Encouraging Meaningful Dialogue
Last week, I attended a five-day institute for museum educators held in Chicago. We gathered together from across the country to talk about teaching in art museums, with the Art Institute of Chicago as our playground. While I’m still processing this incredibly intense experience, there was one part of the week that profoundly impacted me, both professionally and personally. Every morning we began our day in the galleries, talking about one work of art for approximately an hour and a half.
We didn’t just talk, though. We looked. We questioned. We wondered. We listened. We thought a lot. And we laughed a lot, too! But what I found interesting, and what many of my fellow attendees noted, was that we all seemed to “know the rules.” As museum educators, we knew the type of conversation we were striving for in the galleries–and so some of us held back information, or specific interpretations, or even criticisms in an effort to have a more meaningful experience for the group, or as one person noted, so that “we could all play together.”
For me, this signaled a heightened sense of self-awareness and respect for others in the group. We were all coming together to create an experience around a work of art, whether it was an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock, or a small panel from an altarpiece by Fra Angelico.
The types of conversations we were having in the galleries were different than your standard water-cooler conversations. What we did every morning was have a dialogue. Dialogue is different from discussion, and different from conversation. Conversation is the sort of casual exchange we all do everyday — what should I make for dinner, how is your day is going, etc. Discussions, William Isaacs writes, “are conversations where people hold onto and defend their differences.” Additionally, David Bohm points out that discussion starts with speaking, while dialogue starts with listening.
Dialogue is the sort of conversation we strive to create in the galleries at CMA on our tours. In a dialogue, new ideas and thoughts are encouraged, respected, and then brought together to create something new. You must have an open mind, but also be ready to question others, and to truly listen. Sometimes you walk on a limb with an idea, and you have to trust that the group won’t put you down for it. And let me say: it’s really, really hard to do. It’s scary to put yourself out there. But the payoff is also huge. Every morning, I not only understood more about an object, but about others in my group, and about myself and my place in this world.
In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire says it best: “Finally, true dialogue cannot exist unless the dialoguers engage in critical thinking—thinking which discerns an indivisible solidarity between the world and the people and admits of no dichotomy between them—thinking which perceives reality as process, as transformation, rather than as a static entity—thinking which does not separate itself from action, but constantly immerses itself in temporality without fear of the risks involved.”
While the debt ceiling crisis was happening, I sort of wondered what would happen if we could get our policymakers into a gallery in front of a work of art and engage in a dialogue. It might have ended in this, but consider this an open invitation, policymakers. Come visit us — you might be surprised by what happens.
Art Speaks. Join the Conversation.
Rachel Trinkley, Educator for Docent Programs