In this episode of the Art Engager podcast, host Claire Bown sits down with Ruth Slavin, Corinne Zimmermann, and Ray Williams, the authors behind the new book “Activating the Art Museum: Designing Experiences for the Health Professions.”
In this conversation, Ruth, Corinne, and Ray share their motivations for writing this unique book, even in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.
We discuss why art museums can be a game-changer for healthcare professionals and how analysing art critically can positively impact the field of medicine.
You get a peek into their methods and frameworks, like Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), and we’ll walk through the details of what a gallery experience looks like from start to finish.
We explore how engaging with art can make healthcare workers more empathetic, improve teamwork, and combat bias in healthcare.
We also touch on the calming and therapeutic aspects of art museums, the role of mindfulness in healthcare, and how everyone involved in healthcare – from professionals to patients – can benefit from art experiences.
This is an episode you won’t want to miss! Join us as we discuss “Designing Art Museum Experiences for Healthcare Professionals” and uncover the powerful connection between art and wellbeing in healthcare. Listen to the episode or read the transcript below.
Harvard Macy Institute’s Art Museum-based Health Professions Education Fellowship: https://harvardmacy.org/courses/museum
Training our Eyes, Minds and Hearts: Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) for Healthcare Professionals: https://cmecatalog.hms.harvard.edu/course/training-our-eyes-minds-and-hearts-visual-thinking-strategies-health-care-professionals
Claire Bown: Hello and welcome to The Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. I’m here to share techniques and tools to help you engage with your audience and bring art, objects and ideas to life. So let’s dive into this week’s show.
Hello and welcome back to The Art Engager podcast. I’m your host, Claire Bown of Thinking Museum, and this is Episode 113. So I’ve been looking forward to sharing today’s episode with you all. I’m talking to Ruth Slavin, Corinne Zimmerman and Ray Williams about their book Activating the Art Museum. We’re exploring today how to design and facilitate museum experiences for healthcare professionals. But before that, in the last episode, I spoke to Sam Bowen about special educational needs and disabilities or SEND in museums. Sam shares a wealth of practical advice on how museums can become more SEND friendly and embed more SEND inclusion in their work and programs.
This episode is full of actionable tips and great advice. So do go and listen to Episode 112 if you haven’t already. And do make use of the back catalogue of The Art Engager podcast. With over 100 episodes, this podcast is a great resource. But it’s also quite an undertaking. It takes hours of work. Every week to ensure that new episodes are designed, edited and released.
So this show relies on your support to keep going. So if you’re able to support the show in any way, I’d be very grateful. Go to buymeacoffee.com/Claire Bown. I’ll put a link in the show notes. And you can also help this podcast reach more people by leaving a review, sharing with your friends, or by sharing, liking, and commenting on my social media feeds.
So thank you for all your support since we started. So let’s get on with today’s show. First, let me introduce my three guests. Ruth Slavin has over three decades of leadership in art museums and most recently served as Deputy Director for Education at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. She has pioneered collaborations with medical faculties designing gallery experiences and courses for healthcare professionals focusing on empathy, ambiguity in medicine, personal narratives and mindfulness. As Director of Education at Harvard Art Museums and later at the Blanton Museum of Art, Ray Williams has built strong partnerships with medical educators and clinicians.
Ray’s work in museum settings emphasises Teamwork, empathic communication, spirituality, and well being, with a special focus on supporting clinicians with dealing with grief and loss. And my third guest, Corinne Zimmerman, has been a museum educator for 30 years and currently runs her own consultancy designing tailored training and workshops for healthcare and business organizations.
Her expertise includes communication improvement, leadership development, empathy cultivation, bias mitigation, and wellbeing promotion. She co directs the Harvard Macy Institute’s Art Museum Based Health Professions Education Fellowship and co-founded VTS@Work offering interprofessional training in Visual Thinking Strategies.
Today, we’re discussing their book, Activating the Art Museum, Designing Experiences for the Health Professions. This is a groundbreaking book in all senses of the word. It is literally the first book on the subject of designing and facilitating art museum experiences for the development and well being of health care professionals.
Ruth, Corinne and Ray share powerful stories in this book alongside vivid descriptions of museum activities. The book explores a variety of themes such as empathy, teamwork, confronting bias, the power of story, caring for the spirit, being and mindfulness. So in today’s conversation, Ruth, Corinne and Ray explain why they’ve written a book about designing museum experiences for healthcare professionals, and the challenges of writing a book during the COVID 19 pandemic.
They discuss why art museums are a great fit for supporting healthcare and how thinking critically about art can help in medicine. They share some of their methods and frameworks such as Visual Thinking Strategies or VTS and different ideas from different medical experts and walk us through some detailed descriptions of gallery experiences from start to finish. They also talk about how art helps people become more empathetic, work better in teams and combat bias in healthcare. The conversation covers the comfort and peace art museums offer, the advantages of mindfulness in healthcare and how everyone That’s healthcare workers, patients, and the healthcare field can benefit from art experiences.
You won’t want to miss this conversation. Here it is. Hi Ruth, Ray and Corinne. Welcome to The Art Engager podcast.
Corinne Zimmerman: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
Claire Bown: It’s the first time we’ve had three guests on the podcast. We’ll have full bios for everyone in the show notes, but I first want to thank Diane Tucker for bringing us all together.
She sent me an email a while back, introduced me to all of you. and your wonderful book, ‘Activating the Art Museum’, which is what I’d love to talk about today. It’s an amazing book. It’s about designing museum experiences for the health professions. It’s the first book, I believe, on the subject as well, and it’s a great resource for museum educators, and so many others as well who are interested in the healthcare professions and art. You share so much golden advice, so many tips, so many tools, but let’s start at the beginning. So perhaps we could start by talking about what inspired you to co author this book about your journey in designing these experiences for the health professions.
Ray Williams: Okay, we are all experienced museum educators who have maintained a strong commitment and focus on object based teaching. And we’ve also retained a lot of curiosity and energy for trying new things. And we’ve known each other for many years. And we found ourselves deeply immersed in collaborations with partners from the health professions.
Some of the pioneering work in terms of partnerships between art museums and medical schools had really focused on what you might call the art of observation. And a lot of programs were using VTS and really it was quite easy, I think, for physicians to understand why an art museum was a great place to practice those critical skills of observation.
But we found ourselves moving into activities designed to support empathic communication, to use the museum as an environment for professional reflection. In terms of why do we want to write a book, we just felt, oh, we are exploring some new territory and we are aware of some of the barriers to this kind of responsive teaching, which is not primarily grounded in the discipline of art history, that there are barriers both within art museums and our traditional ways of working and within medical schools with their strong focus on science.
And so we felt that If we could put together a book really grounded in several years of deep experience, and a book that would have elements of persuasion that would refer in strong ways to the medical literature and what we’re learning from our partners, and also Thank you. Thank you. provide some evocative pictures of what gallery teaching looks like when you design it for these particular groups.
So we wanted to give a picture that would make a strong case for others who wanted to give it a whirl.
Claire Bown: And what struck me when we had our preliminary chat as well was that you wrote this together during the pandemic. You wrote this with all those restrictions in place, so how was that collaborating during a global pandemic?
Ray Williams: It was fun. We, in a way, We just used the gift of time and new structures to pursue this dream project. And I think many of our listeners will know that museum educators are not necessarily encouraged in supporting and publishing our work. It’s often ephemeral and on to the next thing. But in my museum, we were not working with groups for a full year.
And we had a weekly Zoom session, at least. It was usually two hours. We easily figured out what our territory was, and then we negotiated who would write which chapters, and everybody contributed to every chapter. And of course, from a writing enterprise, we have to wonder about voice and consistency.
We decided that consistency of voice was not our top priority, that we would be idiosyncratic, but without necessarily identifying the speaker, and again, we all read everybody’s work and contributed, but we had a lead author that had the final call.
In terms of why the art museum, why this environment, and I think that some of the value to is just the environment itself.
The symbolism of stepping out of the clinic, out of med school, where you have to hold yourself in a certain kind of way, where the reward is for expertise and mastering knowledge. And there’s an intense hierarchy if you’re in a clinical situation, but when you step out of that into an art museum, Nothing bad is going to happen here.
You do not have to do anything heroic and you don’t have to show your mastery of information because you get to be a beginner and we found, especially in interprofessional conversations, that in a clinical setting, maybe the medical student wouldn’t be allowed to speak at all. And maybe the nurse would be asked as an afterthought for input, but in the art museum, it leveled the playing field and everybody just got to be a smart, curious person looking with their team and trying to make meaning together. So stepping out of the clinic is important. A lot of people want us to do things with reproductions and Zoom, but we really advocate for the power and impact of stepping into a setting that is set up for beauty and ideas.
As in terms of our pedagogy, we think the sort of relaxed exploratory pace of an interpretive conversation is an inclusive process that invites everybody to participate. We mix it up with activities to keep things lively and surprising. and opportunities for play, for writing, but maybe most of all for reflection and the possibility of a psychologically safe space where people who are in very stressful situations, often dealing with death and their own sense of grief or inadequacy, they can let their guard down.
Somehow, in this different space, supported by looking at a work of art, and we found ourselves witnessing pretty profound conversations about what it’s like, and we saw the group able to offer support and solidarity with an experience that may never have been discussed in a clinical setting.
Corinne Zimmerman: We are often asked, why the art museum?
Why couldn’t this happen in a nature preserve or something like that. And yes, that’s a possibility, but I also think that the range of artworks and the possibilities of artworks, that artworks are these testaments to human experience across time and space. And they invite us to think in metaphor. So they become these very generative catalysts.
For reflection, for inviting people to talk about things that matter to them, but doing it through, in some ways, through indirection, which allows people in some ways to open themselves up a little bit more. Yeah,
Claire Bown: I love that. You’re reminding me of chapter two when you talk about thinking in the art museum as well.
And I was going to ask you, my next question was going to be about why is art good to think with. I really like that phrase that you use. Perhaps you can draw some parallels between critical thinking and art museums and its relevance in the field of medicine, the health professions as well.
Ruth Slavin: Shout out to Claude Levi Strauss for things being good to think with.
I thought that I would try to take us into the gallery a bit. And in addressing your question about what does that look like to think in the art museum? And also the issue that all of us think about, which is how to think about thinking. So to address what scholars call metacognition.
Imagine this, you’ve met up with your medical school colleagues and maybe you’ve done a warm up and you’ve walked through some beautiful spaces and by large windows in and out of light. And then you turn a corner, and you see a pile of candy, and it’s wrapped in gold wrappers, and it’s lying in a pyramid, a loose pyramid, where two gray charcoal walls meet in an L.
I get things started by asking everyone to look around. and register their first impression. Soon a few people notice, and then a few more, that there’s a label that says please take only one. Some pick up a piece of candy, some turn it over in their hand, some tuck it in a pocket. And the conversation starts quite naturally.
People start sharing questions and associations, physical reactions. And we continue in this vein together, responding, questioning, sometimes probing. I offer some basic information about the artist, Felix Gonzalez Torres, and his ways of making art. People divide into small groups at my invitation and they each get an envelope, a yellow envelope that they’ll find out later relates in some way to the artist’s story and the story of his partner.
The envelopes contain different kinds of information. I really enjoy and have been experimenting with for probably 25 years, different ways of infusing information. into conversations that don’t all come from the leader, and I’m just really intrigued by that, and I’ve just had a lot of fun with it for many years.
So inside those yellow envelopes, there’s information, depending on what group you’re in, about the AIDS epidemic, about the relationship between the artist and his beloved partner, Ross, about how the artist created many candy spills, and they had instructions that the exhibitor was supposed to invite people to take candy, but only one. And that also his instructions varied the responsibility of the exhibitor. Sometimes the exhibitors were to replenish instantly the piles as they diminished inevitably, sometimes not.
So about midway through this, I take the lead again by asking the students still in the groups to start thinking intentionally about the connections to medicine.
And we come together and they start sharing what they’ve learned and also the emotional impact of what they’ve learned. So it’s poignant, their thoughts are funny, sometimes they’re sad, they touch on diverse topics, loss. memory, mortality, patience they’ve seen, their struggles as a trainee to really see clearly and to notice what’s most important, and the rush of time across their busy days.
We come back together and I ask them to think about thinking. What’s this process been like? What’s the process of thinking like in museums? compared to the process of thinking in medicine, and they find similarities and differences. One of my favorite comments was a guy who said, ‘Yeah, it’s like rounds.
I’m thinking really hard, but I’m noticing the wrong thing”. And everyone laughed. Another person talked about their struggle to really be present for patients in crisis situations and facing loss, facing death. So there was plenty to talk about. I hope that’s given a feeling for what can happen in the museum with an enigmatic, interesting, and surprising object in particular.
And I know that threaded through this conversation will be the importance of the object we pick to work with, or the space we pick to work with. We think so carefully about that. Now I want to just do a quick gloss that’s more explicitly connecting. Issues of thinking in medicine and art. I really was inspired by a book that Jerome Grobman wrote called How Doctors Think’.
The question had dogged him throughout his career to becoming a senior physician. He felt that his students were not spending enough time with the basics, which for him were described as questioning, listening carefully, observing keenly. I hope that resonates a little bit with what I described. Any rich interpretive conversation in an art museum, it asks us to slow down, it asks us to open up, expand our thinking, listen to other people. And this encourages us to tolerate, or ideally even enjoy, a playful uncertainty and divergent thinking. It’s fun. All of a sudden, your views being countered is not an offense to your knowledge or your position.
It’s interesting. It’s fun. And that’s really, honestly, I think, how we get people. For me, there’s a close connection between a more explicit interpretive conversation and mindfulness in the museum, because the mindfulness practices that we’ve discussed are in three categories. Focused attention, anybody that’s ever done a body scan or breath work, you’ve done focused attention.
Compassion practices, also called loving kindness. But this third one really intrigued me, it’s called open awareness, and it’s the ability to have a wide angle. The way you might have at a concert where it’s not a conflict for you to hear the music sense. People think about your own emotions in response to the song.
All that happens at once and you don’t cling to any one thing. You just flow through that experience. And I have been really interested in using open awareness practices with art as a low stakes way to practice what it’s like to come into self-awareness. to have thoughts and feelings and emotions and everything arise in response to a work of art, in response to yourself, and the day you’re having, maybe you’re hungry, and then also learn how to move on, let those go, and then be able to see the whole field of things.
It just pleases me to try to connect something that can often be limited to cognition and broaden that out a little bit to the concept of mind or the concepts of awareness that we have from the Buddhist tradition and now from modern practitioners, because that’s really enjoyable to me also in the museum.
Claire Bown: Thanks, Ruth. I love the gallery description of working with the Felix Gonzalez Torres artwork. I’d love to move on to talk about strengthening interprofessional teams. Perhaps you could explain how museum based experiences can actually foster teamwork and community for the healthcare professions too.
Corinne Zimmerman: Sure,
I’d be happy to talk about that.
So throughout their careers, most health professionals will work on an interprofessional team. And Amy Edmondson, who is a leading researcher on teams at Harvard Business School, she posits that people need to learn how to be on a team. There are a set of for being on a team, and it’s not something that most people are taught.
Her research and that of others shows that the most effective teams are ones in which there’s a high degree of psychological safety, which she defines as ‘a climate of interpersonal trust, collaboration, and mutual respect’. And art museums can be really wonderful places. to practice the skills of teamwork.
They are filled with generative objects and they offer a space for teams to collaboratively work together in new ways, to pause, to reflect, and to step outside traditional roles. Hospitals are very hierarchical organizations and too often the voices of senior physicians can be privileged over others.
In the museum, we can help flatten hierarchies by designing collaborative experiences that put everyone on a level playing field and invite everyone’s participation. We like to say that no knowledge or expertise with art is required. And the museum offers what I might call ‘a third space’ where people can put that aside.
I actually think one of the most important things that we can do for teams in the museum is to help people connect with one another as human beings. To get to know one another beyond their roles by inviting them to share stories both clinical and personal. I thought it might be helpful just to offer a picture of practice because the design of the session is really important for fostering teamwork.
And generally what we do is the team comes to the museum. Some people may feel comfortable in museums. Others may feel uncomfortable in a museum. We begin with introductions, often I’ll start with something like inviting people to tell the story of their name or an aspect of their name, which already gets people laughing and learning a little bit more about each other than they might in a clinical setting.
And we provide an overview of what will happen. And in that overview, we’re beginning that process of establishing a welcoming and inclusive and nonjudgmental learning space. We let the group know that the session is designed to help them reflect on their work together as a team and that we’re going to engage in a process of doing and then reflecting.
Sometimes I let them know that the activities might feel surprising, but I encourage everyone to participate, it’s most meaningful, relevant, and fun when everyone’s willing to jump in. And then we always ask them while we’re encouraging them to participate, we invite them to notice how the team is working together in this space outside of the hospital.
So once we’ve set the session up, we begin with an activity that is generally playful and surprising. One that I really like is It’s called ‘Pass the Gesture’, where we look at a work of art. Each individual creates a gesture in response to the work of art. We then stand in a circle and share our gesture with the person standing next to us, who then reflects it back to us as precisely as possible.
This is an embodied activity. It signals it will not be a traditional museum tour, and it gets everybody out of their head. Most importantly, in some ways, it sparks laughter. I have this theory that when people laugh in the beginning, they’re ready to be more open to one another and more open to some of the deeper experiences ahead.
Following the activity, we then reflect on connections to working together as a team at the hospital or in the clinic. Generally, the next activity is The Interpretive Conversation, which is a core component of a team building workshop. In an interpretive conversation, we work together as a team to collaboratively make meaning about a complex work of art that’s been carefully chosen to resonate with issues that might be important to the team or their practice of health care more generally.
We use a bunch of different methodologies, but one that I think is really useful for teamwork, actually, is Visual Thinking Strategies or a modified version of VTS, where we might layer an information that we think might enrich or deepen a conversation. But I like it because a key component of the methodology is that It is designed to welcome all ideas equally, and it supports a process of exploration and discovery in a non judgmental, respectful learning environment, which, in my experience, encourages everybody to participate.
And the process of reflective listening, which is a key component of many inquiry based methodologies, it helps makes individual observational and reflective habits visible. So you can imagine on a team how important that can be to recognize that people see things differently than we do, that people have different habits of observation.
For instance, Ruth might be, she might be drawn to the emotional tenor of something, where Ray might take a more analytical perspective. I might look at the details, where Claire, you might really be a big picture person. So understanding that we all have different habits and that collectively they enrich and strengthen our team can be very useful.
After we have an interpretive conversation, we stand back and we reflect on how they work together as a team in this particular context. People may also notice their own assumptions, blind spots, possible biases. Sometimes after we’ve had an interpretive conversation, we might step back and then think about how the artwork itself might resonate with our work in the clinic or the hospitals.
For example, a work of art that I often use is a painting by Oskar Kokoschka which is called ‘Two Lovers’ and it features two entwined figures in an ambiguous setting who seem to be moving in opposite directions. And it invites participants to tap into emotional responses. So when asked how it might resonate with their work in the hospital, I remember one intern saying, ‘Wow, it captures how I feel every day, dancing, trying not to misstep. But we do’. And those kinds of moments help the team connect with one another. We balance an interpretive conversation with creative activities, drawing activities, group poem activities, talents people never knew one another had come out. We’ve done beatboxing, interpretive dance, all sorts of things. And one of the nurses that we work with talks about how that is such a great.
equalizer and that when the team is back in the hospital or in the clinic they are so much more relaxed with one another. And they might even refer to events that happened during the session. It becomes a shared point of connection for them. After we’ve done a combination of some of these things, we often end with a personal choice activity.
And one that I really think is very powerful is called ‘Joys and Struggles’. And in it, we go into a gallery that has a real diversity of artwork, diversity in terms of media, sometimes in terms of time periods, and everyone is given the prompt, find a work of art that resonates with a joy or a struggle in your professional life.
People go around, they choose an artwork, and then together we tour the gallery and people share what they chose and why they chose it. And I have to say, I think that there is something about the design of the session, moving from laughter to deeper conversation to beginning to explore things in metaphor, that brings people to this place where there is a willingness on the participants to share what matters to them or what is challenging to them.
And often people will share something that’s particularly vulnerable, and when they do that, you can feel the team extend the sense of caring. There was a team in which one of the interns was really struggling, and there was a lot of frustration with this person on the team, because there was this sense that they weren’t participating, they weren’t carrying their weight, all sorts of things.
And when she chose a work of art, For Joys and Struggles. She talked about how homesick she was and how lonely she was and that she’d never been far apart from her family. Her fiance was in another city and she was really struggling. And you could just see the team soften towards her. And afterwards, the attending told me, it became a catalyst for them to have a conversation with her about her struggles.
And in fact, they work together to help her move to another hospital. But One of the things that happens during Joys and Struggles is team members learn about what’s going on in one another’s lives, both personal and professional, and then they can respond in ways that can be supportive.
We always end We’re standing in a circle and inviting people to talk about one thing they might take back from the evening.
So basically, as a team, they share intentions with one another. And because they’re doing it as a team, they can also be accountable to one another. And people will say things like, ‘I will remember that other people have perspectives that are different than mine’. ‘I’ll be more curious about other people’s perspectives’.
‘I’ll listen more’. ‘I’ll try to show gratitude more, to be more supportive, to seek out more moments of connection and fun’. There’s something about stepping out of the clinical environment into this rich environment of the museum and with a carefully designed session that is Designed to promote thinking about teamwork people build the kinds of relationships that allow them to communicate more effectively and to be more supportive in this shared pursuit of doing incredibly challenging and difficult work.
Ray Williams: I use the joys and struggles choice activity in workshops on flourishing and well being because I think just Letting people know that it’s normal to have… both joyous experiences and really hard experiences in any work life. I think that, in and of itself, contributes to flourishing as well as to a team hearing from each other, knowing each other better, and when we know a little bit about our pressures, about our stories, we’re able to offer support and an empathic response give people a break.
Claire Bown: think that moves us really nicely on to talk about empathy. I was really struck by this chapter. I’ve done a lot of work in this area myself, particularly in fostering skills like perspective taking. So perhaps you could share a little bit about what you talk about in the book in relation to nurturing empathy.
You Rees’s framework and its role. So perhaps we could talk about that
Ruth Slavin: for a little bit. I really think of it like a radio, like you listen to someone, you have to tune into them. Emotional awareness, including of oneself, and paying attention to nonverbal communication, mine, yours, and ours. You asked about Helen Reese, and she’s a physician and a researcher who sees empathy as a set of capacities, and I think we’ve all found that’s just such a beautiful and rich way of seeing it because it also encompasses the notion of skill and skillful understanding.
And if you’re talking about a skill, that’s something we can all probably learn, right? Certainly some people are natural empaths, but empathy is something that we can all learn and we can all practice. And practice turns out to be quite important as with so many things. I’m going to focus on her because we did use her heavily, but there are other wonderful writers and researchers and that is one of the longest bibliographies after that chapter in the book because there’s so much interesting work.
So while focusing on her, I just really want to say how much is really going on in this area. But she really talks about empathy as the ability, the capacity to cognitively and emotionally understand another person. And in medicine, to act upon these understandings for the benefits of one’s patient and sometimes one’s colleagues.
So that seemed very important to us. A friend of mine says. ‘If a baby is crying, you don’t just sit down and cry with them. You pick them up. You respond’. I think that addresses the action part. And then also I want to say that this isn’t a dry or detached understanding of another person. It does include feeling.
In her view, empathy is motivated, skillful understanding that results in action. She talks a lot about accuracy, because when we imagine and when we try to understand, we get stuff wrong all the time. That’s being human, but we make the effort, and that’s the important part, and I’ll return to that thought at the end, but I thought I would take it back to art by briefly describing an activity.
It takes place with photographs in a museum study room, so already that’s a special space for people to come into, and they know it. It’s also quiet, and it’s completely private. In this activity, there’s maybe a dozen carefully chosen photographs that are arrayed around the study room, and enough at least that everyone can really feel like there’s enough to choose from.
Everyone chooses a photograph and writes about it from the first person, using both observation and imagination. Then they pair up with someone that’s chosen a different photograph, and they try to write as objective a description as they can about the other person’s photograph. Then the two pairs are invited to get together and read their work to each other, starting with the first person and moving into the objective description.
And to consider… What’s the tone, language, objects they notice, things in the setting, things about the person, but also notice the differences. Very quickly, people discover how even in the objective attempt as human beings, we slide from description to interpretation so easily. And so that’s one of the first learnings is like how to untangle or notice in their clinical setting, maybe think about that.
How does description slide into interpretation? Those discussions with medical students or medical or healthcare professionals always deal with stereotyping. They always deal with what we might have missed. They deal with the need for accuracy. We’re very clear to say. We do not believe what we invent about this photograph, it’s a starting point, it’s motivating, it’s caring,
Empathy is something that we try and ‘we fail, we try and we fail, but it is very important to try.
Ray Williams: There’s something I think very magical about being in that semi circle, aligned with others in your group, looking at the artwork as ‘a third thing’, and we’re just musing and speaking without being in each other’s face. And there’s something again about the environment where we expect to be curious and open minded, to speak and to listen that’s already established with our group.
And now we’re having a conversation that gives us a chance to hear how very different individuals in a group might see an image that we’re all looking at together.
Claire Bown: And I know you’ve mentioned a couple of times this ‘third space’, so perhaps you could… Speak a little bit to that
Corinne Zimmerman: as well. Sure. So that phrase was coined by an educator named Parker Palmer, who talks about the power of metaphor and that metaphor helps us address potentially difficult topics, what he calls ‘on the slant’.
So through metaphor, we can talk about things that can be difficult and it allows people to share stories without being put on the spot. So often when we do work around bias and we do it with groups that we have a long standing relationship with or a relationship that we’ve developed over time, so it’s usually part of a sequence of sessions.
And it becomes an opportunity both to talk about structural issues in the practice of health care, if you will and we use methodologies such as Project Zero’s thinking routines that help us think about how systems impact us, but we also invite people to share personal experiences because there’s experiences of bias that health care providers experience and I think an important part of this work.
is, first of all, is just establishing some boundaries. And our goal is to invite people to engage in difficult conversations, but to know that they’re doing it in an environment that is characterized by respect, openness, curiosity. Often in these conversations, we know that there will be missteps. And as facilitators, part of our job is to hold people accountable, but we do it with empathy and not with shame.
And I think that goes back to this idea that I mentioned in the team building and creating spaces of psychological safety where we are very clear that this is a space of learning and we ourselves are learning. I was with a group of interns and residents from Mount Auburn Hospital and we were looking at a photograph by Rania Matar of two young women in a refugee camp outside of Beirut.
And they were leaning back to back, supporting one another. And the one on the left is gazing upward, and she has this long, luxurious hair that’s free flowing. And then the woman on the right, who she’s leaning against she wears a headscarf, and her eyes are downcast. And we had an interpretive conversation about the piece.
And many members of the group, I have to say, interpreted the woman on the left as being someone who was more independent, who was free or stronger. And they interpreted the figure on the right as someone who was perhaps more subservient. For some, she even seemed trapped. And because we often work with groups with people from many different cultural backgrounds and experiences, there were others in the group who, drawing on their own personal experiences, were able to offer another perspective and in the figure of the right they saw pride and inner strength and the image became a catalyst to discuss cultural assumptions we often bring to our counters with artworks or with patients if you will and it created a space for those within the group to share their own knowledge and experiences and to deepen the larger group’s understanding.
And the session offered a real lesson in cultural humility. It
Claire Bown: reminded me of the many times that I’ve facilitated conversations about photographs and Many stereotypes or cultural assumptions have come to the surface as a result. I’d like to wrap up with a question about well being. In recent years there’s been a growing demand for museum experiences that enhance well being
what aspects of solace and sanctuary can art museums offer? And what themes are typically explored in these experiences?
Ray Williams: Being and flourishing is a through line in much of the work that we do. And certainly since the pandemic, it’s one of the main things that we’re asked to design for. And we’ve thought a lot about how to create an embodied experience.
But I think part of it, again, is the environment itself. Welcoming into a beautiful space. The facilitator’s tone needs to be warm and respectful. We remember that our visitors are dealing with hard things all the time and we really try to honor that. We believe that our effort supports people who are really being depleted and supports them in going back to their patients feeling somewhat refreshed.
And I think it’s why first year medical student at the University of Texas comes to the Art Museum for three two hour workshops, Observation Skills, Empathic Communication, and Being. And I was really surprised that in that very first year, Our medical educators want students to cultivate practices that will help them have a sustainable work life balance.
And we talk about where do you get your energy, what are your natural strengths, maybe take a character survey to understand what are you walking around with that helps you stay in the game with resilience and good energy. So knowing yourself, knowing strategies that other people use, and really being given permission, not so much from the museum educator, but from the medical educators.
We need you to take care of yourself. It’s okay. Self care translates to patient care. And back to the conversation about empathy, my favorite part of Helen Reese’s book is in the introduction where she says, we see that patients trust their doctors more and have better health outcomes if they feel that there’s an empathic understanding from the caregiver.
But the next sentence is the beauty, doctors benefit too. And it’s that empathic connection with patients that feeds the soul of doctors who are always there to take care, but they need to feel connected to an individual, not just another slot in their schedule. Whether it The theme of the chapter is empathy, or team building, or observation, or caring for the spirit of your patients,
it’s also always about caring for the spirit of the caregivers.
Claire Bown: So wonderfully put. Thank you, Ray, for sharing that. We do have to wrap up. We are at time. There is so much in this book that I can recommend to listeners. You have chapters on thinking in the art museum, empathy, the power of story. We’ve talked about team building, caring for the spirit, nurturing wellbeing and mindfulness, and I heartily recommend it.
The book is
Corinne Zimmerman: available online. Through a number of different places Roman and Littlefield is our publisher the book was published through the American Alliance for Museums so that’s a place to get it. It’s also available on Amazon. People should feel free to reach out to us individually or collectively And we would be delighted to hear from people.
This work is something we are all incredibly passionate about, and we love sharing it with others, but also learning from others who are interested in it as well.
Claire Bown: Wonderful. And you talk at the end of your book about building a community of practice as well. So if there are others out there working in this way, then do get in touch with Corinne, Ray and Ruth.
Thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. And thank you for your time. We could have chatted. forever about this subject, but thank you again for coming on The Art Engager. Thank you.
So a huge thank you to Ruth, Ray and Corinne for being on the podcast today. I hope you enjoyed our chat. Go to the show notes to find out more about ‘Activating the art museum’ and to buy their book.
There’s also a link to a discount code. If you’d like to connect with Ray, Corinne and Ruth, follow the links in the show notes.
And don’t forget that registration is open for my VTMO Intermediate and Advanced courses starting in October 2023. Go to the show notes or to thinkingmuseum. com to find out more about these online courses teaching you my approach to engaging audiences with art and objects.
So that’s it for this week. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time. Bye. Thank you for listening to the Art Engager podcast with me, Claire Bown. You can find more art engagement resources by visiting my website, thinking museum.com, and you can also find me on Instagram at Thinking Museum, where I regularly share tips and tools on how to bring art to life and engage your audience.
If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please share with others and subscribe to the show on your podcast player of choice. Thank you so much for listening and I’ll see you next time.