Designing the Museum: Inspiration from the AAM conference

As promised, over the next few weeks Topher, Shawn and I will be sharing some of our most inspiring experiences from the American Association of Museums’ annual conference, which was held in Houston, TX, from May 22-25, 2011 – just a couple of weeks ago! We came back with a long list of ideas, both for the immediate future and for the longer term. Today, I’m going to talk about one of those long-term ideas.

When I walked into the session entitled, “The Role of Art Museums in Improving Observation in Medical Education,” the room was not exactly packed. “Well,” I thought to myself, “it is an obscure topic…” and of course, every time slot at this conference seemed to have at least fifteen sessions scheduled, so there was a lot of competition for people’s attention! Since I’d learned over the course of the week that a small audience could actually be more productive than a large one, I settled in and got ready to learn.

University of Texas students at the McNay Art Museum, in San Antonio.

To be honest, I suspect that to be truly excited about this session when encountering it in the program, one had already to be “in the know.”  I have been excited about how art museums—and the skills nurtured by art historians and curators—have been contributing to interdisciplinary education in medicine and law enforcement since I first heard about these programs about a decade ago. Art museums have been teaching medical students (and others—police, for example) courses that emphasize close looking and accurate reporting as key skills for observation in any context. (For more on how law enforcement officials are learning in museums, see these articles in AAM’s Museum News and the Smithsonian magazine, from 2007 and 2009.) Now, as we build our own Museum programs, I was eager to learn more from the people who had helped define the field.

Our speakers were:

Although the speakers shared far more than I can summarize here, they all left us with a few critical points:

  • First, art museums create quantifiable as well as qualitative improvement in the effectiveness of students in clinical settings.
  • Second, observation is about communication as well as sight. In other words, if you can’t describe what you see, it doesn’t matter if you saw it or not.
  • Third, art museums are a “safe space” to talk about interpretation, assumptions, and bias—all things that can have a significant impact on how medical professionals interact with patients.
  • Fourth, listening skills are as important as speaking skills. As students engaged with each other over questions of art interpretation, they were practicing how to listen to one another without interruption or judgment. Again, this was a skill that translated easily into clinical settings, but radically altered patients’ experiences.

It will be several years before a program with OSU’s medical students (or veterinary medicine students, or OSU/Stillwater law enforcement, or…?) is possible in a Museum venue, either on-campus or downtown, but by the end of this session, I was enthusiastically brainstorming how we might approach faculty about this type of program when the time comes.

Mindy Nierenberg’s course combined medical and art students at Tufts.

The art museum is a natural fit for students of art, art history, graphic design, architectural design, interior design—all the students we’ve been hearing from on this blog, in fact.  But it is also a natural fit for students from farther afield, as well as professionals in the Stillwater community, if only we can make the right connections.

The images in this blog post came from Austin’s The Statesman, at, and Mindy Nierenberg’s blog, which provide more information about the programs pictured.

About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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