Creating a new Museum-based Education Center: An Interview with Hillary Cook of the Art Institute of Chicago

Last March, when I was in Chicago for the Museums and the Web conference,  I ran around the city to meet with my colleagues in museums and libraries who were willing to share their youth spaces and how they’ve been designed to support digital learning. My first post offered a rapid tour of your spaces around the city. The second was my first of three related posts that highlight interviews with staff from those locations. Our first stop was the Field Museum (re: Morphing a Digital Classroom into a Museum Hangout: An Interview with Eve Gaus of the Field Museum). Now, for the next stop: Art Institute of Chicago!

Hi Hillary. Please introduce yourself.

My name is Hillary Cook. I work at the Art Institute of Chicago and I’m the Assistant Director of Youth Programs. I design, manage, and implement all of our programs for teenagers, specifically the one’s that happen in out-of-school time.

How many students come through these programs?

We serve about 2,000 to 2,500 young people throughout the year. We have workshops that we do throughout the entire year, a Teen Council Leadership program, and all other kinds of associated events and initiatives that happen around that.

And where are we sitting right now?

We are in one of the large studio spaces in our Ryan Education Center. The new Center opened in 2009 with the opening of the modern wing.

What did that mean for you and your work?

We were really excited and happy to be able to double our education center footprint. We went from having kind of one large studio space to having three huge studios with beautiful natural light, plus five classrooms, a new educator resource center, and a Family Room space, as well as a small interpretive exhibition space.

What role does digital media play within each of these spaces?

It was really thought of from the beginning, in terms of design, so every space has the capability for digital presentation. We’re also thinking a lot about other ways that digital media can be used in programs. We have a suite of laptops that we use in our education programs. We have cameras and iPod Touches. The idea is that in any program where we wanted to use digital media as a tool for art making, or creative expression, or as a way to facilitate other kinds of learning, we have the resources available for us.

In the Family Room, and also on our website, there is a Curious Corner interpretive, which is meant for families. It offers games and activities, all relating to works of art in the collection, that families and young children can play, either on site or at home.

So what are some challenges this space helped you to meet?

Having much more space is wonderful because we welcome thousands of students and teachers here for student tours during the year. This space was really thought through, in terms of that experience, of what happens when a student comes to the museum for a self-guided visit or for a tour from start to finish: from the moment the bus pulls up in our bus cut, to coming in the specific dedicated student entrance, to having spaces where belongings can be stored really conveniently throughout the visit. There are spaces where they can be oriented, get a sense of what a museum visit is like (by our volunteer greeters and docents), and have experiences after their tours to come in and do studio based projects, or be able to just really facilitate that visit so that they are able to have the best visit possible while they’re here. And that’s only one component.

We also have programs that we do for teachers and teens and families and adults throughout the whole year and all the spaces are intended to be locations for that but also to support different kinds of learning, so they’re very modular in that way.

What have you learned through practice, having gone through a design process and now seeing it fully implemented? Are there new problems that have emerged or things that you thought were solved but weren’t, that you had to address?

I think we’re constantly finding new and interesting challenges that appear because our programs have also changed. You know, they’re always changing, based on what the audiences needs from them. The spaces are large and there’s a lot of room, so we are always are thinking about how do we keep them active. When people walk through, if there’s not a school group here or not a teacher program happening, how can people understand that this is a space for education? How can they see some of that process when those programs are not actually happening here? So visibility of what we do in the spaces is maybe a challenge for us that we’re trying to think about. We do have some exhibition spaces where we show student work. But I think we could do a better job of thinking about making education very visible and active in this space.

So that’s one thing. And then another thing is just the changing technology. I mean, in five years technology has already changed so drastically. We think about just keeping the spaces able to do the things we didn’t know we needed to do 5 or 10 years ago. We just had a big 24-hour teen overnight competition in the education center; every space was being used by young people and mentors, and they were making anything from digital interactives to prototyping benches to fashion garments. We were using the spaces in SO many different ways. When I think through something like that I realize, “Oh, it’d be really nice if we had more power outlets on this side,” or if we had a space with tables where you could be sawing things and cutting things on top of them, or how we can design spaces that meet certain possibilities but can also then be used for something else the next day, or two days later.

So beyond infrastructure itself, what are some ways that changes over the last five years in digital learning has changed what you’re able to teach, and not only what you engage them with but the ways you engage them?

About five years ago the Hive Chicago Learning Network started in the city, and we became a part of that. I think that has really helped us think really carefully, and in really interesting and innovative and collaborative ways, about what it means to teach and learn through digital media.

And the YOUmedia space at the Harold Washington Library has been an inspiration for us. How do we create spaces that are welcoming and friendly and comfortable, especially for young people, but that also offers opportunities for them to be able to dabble with digital media and then move them to geeking-out. A lot of our programs are pretty heavily on the geeking-out side; so, sure, teens are coming to us for long periods of time, spending 10 weeks in an after school program, for example, really geeking-out in the museum. But how do we use these spaces to also allow people to just come in and hangout for a bit, or try something out? And I think we do a lot of hands on art-making in our programs because we’re at an art museum and that makes a lot of sense.

So we’re thinking about taking a lot of those strategies of experimentation, and creativity, and free play and thinking about how we can use digital media in that same way. A lot of what we have been doing with digital media is thinking about it as a tool for art-making, or as a tool for creative expression. We’re thinking about experimenting, and not feeling like you have to know everything about a program before you can use it. Can we create a space where young people or families can come have people in the room who can help to push them in the right direction but they can also just experiment and play and sort of try things out that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to try out without being at the art institute?

If you can have all your dreams fulfilled, and I came back here five years later, what might you be telling me about?

That’s a great question. We’ve been thinking a lot about what it looks like to have that kind of hangout, mess-around, geek-out space. The Shedd has a wonderful teen learning lab space, and other museums are also really thinking about this. But what is it that’s unique to the Art Institute that we could kind of embrace?

And I think we talk a lot about bringing young people together with artists, with people who are working in that field with people who are artists, who are coming in and doing exhibitions at the museum, and how do you connect them in a space that’s really generative and exciting and that you can sort of document and share too. And I think digital media is a space where we are thinking about how we communicate with young people about these opportunities and about these things that they can do.

That’s not really a very specific answer to your question but I think it’s something about having digital be a part of the ecosystem, not just a separate thing that we wheel in on a cart. It would be always present, and always be a part of the tools that people know that they can use and experiment and try to play with. And how can it be present in a space and visible so that we can also share it out afterwards and really continue to expand the communities that were able to work within and attracted to the museum?

Last question. When you bring friends and family for visiting the city, to the museum and you show them around, what’s the piece you show them that you love so much but you think doesn’t always get the attention it deserve.

I love showing people Felix Gonzalez Torres’s untitled self-portrait. It’s usually up on the second floor Contemporary galleries. It’s a frieze at the top of a gallery space so sometimes people don’t even notice that it’s there. It’s at the very, very top, just a band that goes around the top of the room. And it’s kind of these moments in his life but also a collective history. Some of these moments you don’t really know what they are, they’re personal to the artist, but I think it’s just a really beautiful and powerful piece that I like to bring people to. I ask them to think about what those moments would be for them if they were to create a similar piece.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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