About Merilee Mostov

Merilee Mostov is the Chief Engagement Officer for CMA

Dear CMA Visitors

Dear CMA visitors,

I want to properly recognize your valuable contributions to our museum. Because of you, inspired visitor, CMA not only showcases the creative output of established artists, but also reflects the imagination, ingenuity, and attitudes of our community.


Thank you, CMA visitors, for sharing your ideas and talents during your visit.  And thank you for trusting us with your creations:

  • your elaborate twist-tie sculptures
  • your ingenious bird nests
  • your drawings
  • your experiments with paper and tape
  • your ideas
  • your musings
  • your thoughtful comments squeezed onto one 3”post-it note
  • your point of view

Your ideas matter.  They matter to me and they matter to other visitors.


Do you ever wonder why CMA galleries look a little different than most other art museum galleries?  It’s because of you.  At CMA, we design exhibitions so that you and other interested visitors can experiment, make, and do.  And we incorporate places where you can share your opinions, investigations, and creations alongside those of great artists and art scholars.  Perhaps you noticed that many visitors (and CMA staff) spend time perusing the comments and creations posted by you and others.  Your thoughtful contributions shape our exhibitions.

Thanks to you, intrepid visitor, CMA is a hub for community-generated, crowd-sourced creativity and critical thinking every day.


See, Think, Wonder


This month I spent time lingering near a favorite sculpture currently on view at CMA.  Back of Kelly by Evan Penny is a contemporary work that captivates visitor attention.  In fact, it kind of freaks people out which is why they congregate near it, contorting their faces and scrutinizing it from different angles.

“That’s weird!”

“It looks like a hologram.”

“Is that real hair?”

These are some remarks I heard this month as people cautiously leaned in to get a better look at this quasi-realistic sculpture.  I engaged several visitors in conversation about the work using a laidback version of a strategy called See, Think, Wonder.  I learned about this method from my colleagues who work with teachers and schools.

See, Think, Wonder,   developed by Harvard educators, is “a routine for exploring works of art and other interesting things.”  Although the technique was developed to use with K-12 students, it is useful for curious learners of all ages.  What I like about this approach is that it empowers people to exercise critical thinking skills to make sense of an object. It is always useful and interesting to discover the background information about a work, but some of the potential meaning of a work lies within our grasp.  The Harvard approach encourages people to trust their own eyes, their personal knowledge and life experience, and their curiosity when pondering an “interesting thing.”

Seeing is the first step.  That means taking time to pay attention to what is visible to the eye.  This step sounds obvious, perhaps, but in our fast-paced, overstimulated environments, it is very easy to miss something obvious.  This step reminds us that we have to make time to look before we can expect to understand. In the case of Back of Kelly, I didn’t need to prompt visitors to stop and observe; this quirky sculpture beacons from across the room.  Visitors gathered close, their faces betraying their bewilderment.  Many visitors squished their faces up against the wall trying to see the back side of the sculpture.

Evan Penny

“Look at the wrinkles on his ear.  I think I see a hole for an earring that has grown in.”

“See that eyelash!”

“I see evidence of his age – the moles, gray hairs, age spots.”

“It looks real, but the size is off; it’s larger than real life, unless he is a really big man.”

Thinking is the next step. Thinking means making sense of what we see based on reason, analysis, and inferences.  When I asked visitors, “What do you think about it?” they offered contrasting, but equally thoughtful responses.

“He looks like he’s ready to do something. He’s naked — maybe he’s off to the shower.  But if we tapped him on the shoulder, I think he would turn around and be surprised to see us.”

“His shoulders are slumped in a way that makes me think he is sad and not smiling.”

The youngest visitor I spoke to was Jacob. His insight shed a different light on the conversation. “I don’t think he is sad.  I think he is smiling because if you look at his left cheek you see it is sticking out the way it would look if he was smiling.”  Jacob’s mother, Tami, chimed in, “Or, he could be eating something. Maybe he’s sitting in his boxers eating breakfast.”

Wondering is often the most thrilling part of these conversations.  Great works of art frequently present more questions than answers. Back of Kelly definitely generates many questions.


“I wonder what his face looks like.”

“I wonder if he knows we are here or if he is confused about where he is.”

“I wonder why the artist made him like this….with just his back to us so that we can’t know what his expression is.” 

Seeing, thinking, and wondering with others about a work of art always leads to provocative conversation.  And the best part is, everyone has a voice.  Everyone can join in.

Try it next time you visit CMA!  And who knows, maybe I will be lingering nearby to join in your conversation.

Thank you to the many thoughtful and imaginative visitors who took time to see, think, and wonder with me about Back of Kelly.  Thank you Julian, Chynna, Dianne, Kaven, Tami, Jacob, and especially biology student Olivia who left me more curious about silicone and the human body.

Getting to the “Point”

Pointing in the Big Idea Color Gallery

Since I’ve been photographing visitors at CMA, I have noticed a great deal of pointing going on.  Our visitors point at paintings and sculptures.  They point from across the room; they point up close. And I notice that some people don’t look too favorably at this activity – which is unfortunate.

Pointing is a good thing in an art museum.  It is visible evidence of other, often indiscernible, activities such as looking and thinking, sharing and communicating.

Pointing in CMA's Matthew Brandt photography exhibition.

Pointing in CMA’s Matthew Brandt photography exhibition.

Since the early 1970s, psychologists, anthropologists, and linguists around the world have been studying the pointing gesture of humans and other primates. Their research is detailed and complex.  But here is what I take away from it.

Pointing is not such a simple gesture.  In fact, it is a complex and nuanced form of human communication.  Other primates may point, but they don’t have the capacity to point with the same motivation and intention that humans do. Pointing is one feature of our advanced language and communication.

Starting as early as one year of age, pointing is the way one human being tells another, “Hey, see that object over there? That is the thing I am talking about. That is something I have a thought, idea, or opinion about.  And I want to share my thought, idea, or opinion with you.  So please look at it with me.”

In her paper Pragmatics of Imperative and Declarative Pointing, Ingar Brinck notes that pointing is important because “it provides a starting-point for cooperation centered on the shared object.” This is an important finding for art museums.  Why?  Because we are in theobject conversation business.  We collect and care for art objects so that human beings, not chimps or dogs or aliens, can look, think, and talk about them.  At CMA, we endorse this purpose with a memorable tagline:  Art Speaks, Join the Conversation.

A family works on a puzzle in the Big Idea Gallery: COLOR.

A family works on a puzzle in the Big Idea Gallery: COLOR.

And so I take heart when I walk through our galleries and witness pointing in action; I take notes, I snap photos.  I know that conversation is underway or just about to begin.

Pointing is a good thing.


Artists Invoke Wonder at CMA


Eight Columbus artists contributed their talents, skills, and imagination to help us inspire awe and promote a spirit of play in the new Wonder Room.

We are proud and delighted that these artists took a risk along with us, that they shared our passion for the peculiar and the uncanny; that they embraced our vision for this quirky gallery that merges surprise and mystery, play and great art.

It feels really good to be part of this community of artists who are working on this special project. To be valued by the Museum as an artist, is great!” - Susie Underwood, Columbus artist, pictured above                                                     

Early in the planning my colleague and collaborator Jeff Sims and I made a decision to partner with local artists for this project. Why? Because we value the way artists think, imagine possibilities, and take risks.  And we value the depth of creative talent right here in Columbus. We believed that with local artists we could orchestrate just the right mix of eccentricity, wonder, and play.

These talented artists did not disappoint. Their diverse creations are critical to the unique Wonder Room experience. When you visit the space, you will discover:

  • a life-size, mixed-media Tree of Wonder by Zepher Potrafka
  • five meticulous, miniature installations created by Susie Underwood,Caitlin Lynch, and Sharon Dorsey
  • many phantasmagoric costumes designed and handmade by Heidi Kambitsch of Openheartcreatures
  • a captivating graffiti wall painted by Giovanni Santiago
  • an inventive Storytelling Adventure Game designed and hand-painted by Brian R. Williams
  • the most wondrous Spalted Maple Looking Glass and Marked By installations by Dorothy Gill Barnes
Artist by Brian R. Williams

Storytelling Adventure Game by Artist Brian R. Williams

Some of these creations are designed to be touched, manipulated, and played with.  Others – more fragile works of art – are placed strategically in places where visitors will discover them, unexpectedly. Their magic is experienced by peeking and looking and marveling.

Miniature Installation by Artist Dorothy Gill Barnes

Artist Dorothy Gill Barnes

Since the Wonder Room re-opened in December, I have been observing, conversing, and playing with many visitors in the space. I witnessed two adult woman engrossed for more than an hour with the Storytelling Adventure Game.  I gather countless visitor drawings of the Tree of Wonder.  And most recently, I watched as a very young boy bounced from one miniature installation to another with glee –pointing, remarking, and then very purposefully, photographing them.

Wonder Room installation at Columbus Museum of Art

Young boy photographs installation by Susie Underwood

If you haven’t had a chance to visit the newly designed Wonder Room, I encourage you to make time to check it out. Discover for yourself the awe-inspiring creativity hatched right here in Columbus.

The New Wonder Room: Icing on the Cake


“Hi, what are you doing?” I whispered as I crouched, on hands and knees, under the treehouse.

“We’re imagining there’s a troll living up there in the treehouse,” Marina shared.  “We’re the elves.”

“Elves are nice,” added Pilar.

I smiled and joined in the creative play with Lorena and her two daughters Marina and Pilar.  Together we wondered about the ambiguous glass sculpture.  Is it a girl or boy?  Is it human or elfin?  We pretended to be mermaids climbing rocks; we stacked up piles of bamboo stones. And then, Lorena and the girls crawled away to spy on the “mean troll” living in the tree house.

The Wonder Room is back in business.

After five hectic weeks of demolition and transformation, the Wonder Room is open again. Chock-full of birds and bats, trees and mysterious creatures, this experimental gallery now flaunts a woodland theme with all new hands-on activities and an eclectic selection of art.  Curious visitors of all ages braved cold and ice to come out and play with us last month during the Wonder Room preview weeks.

Lorena and her two daughters played for hours.


Daniel, Susan, and Shirley also came to check it out.  When I met this trio, they were huddled around the tree stumps, contemplating their progress.  Their goal:  to build an arched branch — one that would span both tree stumps — using the large cardboard pieces.  Susan played the role of a human support beam while Daniel experimented with different pieces to make the structure sturdy.  Shirley offered advice from the sidelines.

As always, I relished chatting and collaborating with these and other CMA families.  As always, I observed and documented some of their conversations and actions.  As always, I looked for evidence of collaboration and creativity in action.

Situated in the very heart of the Center for Creativity, the Wonder Room is intentionally designed to foster and provoke creativity.  But creativity, we know, is like a gargantuan, multi-tiered cake; we don’t expect to take in the entire confection at one sitting.  Instead we pick away at the layers at different times in different ways.  The Wonder Room takes a big bite out of the tiers of curiosity, imagination, experimentation, and storytelling. 

To set the stage for these creative experiences, we made countless intentional design decisions to promote creative play – play inspired by unexpected discovery and exploration, play that allows for experimentation and mess-making, and play that is prompted by sharing stories, make-believe, and imaginings.

What I first noticed about Lorena and Daniel’s families is their intuitive and urgent drive to play – to invent, to explore, to experiment, to pretend.  From across the room I first watched as Lorena and her family crawled into the dark crevices under the treehouse, discovered the sleeping sculpture, and took off on their adventure.  From afar I watched Daniel, his mother and girlfriend, make bird nests, draw trees, and then, set out to build the marvelous arched tree.

For good reason, there are very few signs in the gallery currently.  I’ve learned that people don’t seem to notice signs in museums, so I spent the first few weeks watching and listening to determine what kind of signs visitors of all ages would need to encourage their creative play — to give them permission to play.

I admit that even I am surprised at how much imagining, experimenting, and storytelling has erupted spontaneously here already.  And for me, that is the icing on the cake.








People’s Choice Awards

People's Choice

I’ve been thinking lately about the music industry People’s Choice Awards.  In all honesty, I can’t say that I follow them. I can’t reliably name any recipient of recent awards, although I could probably guess a few names based on media banter.  But the possibility of a people’s choice award in an art museum intrigues me.  And even knowing that the very concepts of high art and people’s choice are somewhat incongruous, I set out this week to bring them together. A perfect opportunity presented for an impromptu people’s choice experiment at CMA.  And I took advantage.

The focus of my people’s choice experiment was the objects in the large glass wall adjacent to the Wonder Room. The Wonder Room is currently closed for a makeover and will re-open with much fanfare on December 14.  To align with the mysterious forest theme of this gallery, the objects in the glass wall will change, too.

Prior to the Thanksgiving weekend, we placed a selection of some of these objects on the floor of the glass case. Our designer included a sign indicating that this is an installation in process.

What a perfect chance to discover what our visitors like, what catches their eye, what piques their curiosity! I thought.

On Saturday, I approached several enthusiastic visitors for my experiment.  The delightful family pictured here was visiting from Columbus, Indiana.  “It’s just a three-hour drive so it makes a good day trip,” said father Sandeep.  Perfect, I beamed.  Any family who is willing to drive 3 hours to visit our museum deserves to be counted in my experiment.

Sandeep’s family favored a Lalique scarab vase, a Paul Manship bronze of Diana, and a sinuous Lino glass sculpture. Check.  Those 3 works will make the final cut. Mother Sangeeta and daughter Meghali were especially curious about the story behind the bronze sculpture.  Sangeeta wondered if I plan to share information and stories about the works.  Sandeep suggested creating an app with more information.  Duly noted.  The “people” want some context and stories about the objects.

What I discovered in my brief, impromptu experiment is not entirely surprising.  The jaw-dropping Lino sculpture is a definite people’s choice winner.  But so is the quirky bird sculpture that, as one visitor described it, looks like a cat who stumbled upon a guard dog.  I learned that visitors like the beauty and the beast; they’re captivated by what is stunning and they’re fascinated by the quirky and the peculiar.

We’ll be putting the final touches on the glass wall this week and next.  And, thanks to several obliging visitors, it will reflect some of the people’s choice.

The “F” Word

Fun at Columbus Museum of Art

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend at art museums.   We get all pinched-faced, sweaty-palmed, and somewhat defensive when we hear the “f” word.  I’m not talking about the four-letter word that rhymes with duck.  I’m talking about the 3- letter word that rhymes with run.

I’m talking about fun.

We don’t like it.  We’re uncomfortable with it.  When the very word is mentioned a chill sweeps through the air.  Eyes begin to bat involuntarily and dormant nervous twitches are inconsolable.

I admit that this repulsion to fun is entirely lost on me.  Perhaps I missed that initiation ritual.

I imagine that entombed in one of the matriarchal museums far from here hides a dusty code of ethics for art museums.  It most certainly outlines the sound reasons to banish all evidence of fun from our cavernous and echo-filled galleries.  I imagine that a group of early directors sporting powdered wigs did a pinky swear outlawing fun forever.

But from where I sit, this clandestine pinky swear could be the downfall of art museums in the 21st century.  Why?  Because fun is exactly the reason that many of our visitors, at least here at CMA,  come to our doors.

Visitors like Alexis and Thomas. This young couple spent several hours last Friday exploring CMA together.

When I first encountered them, I posed the same question I ask all visitors, “So, what brings you to the museum today.”  Alexis and Thomas looked at each other quizzically, then responded in unison, “Fun, just for fun.”

This twosome is not unusual.  Based on myriad conversations I have with visitors each week, they are not outliers or especially freakish, boorish or uneducated.  In fact, they are quite smart and sophisticated.

Both are juniors at OSU. Thomas studies marketing; Alexis is a nursing student and works part-time at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

But like so many of our visitors, they have limited free time each week, and this week they were looking for a place to spend some enjoyable time together.  They chose the art museum.  Shocking, isn’t it?  Let’s review the irony here.  Art museums have a veritable code against fun. We avoid it like the plague; we have a visceral reaction to it.  Yet, many visitors come here in search of its captivating embrace.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.  Because, unlike many other art museums, CMA has welcomed the “f” word.  In fact, FUN was adopted as one of our brand qualities years ago.

Of course, fun means something different to everyone.  So, being curious, I checked in with Alexis and Thomas several times during their visit.  I was curious about how they spent their time at CMA.  I was curious what fun looked like to this handsome and smart young couple.

When I asked Alexis what she liked best about her visit she said,

“I just like playing with things.  When it’s hands-on, I like it more.  It’s way more interesting.”  She told me that standing to look at painting after painting on the wall can get tedious.  She preferred the many hands-on activities around the museum. Already, I spotted the couple making designs with colored paper, collaborating on a puzzle, and building with LEGO bricks.  Alexis also pointed out the watercolor drawing she made earlier.

The art museum founding fathers would no doubt look at all of these activities disapprovingly.  If they were alive today, I would reassure them that at CMA fun is not a roadblock to thinking and noteworthy conversation. (For example, Thomas and I had a delightful chat about Maslow’s theory on people’s hierarchy of needs.) Fun doesn’t blind us from our aesthetic sensibilities or destroy our cognitive functions.  It isn’t toxic or poison.

Fun is a tool for the curious.
Fun can reinvigorate the obscure, the lackluster, the mundane.
Fun doesn’t corrode our values, but can add more value to our experience.

Fun is what lured Alexis and Thomas to our museum last Friday.  So, from where I sit, if we want to continue to attract bright, young people like them to our doors, we need to shatter that misguided pinky-swear promise and start designing for FUN.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.

Wishing for Wonder

the first wonder room at columbus museum of art

The first generation of the Wonder Room closed last Sunday.  On Monday we removed the Calder mobile and the giant Balkenhol Head.  We boxed up the dowel rods, dishes, and animal parts.  We tore down the Fort.  In a few weeks the space will re-open with an entirely new look – new art, new activities, new furnishings.

It’s hard to believe that the Wonder Room has been open for nearly 3 years.  It’s also hard not to be nostalgic as we pack up.

I have often said that the Wonder Room is a testament to the maxim “watch what you wish for.” Five years ago, we dared to wish for a different kind of gallery in our new Center for Creativity.   We wished for a space that provokes visitors of all ages to be curious, to imagine, to play.  We wished for a place where families with children could engage together. We wished for a gallery that was not business-as-usual – a slightly quirky and unpredictable space that breaks the rules about how an art museum should look.

Some people were skeptical.  Some said that we would not attract families.  Some could not imagine the promise of great art mixed with a quirky dark room, funky floors, and recycled kitchen utensils.

To be honest, we knew that we were taking a big risk.  We knew all along that this new experiment could fail.

But it didn’t.

When we opened the doors to the Wonder Room on January 1, 2011, we never anticipated its success and popularity. But since that day, the Wonder Room pulsed with activity.  Families lingered for hours.  Teenagers gathered.  Engineers attending a workshop spent their lunch hour building with wood dowels and rubber bands.  On more than one occasion, I witnessed a parent escorting a frenzied child screaming, “But I don’t want to leave the art museum!”

What I have learned along the way is that although we can’t ever assume or dictate what visitors do here, we can set the stage to foster certain types of experiences.  We can make intentional decisions to invite curiosity and exploration.  We can make design decisions that coax visitors of all ages to imagine and create. Although we did not design the Wonder Room specifically for young children, it was 2 year-old Mason, pictured here, who recently taught me the most about wonder and discovery.

Five years ago, we wished for a special gallery that promotes imagination and play. And here is what I have learned:   Watch what you wish for, because if you dream, plan, and take risks, it just may happen.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.

[Please note: The Wonder Room is closed for reimagining while we transform it into a magical forest with woodland creatures. It will be back January 2 (but CMA members can enjoy sneak-preview visits from December 14 until the public reopening). Join now and see it first at a special member preview on December 14.]

Family Ties

Families at Columbus Museum of Art

When families discover Columbus Museum of Art for the first time, they’re often surprised and delighted.

I met this endearing family during their very first visit to CMA this fall. “We didn’t know the art museum had so many things for families to do!” Grandma exclaimed.

I hear this sentiment often.  To be fair, I get it.  I admit that an art museum is not the first place that comes to mind for family fun.  But Columbus Museum of Art is not your typical art museum.

At CMA, we welcome families.  Yes, even families with children.  In recent years we have made several deliberate changes to provide a more family-friendly experience.  When parents and grandparents are looking for a great place to explore, play, and learn together, they can count on us.

We know that families come in all shapes and sizes with different interests, skills, and needs.  And we recognize there are many things we can do to make families feel more comfortable, valued, and engaged here.  So at CMA we have made thoughtful choices to provide:

  • open-ended, hands-on activities for all ages
  • comfortable places to sit, talk, and play together
  • simple signage and instructions
  • friendly, helpful staff
  • a  new Family Comfort Room, a quiet place to nurse, feed, or change diapers

We believe that, with careful planning and consideration, an art museum can be a perfect place for families to come together to share, imagine, and play.

When I met Grandma, Papa, Joseph and Judah (pictured here) in the Big Idea Gallery last month, they rattled off a list of their adventures – making an airplane with  white LEGOS at the imagine the possibilities space, creating forts and mixed-up animals in the Wonder Room.

Grandma just gathered the family to work on a large puzzle of a painting.  She challenged Judah, her youngest grandson, to find the red pieces.  With determination, Judah scanned the jumble of jigsaw shapes, plucked one out, searched the painting on the wall, and proudly handed it to his grandmother.  “Look Grandma. I found this red one.  It goes there.” He pointed to the exact spot in the painting that matched his piece. Together they made a place for it on the table.

In the meantime, Joseph cozied up to a table nearby pilled with colorful blocks and proceeded to build an intricate tower. Papa bounced back and forth between the two tables, helping out here, dishing out encouragement there.

Perhaps the best part of my job is the chance to meet families like this one, to share in their enthusiasm and glee and to witness their discovery of an art museum that champions families.

Please note: The Wonder Room will be closed for reimagining starting November 4. We’ll be transforming the Wonder Room into a magical forest with woodland creatures. Join now and see it first at a special member preview on December 14.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.


Day of Play

Day of Play

Last Saturday Raeanne brought her family to the museum to play.  CMA hummed that day with the 2nd Annual Global Day of Play Cardboard Challenge.  Raeanne (left), her family, and friends accepted the challenge with gusto.

If you aren’t already familiar with the Imagination Foundation and the inspiration for this yearly Cardboard Challenge, check out the compelling story here.

Armed with mountains of cardboard, masking tape, and utility knives, CMA visitors were challenged this year to “design for the future.”  I stumbled upon Raeanne and her family knee deep in cardboard.  Sophia (arm raised), Raeanne’s 8 year-old daughter, was the mastermind behind the construction project – a  5-foot futuristic convertible car.  But, the whole family took part in the making, including Nana who drove in from Newark to join in the weekend “cultural” activities.  While Sophia worked on the wheels, Nana and Yohannan (back) worked on the chassis.

Fresh off the soccer fields, the family already had a busy morning.  Yet, they heard about the Cardboard Challenge from Sophia’s school, and made time to schedule creative play into their Saturday.  Their friends Rhonda, Alexa, and Alia came later to join in the fun.

It sounds silly, somehow, to have to make time to play.  Our harried, overprotected, overstimulated, 21st century lives, don’t often allow enough space and time for play and its muses — imagination, curiosity, and wonder. At the Columbus Museum of Art, we celebrate creativity.  And we believe that play — with all its variations and disguises, its labels, classifications, and complexities — is essential to creativity and innovation.

Play is notoriously difficult to define.  While it has a reputation for the frivolous, juvenile, and inconsequential, play can also be intense, purposeful and momentous.

Varied educational and scientific research of the last 60+ years confirms that play is critical to the cognitive, social, and emotional development of animals from polar bears to chimps to humans.  And some of the greatest artistic and scientific minds of the last century attribute their successes and achievements to play. (See Sparks of Genius by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein)

I was delighted to meet two smart moms, Raeanne and Rhonda (right), who value play for their families — who make time for the structure of sports and art lessons in the morning, but allow for something else – the time for everyone in the family to consider, construct, and prototype a car for the future.

Visitors Stories and Conversations is a biweekly blog series highlighting the stories behind many of our delightful visitors.