Can you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Elisa Mosele and I’m an English teacher and volunteer docent at Verona Minor Hierusalem from Verona, Italy. I joined the Visible Thinking Membership in September 2020 to learn about using the Visible Thinking in the Museum method in my work and practice. The VT Membership is exactly what I’ve been looking for (perhaps unconsciously) – with the Visible Thinking in the Museum Online course, all the masterclass and the connections and inspiration from other members from around the world. It is so useful both for my job as a teacher and my work as a volunteer docent.
Can you provide some background information to the session?
I have recently started a collaboration with the foundation I volunteer for, Verona Minor Hierusalem and I am now in charge of designing and organising their educational offering. In the past four years we have opened three itineraries for a total of 17 churches. Most of these churches are off the beaten path and they are all little gems, either for their history, or for the art they hold.
We can count on about 400 volunteers between greeters, docents and art experts. We have a small theatre group and we organise lots of cultural activities for all ages. Because of the COVID-19 epidemic, all of the churches were closed between March and September 2020. We reopened in October, only to close two weeks later, at the beginning of November…
What was the initial idea?
Here’s where Visible Thinking comes into play! To keep the spirit of the foundation alive whilst the churches are closed, I had the idea of organising some online visual thinking sessions for our volunteers using artworks from our churches paired with thinking routines from Visible Thinking. I thought it would be a great way of keeping them involved, and, at the same time, showing them a different way of looking at paintings, sculpture and architecture. The idea was received with lots of enthusiasm by the management team, but I also had my concerns because the majority of our volunteers are retirees in their 60s and 70s, and are very traditional in their approaches to how they look at and talk about art and architecture.
Can you tell me about the session in detail?
After some initial trials, we launched the session a few weeks ago. We used Zoom and divided the session in two parts: a 40-minute discussion-based session with thinking routines led by me and a 40-minute session dedicated to art history and art and spirituality. The second part of the program turned out to be the perfect complement to the discussion-based session.
We had chosen a fairly complex artwork: the Martyrdom of St George by Paolo Veronese, the most important work of art in the churches that we manage. It’s a beautiful painting, huge and full of details. It’s also extremely well-known by the participants – something that concerned me slightly before the session.
I chose the See-Think-Wonder routine. From the trial sessions, I knew that the hardest part was making participants understand the difference between ‘seeing’ and ‘interpreting’, so I needed to make sure my instructions were crystal clear.
As the painting is large and detailed, I focused solely on the bottom half (the canvas is already naturally divided in two registers – heaven and earth). Then, I divided the bottom part into two sections: I first showed the left 1/3 on the left of the painting using the See-Think-Wonder thinking routine and then repeated the process with the other 2/3.
How did the session go?
The participants were really enthusiastic and we had a great turn-out – with the majority of the team leaders in attendance. They worked well together and even managed to forget that they already knew the painting well. As all the participants already knew this painting really well, instructions were crucial.
I first told them that this wasn’t a “guess the name of the painting” game, then I told them to try and forget everything they already knew about it and to look at it as if they were looking for the first time. I explained the difference between ‘describing’ and ‘interpreting’ and I shared this as an example:
“Instead of saying ‘the woman is looking towards heaven as a symbol of salvation’ use ‘I see a woman with her eyes turned upwards’
And they were great. Almost all of them understood the difference between describing and interpreting and they were able to notice an incredible amount of details (some myself I had never noticed before).
I loved their surprise at seeing things they had never noticed before and how easy it was to form new hypotheses different to the ‘story’ they had learnt to tell about the theme in the painting.
The second part of the session worked really well, too. I had instructed my young colleagues to note down the participants’ comments and wonderings during my session, and to start from those. And they did this perfectly, saying the names of the people who had made the contribution and building on their ideas and questions. Elena basically answered their wonderings about art and Elisa their questions about meanings and spirituality.
At the end we used Mentimeter to conduct a quick survey and then asked them to write two adjectives to describe the experience, so that Mentimeter could create a word cloud. Some of the words were: engaging, stimulating, innovative, interesting, like a breath of fresh air, to be repeated, surprising, exciting, new, a very beautiful experience, unique, and more besides.
What did you learn?
I was really surprised to find out in the trials that participants found it difficult to ‘describe’ what they saw, and not ‘interpret’. I told them to write down ten things they saw, and after a minute some of them had only noted down two or three items. An older gentleman even said “But I can’t do that, I don’t know how to describe!”, and he sounded really desperate.
At that point, I was worried that they wouldn’t enjoy the experience, but in the end, they surprised me. They had actually loved it, even if they were a bit flabbergasted by their inability to really see things. They told me it had been an eye-opener.
From all of the sessions I learned that clear instructions are so important. Share examples to make them understand what they need to do and model the kind of responses you want.
Secondly, I had prepared a lot of open-ended questions, but I didn’t really use all of them because I was afraid of intruding into their observations and reasoning. So, less is more. Give participants time to look and to think and then to respond. You don’t need to keep following up with question after question.
I also really need to work on time management (it went on for longer than planned). And I need to be better organised about sharing files as I messed up my folders and I couldn’t find an image I wanted to share. I usually pride myself on being a tech whiz, so this just goes to show that you should never be overconfident!
And, last, I learned about patience. You need to be patient at all times.
So, what now?
The best outcome is that the team leaders are now asking for another session. I think this will be the first of a long series of virtual discussion-based thinking routine sessions. We also keep receiving positive feedback from the participants. More than one described the experience as ‘moving‘.
We had a short meeting today to decide what to do now. Those who participated last time – the team leaders – are asking for a new session with a different artwork, but we also want to repeat the first session with the volunteers and there are around 300 of them, divided into 17 teams.
This ‘cultural volunteering‘ that the volunteers do means so much to them and it’s such a shame that they can’t meet visitors and share their knowledge at the moment. So, for now, we will continue to offer these virtual sessions. I think that, now, with all the churches closed for the pandemic, it is crucial to keep them motivated and engaged. And what’s better than offering them an appointment with art – art they consider their own!
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