an international conference, actually put on by Institute for Learning Innovation. And the conference is called Connected Audiences, and I recommend it to everybody. I think we’re going to meet in Berlin in 2022.

But we discussed how cultural organizations can connect with audiences and really focused in on what’s the value of a museum? Why is it important to measure success and how do you define success? And so it was really pertinent. And so I guess that’s why I’m bringing it up. But also I’m really interested in like, just in general, how we advance diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion in art museums. And I just wonder, how do we measure and define and understand what a sense of belonging is in museums? Because a lot of people don’t always love them. Obviously there’s a lot of people who do, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Tim: Yeah, yeah, for sure. You know, I think as art teachers, we’re always looking for similar goals, I guess, as far as just being able to create the sense of belonging with our students. And so I see some similarities there. And I think there are probably some connections to be made. So like you said, we can talk about that more in a little bit. But before we get there, I guess, I’m curious to know more about what you do as a museum educator. Like what does your job entail on a day to day basis? And also just thinking big picture, what are some of the bigger goals that you’re trying to accomplish?

Kara: It’s a great question. And I think it’s a good question for a museum educator because every day is different. And that’s true for a lot of fields, for art teachers too, right?

Tim: I was going to say for teacher of art, it’s part of the job.

Kara: It defines our role, right? But a typical day at the Des Moines Art Center when I was there was writing, implementing, and facilitating learning programs. And for me, I was working with kids and families in the art museum. So I was really lucky to be able to create a program called Entirely Kids Day. And basically what it was is a family day where we’d have about 1500 people in a day. And we did it three times a year, it was really cool. And we incorporated kid friendly performances, gallery tours, book readings, and of course food and art. And it really felt like a community. So I loved doing these and it was making participatory experiences that really involved all of the senses for children and families. And I’ll tell you this, once, well actually maybe a few times, I even dressed up as a pirate, a safari guide and a superhero.

Tim: Yes. I love all of those.

Kara: I would meet the kids exactly where they are in full character and they would be in character too. And we’d read books and we’d do a search through the gallery for treasure chests, full on with prompts and activities. And it was for me what the theorist Csikszentmihalyi would call a flow experience. And a lot of teachers know this is what we aspire for. And it was so much fun. That time went so fast. And so all of this is to say, I think museums, art classrooms are for everyone, including kids and families.

Tim: Oh, that’s awesome. Also, can I just say that I appreciate you being able to pronounce Csikszentmihalyi’s name correctly, I’ve never been able to do it.

Kara: Yeah. It’s challenging.

Tim: So many consonants in a row. It’s so hard.

Kara: Right, right.

Tim: Anyway. Okay. So you and I have talked a little bit sort of off-air here about different things that you’re trying to do. I know that one of your big goals is, for lack of a better term, democratizing the museum, or making it more accessible for everyone. So my question about that would be why is that a goal? Why is that important to you? And what kinds of things are you and other museum educators doing to try and make your spaces more accessible to everyone?

Kara: Yeah, it’s another great question. And I would say making museums like art classrooms accessible for students and art teachers and our public at large is really important. And I think how we’re going to do this going forward in the museum world is that we co-create with our community partners so that we can actually make what’s called a social cohesion. And what that is is like when people start to work together, they’re literally linking connections and building relationships and rapports with neighborhood communities.

And I think the best way to do that is lots of ways actually, but to make the outside in and the inside out. So what I mean by that is as museum professionals, we need to begin to shift the paradigm and ask people who are working outside the museum to really jumpstart in and work with us. And I think we need also research. We need more research and networking to connect everybody together. And lastly I’ll say museum educators can do a lot, but art teachers can too. And I think we need to share the agency and voice with our communities if we’re going to expect museums to have a continued value in society.

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s really well said. And it does go both ways. Because I think we as educators, as art educators, can do a better job of letting kids and families know what’s out there. We can share when we go to museums, we can talk about all the cool things that are there and try and get people to join those spaces, to be part of those communities. So again, we can talk more about that in a bit. But before we do that, I want to circle back to the Des Moines Art Center and a really cool exhibit that you helped put together. It was called the Queer Abstraction exhibit. And just in reading about that, it made me appreciate just your goal of trying to make the museum more inclusive through exhibits, through events. But as far as that one specifically, the Queer Abstraction exhibit, can you tell us more about it? And I guess what all it involved for you. And going back to that community thing, how was it received by the community?

Kara: Yeah, it’s awesome. And it was, first I’ll start, it was curated by my friend, Jared Ledesma. Many of us at the Art Center were working to make the Art Center really inclusive in a diverse space. And we had what’s called weekly mass meetings, and it wasn’t Catholic mass. It was 18 of us essentially meeting in a room, grappling with concepts about inclusion and diversity. And we talked about the MIA, Minneapolis Institute of Arts document called the MASS. And that’s where it got its name. And MASS stands for Museums as a Site for Social Action. And what it is a toolkit. It was an incredible free resource for creating organizational change in museums, the how to manual, if you will. And it was written by employees, museum employees in Minneapolis at the Art Institute. And at the same time, this really incredible resource came out from AAM.

It was called the LGBTQ welcoming guidelines. I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, but basically it was an assessment tool that was guiding us along our journey. And we also used other tools like the intercultural development inventory, where we were basically trying to figure out how culturally woke we were. And then we had Iowa Safe Schools come and do trainings for the staff internally. And so the dial was really shifting on the internal culture and it was incredible to be a part of that. But I don’t think the public was aware of all of that story until the Queer Abstraction exhibition really was on display. And when it opened up, opening night was so grand, it was beautiful and bright and attractive, and people were doing hands on PostIt notes. And it was a very popular opening because it was during the first night of Pride Month.

And it was an incredible part to be part of that. And so I got to basically do the programming around some of that exhibition. I did not create the exhibition. There were so many people on that team who were incredible. The preparatory team, the exhibition team, the marketing team. It’s a huge force, but I got to do the programming. And so what I did is an Entirely Kids Day, which I had talked about previously about one of my passions. And we got to have queer performances, participatory tours, even a 30 by 30 foot pride flag on the front lawn. And we even had a drag story time.

And I’ll tell you this, it was interesting to review and research some of the marketing around it because people were still unsure of the word queer even, internally and externally. And so we were just grappling with how do we do that? And I think what helped is research. And I interviewed a woman at Chicago Children’s museum who had some tools already in place and talked to her about some of her resources and how she started doing this work. And so it was helpful to model it after other museums. But if anyone’s interested in the whole story, Jared Ledesma and I wrote an article for the Identity Issue of AAMs Museum Magazine. It was published in 2020, and the article was called Abstract Art, Concrete Goals.

Tim: As promised, I want to bring this back to our audience of art educators here, and bring it back to teachers for the final question. Just because we hear from people who listen to this, people who come to our conferences, a lot of teachers are looking for guidance or looking for opportunities on how they can connect with museums. So the question for you is like, how can teachers find out more about what museums have to offer? How can they connect with museum educators? And I guess in general terms, just what kinds of opportunities are out there?

Kara: Yeah. I want to say this first. I think I live in a dream world where museums and schools could really operate on the same plane because I think we’d be an incredible learning force, a team to work together. And so my advice for teachers is just to stay alive. No, I’m just kidding. My advice to teachers, especially during the pandemic, is that you are doing incredibly challenging work and I want to acknowledge that. And I want to ask one more favor of all of the teachers and say, reach out to your local museum. Don’t wait for them to come to you, but just go to them and say, hey, we want to collaborate with the museum, because we have incredible opportunities.

Kara: The museum has credible opportunities for students as well as schools. And in that collaboration, I think we’re going to find out that we can get a lot more done. And in the museum field, sometimes we need somebody to tell us how we can help you because so many people in the community see it as a community resource. And so connecting to the teachers is really valuable. Sadly, I’ll say, I think some museum educators don’t always have the most resources, time and energy, similar to school teachers, right?

Tim: Right.

Kara: But that if we connect these talents in schools, it’s even more reason to make sure we’re well connected. And so I’ll just tell a quick story. My friend, Audrey Jacobs, she’s probably listening to this in just a moment, but she’s connecting schools and museums because she worked for a museum school on a Native tribal reservation in South Dakota. And her story’s pretty cool. She indeed was an example of a museum professional who deeply cares about that interaction between teachers and schools and keeping the pipelines together.

And I think we need to continue to keep those conversations going. Because at the end of the day, museum educators and teachers, art teachers, are doing very similar work. We’re trying to just make the world a better place for the next generation. And so while I may not have concrete examples of it right now, I think that museum educators and art teachers have a lot of work ahead to collaborate. And I’m excited about this next journey. And with that, I’ll say thank you so much for having me as a guest today. And I’ll say one more thing. I had incredible art teachers growing up, and the art professors shaped who I was. And I can’t imagine not having them as a facilitator of learning in my life. And I’m just so lucky. So keep doing your thing art teachers, and continue to inspire.

Tim: Ah, thank you. We appreciate that. I know that’s a message that a lot of our teachers need to hear right now. So Kara, thank you so much for the conversation. It was great talking to you and hopefully we can do it again sometime.

Kara: Absolutely. Thank you so much. Have a great day.

Tim: I talked in the intro about neglecting those opportunities that museums offer us. And you know, I’m guilty of that myself. And you get so wrapped up in what you’re doing in your classroom, in all of the effort it takes just to teach on a day-to-day basis, and you don’t have the time or the energy to look outside yourself and look outside of your classroom. And so, yeah, I understand now is not the time to look for more things to do. We’re coming to the end of a very long school year and nobody wants anything else on their plate.

But, when you feel like you can take on something else, when you have that energy and that capacity, I would encourage you to reach out to a museum educator in your community. See if there’s something there. See if there is a connection that can be made and an opportunity for your students. And if you’re looking for more ideas or more discussion on this topic, Candido Crespo did a great episode on Everyday Art Room last December with Kiandra Pryor about school museum relationships. And I would encourage you to listen to that. We’ll link that episode in the show notes.

And just, I guess, to wrap everything up, to put some final thoughts here together. Kara said something that stuck with me, I guess. A lot of museum educators are tapped out in terms of resources, time and energy, just like we are, just like teachers are. But eventually that can be an even better reason to connect, to collaborate, to share our talents and our skills. It can make life easier for everyone and it can give you and your students something new, something exciting, something to look forward to. It doesn’t have to be right now. But it can be a goal for when you’re ready, when you have that capacity to do so. And reaching out, making those connections will offer some great opportunities for your students and you will be glad that you made that connection. Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening, and we’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.