Stepping Out of the Classroom and into the Museum

Alie Ehrensaft Museum Education Assistant

For the past seven years, I have been a high school English teacher in Colorado Springs, a career that I had been preparing for my whole life. Stepping away from the classroom was initially incredibly difficult for me, but I knew that in my new role at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Museum at Colorado College (FAC Museum) as the Museum Education Assistant, I could impact learners of all ages with a wide range of perspectives through the arts. Colorado College as an entity was not as unchartered as my career shift, however. I graduated from CC in 2012 with a BA in English Literature and a Minor in Education. After teaching for a few years, I strove to enhance my own abilities as an educator; I obtained my Master’s degree in teaching in 2017 through completion the Experience Teacher Masters of the Arts in Teaching program at Colorado College. With the skills I developed through these various modes of engagement in education, I hope to offer my team assistance at the FAC Museum in continued connection to education with Colorado College and the community.  

In preparation for my new role at the FAC Museum, I joined my team at the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries conference (AAMG) in Minneapolis, MN. Coming from a traditional classroom setting in public secondary education, I was unsure of much of the culture and climate surrounding educational entities within museums. Immediately, I was immersed into an eager group of academics and collaborators willing to share and assist processes that could work for others. I participated in many sessions focused on the inclusion of education through different avenues in museums and I imagined ways in which we could integrate these methods into the FAC Museum. Many of the discussions I participated in revolved around ideas of utilizing the resources we have among our students such as using student guides within museums, integrating activities with clubs both on and off campus, hands-on learning opportunities for students of all ages, and educating the public on social issues represented within our exhibits. Discussing controversial topics in accessible ways was perhaps one of the most enlightening sessions I attended. I listened to panel discussions driven by installations reflecting social issues within both local and global communities including, but not limited to gun violence, social and political crisis in Puerto Rico, and modern reflections of the repercussions of the Holocaust. Panelists divulged the potential dangers of presenting and discussing topics of such weight in a vulnerable setting, but also offered strategies for how to best manage these necessary conversations. Promoting civic dialogue with students and community members alike will help inform both audiences and could perhaps break the colloquialized “bubble” often dividing Colorado College and the community. This conference included extensive opportunities for me to conceptualize programs and workshops both on campus and within the FAC Museum, many of which I hope someday to be a part of implementing.

Colorado College has been a home to me ever since I stepped on campus in 2008 as an eager new student. I feel incredibly grateful that one of my first responsibilities as the Museum Education Assistant is to help create that same sentiment for our new students during New Student Orientation, and I hope to continue to help create that home for CC students and community visitors through other projects at the museum. I am encouraged by opportunities to establish more consistent relationships across Colorado Springs collectively, and in my new role, I plan to pursue the model that teaching can extend beyond the limitations of a classroom.

Student Perspective at the AAMG Conference

Olivia Martinez Museum Education Intern sponsored by the Bronfman Family Internship for the Arts

Students are often the topic of discussion in the breakout sessions at the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries. How can we engage students? How do we bring them into the museum? What programming do we offer? I attended many of the breakout sessions connected to students given my role as a Student Guide at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College (FAC Museum), along with my position as Education Intern. I am an undergraduate student studying Education, Southwest Studies, and Spanish. While I started my intern position last August at the beginning of the academic term, I have been a Student Guide in the museum for a year and a half. As someone interested in pursuing museum education, I was excited to be able to partake in this conference experience, particularly since it continued to advocate for student involvement within museums. Attending the conference and thinking about my professional development, my college’s development, and the students’ role in academic museums allowed me to better understand how important students are to the mission of the Education Department at the FAC museum, where visitor engagement is a priority.

Some of my greatest takeaways involved how I can use my perspective and influence as a student to connect the Fine Arts Center to the student life on campus. One of the most informative sessions I was a part of was “Becoming Part of a Campus Conversation: Bringing Student In”. In this session, panelists discussed ways in which they reach out to students within their own institutions. Academic Museums use Museums Clubs, Advisory Boards, Student-Only Events, After-Hours Events, and partner with different parts of campus to “bring students in”. This session excited me and gave me ideas for how we can better support our students’ talents and organizations on this campus. Working with students and allowing them voice in the conversation regarding engagement and education is the best way to allow these connections between arts and education take place. While I am just one student, my role as Museum Education Intern will allow me to continue the growth of the FAC Museum as it applies to student experiences. The AAMG conference is a great way to exchange ideas, methods, programs and learn about the wide array of people doing important work for their university.

While the sessions were informative and thought provoking, the city of Minneapolis also provided us with other ways to learn about engagement on different scales. We visited the Fredrick R.  Weisman Art Museum on the University of Minnesota campus. There, I was able to explore how other academic museums function in a historic setting as the museum resided in the famous Frank Gehry building. After exploring this museum, we crossed the flowing Mississippi River to the Mill City Museum situated in the old Gold Medal Flour Mill. The museum included interactives related to the sugary and yummy cereal of General Mills and other brands, along with the education spaces and tactile interactives. The Mill Museum featured a 4D Experience called the “Flour Tower” which was an engaging way to take visitors through the history of the mill. It was interesting to see how museums use different tools and methods to interact with visitors, and I considered ways we could integrate engaging learning opportunities within our own museum. I also found that preserving the building itself to tell the history of the area was an interesting method of engagement. I was able to imagine the mill at working capacity and explore its ruins at the same time.

After a compelling view from the ninth floor of the mill, we ventured just outside to the river banks where we came across a National Parks Service (NPS) event. The lock of the dam had been previously closed to the public, but after the NPS opened it to the public, they have been working on ways to use the space and have people visit the lock. They set up photo stations outside encouraging visitors to take their different challenges for their photo experience. We experimented with some of their challenges, and you can see how much fun we had in our expressions in this souvenir we were able to take with us. This made me think more personally how not just museums, but many organizations and non-profits are trying to engage and educate visitors. Education is powerful and can take place in a variety of ways and seeing these various forms of informal education made me reconceptualize my role in our dynamic museum space.

Overall, experience at the AAMG and in Minneapolis inspired me. It made me think critically about how we function at the FAC Museum, the ways we can get students, faculty, course, and other campus organizations into the FAC Museum. We want the student body to see the museum as a resource in their life and their learning, so we have to be intentional in our connections. The AAMG conference and related experiences exposed me to the various ways to further engage the FAC Museum mission.