About Merilee Mostov

Merilee Mostov is Director of Inclusive Intrepretation for Columbus Museum of Art.

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.


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.








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.


Like the Coffee Shop


What brings you to the art museum?

Jordan, a communications major at OSU, comes here to do her homework.

I happened upon Jordan one recent weekday afternoon. Spread out on a table near the Palette Express Café, Jordan was working quietly while enjoying the view of Derby Court. Her sketchbooks bulged with giant shapes – cones and cylinders – as she tackled assignments for her beginning drawing class.

Jordan searched for the right place to work this day, “someplace other than a coffee shop.”   She settled on CMA – a perfect spot to think, relax, and draw.

We’re happy she came.

We like to know that our beautiful building and art-filled galleries are not merely visited, but used. That is why, in addition to great works of art, we’ve loaded our galleries with comfortable seating – tables, sofas, and chairs.  Like the local coffee shop, we have free WI-FI, dark roast, and a slightly exotic Jungle Love on most days.  Like the coffee shop we are a community space where you can gather to socialize with friends and co-workers.  Like the coffee shop we’re just the right spot to temporarily escape from chores, routine, and traffic. Like the coffee shop, we’ve got quieter times that are perfect for writing and reflection, as well as busy periods that are great for people-watching.

A trip to CMA doesn’t have to be a once-a-year pilgrimage.  Yes, we encourage you to take time to ponder some of the great works of art we have on view.  But we welcome you to realize other ways to use our spaces too.   Looking for an inspiring place to brainstorm with your co-workers? Think CMA.  In the mood to jumpstart your creativity, play a game, do a puzzle?  Check out CMA.  Need a place to unwind on your lunch break? Stop by CMA.

More and more I encounter people like Jordan who have discovered that CMA is a local treasure, not just because we have great art, but because we’re just the right place to spend an afternoon.  We’re kind of like your local coffee shop, but well, with a better view… and more.

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