As someone who works in the humanities, I occasionally find myself in the position of defending my line of work. Museums are places to admire the master works of our civilization and reflect upon our shared past, but I often feel a push to define our function in society in more immediately beneficial ways. We want to help solve problems and provide useful services to our diverse audience, as much as we want to promote a love and appreciation for the arts. That’s what civic engagement is all about, right?
I’ve long been interested in art museums that use their collections to teach visual literacy. The Yale Center for British Art, among others, uses paintings as a way to help medical students better diagnose patients. Both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection offer programs to help police hone the skills of observation for use in crime prevention or crime-solving. All of these initiatives convincingly demonstrate the need for sophisticated visual skills and the role art museums can play in developing that expertise.
Visual literacy can be useful to other populations, too. In December, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh held a workshop on making art accessible to people with dementia. This event brought together partners from the Pittsburgh Alzheimer’s Research Center and the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, as well as museum professionals from the Museum of Modern Art’s pioneering program. (MoMA began offering programs for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers in 2004.) The Carnegie Museum used this workshop as a way to launch an expanded slate of tours, called “In the Moment,” which follows upon the heels of a successful pilot program.
To create “In the Moment,” the Carnegie Museum worked closely with Woodside Place, a senior care facility in nearby Oakmont. Tours are offered monthly for residents and their caregivers; since May, tours are also available for individuals with early and middle-stage dementia who do not live in a residential care facility. Each tour includes discussions around 4-5 separate pieces of artwork in the Museum’s collections. The results have been stunning. Some works have stirred up long-term memories, allowing residents to engage with their own past in constructive ways. Participants have made connections between their experience and that of their peers, their caregivers, and the larger world – an occurrence that becomes less frequent as Alzheimer’s progresses. Because the entire premise of the tour is to talk about what you see, conversations and connections occur in a low-stakes environment. The pressure is off; what a relief for patients who need a respite from the frustrations of grasping at receding memories.
Art museums will always be places to encounter works of art. The opportunity to stroll through a gallery examining master techniques and pondering an artist’s meaning is a powerful experience. But, it’s not the only way to foster a connection with the arts. Museums are engaging new audiences in increasingly creative ways, constantly striving to be community institutions. With “In the Moment,” the Carnegie Museum of Art is being a good neighbor – responding to the needs of a local population and living up to the promise of accessibility and inclusion.
Carnegie Museum of Art
“In the Moment” tours offered on the second Tuesday of each month; Cost: $15/pair
4400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15213