Block Alumni Update: Claire Kissinger on Cultivating Museum Engagement

As a teaching and learning museum for Northwestern University, we have the opportunity to partner with students throughout the school for internships, jobs, and classes. Earlier this month we received an update from one of our recent alumni, Claire Kissinger (WCAS ’15),  letting us know she was currently working as a museum educator in New York City. We were thrilled to connect with her to find out more about her work and get her perspective how engagement with the Block prepared her for the field.

What did you study at Northwestern / When did you graduate?

I graduated in 2015 with a major in Art History and a minor in Gender & Sexuality Studies.

What are you working on now professionally?

For the past two years I have worked as a freelance museum educator at a number of institutions in New York City including the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of the Moving Image. Currently, I work at the New-York Historical Society and the FDR Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. In both these positions, I teach American history through inquiry-based learning using art, artifacts, and the built environment to discover the past with school audiences. At the Historical Society, I am also developing curriculum to teach an intensive program with teen audiences that focuses on the Vietnam War.

 How did work at the Block prepare you for work in the cultural field?

When I was a student at Northwestern I worked at the Block Museum for my entire undergraduate career. I began in the communications department working to get the word out about exhibitions and public programs and encouraging more student turnout. Soon, I began working as a student docent and joined the Student Advisory Board which allowed me to work directly with students and the public by teaching lessons and planning student events. My last year at the Block I was the Undergraduate Curatorial Fellow. With the help of the Curatorial Department, I curated an exhibition for the Katz Gallery titled Exposure: Recent Gifts of Photography which was on view from September to November of 2015.

Through these varied opportunities, I was able to try out several different fields in the museum world. The Block Museum allowed me to take ownership of projects and discover my strengths and passions. Through this experimentation, I realized I was most at home connecting directly with visitors and students to facilitate exciting encounters with art.  I am especially interested in helping students to develop skills to “read” art and artifacts to create their own meaning from artworks. My training in object-based inquiry as a Student Docent at the Block opened the door to more opportunities in museum education, specifically the Brooklyn Museum’s one-of-a-kind Museum Education Fellowship and I have been following this path ever since.

How do you see the field of museum education currently evolving?

Overall, I think museums are beginning to discover and acknowledge the value of a robust education department. By having expert educators available to the public, museums are more welcoming to experts and casual participants alike. Educators give visitors the tools and confidence to create their own understandings of artworks and encourage learners to keep discovering.

One example of museums offering more opportunities for visitor engagement is The People’s Studio at the Museum of Modern Art. This summer, the museum hosted in interactive making space in the galleries in conjunction with the exhibition Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive. While these “studios” have existed for years, they were always in another part of the building; moving The People’s Studio to the gallery floor was a radical act that really paid off. I worked as a facilitator in the Studio to help the public navigate the space, encourage engagement, document visitors’ creations, and talk about the themes of the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition. Working directly with the public every day, I heard and felt the excitement of visitors being able to “learn through doing” and make artwork and meaning inspired by what they had seen. Many visitors expressed having never seen something like the Studio in a museum and were overwhelmed with the opportunity to express themselves and leave something of their own behind. This experiment was incredible to be a part of and has definitely informed my teaching practice.

Now that you have worked in other museums, what do you find unique about the Block Museum?

As a university art museum, the Block is innovative, responsive, and community-minded. The exhibitions and ideas presented at the Block Museum are always pushing the boundaries of art history forward and investigate the institution of the museum itself. I was so fortunate to work and study at the Block while exhibitions as diverse as Collecting Paradise: Buddhist Art of Kashmir and Its Legacies, Wangechi Mutu: A Fantastic Journey, and The Last Supper: 600 Plates Illustrating Final Meals of Death Row Inmates were on display. These shows challenged the canon of art history by pointing out the power dynamics of collecting, looking at, and creating art while championing artists, cultures, and populations that have historically been neglected or erased from academia.

The stories told at the Block Museum make it an excellent place to learn and this is another reason why the Block is unique. Connected to Northwestern, the Block is devoted to giving students real opportunities to discover what is meaningful to them about art and try out different career paths. Being able to take classes and work alongside the museum professionals at the Block was the most defining experience of my college career.

What are your ongoing career goals?

Moving forward I want to take on more opportunities to create the curriculum for museum programs. I have honed my skills in teaching and would love to learn more about what makes a lesson plan successful and how to best connect museum experiences with learning that is happening in the classroom. I am also interested in the ways in which educators evaluate and define success, and would love to study measurable outcomes of student learning when augmented by object-based inquiry.

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