The Nelson-Atkins Zooms Into Its Mission

When COVID-19 upended the way we do nearly everything, School and Educator Programs at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art was no different. With physical access to the museum limited by the pandemic, school field trips were by necessity cancelled. This seemed especially unnerving, since art was needed more than ever as a source of comfort and solace. What’s a museum educator to do? We realized that intense creativity would be needed to continue our mission of bringing art and people together. Luckily, we have educators, volunteer docents and teaching artists who immediately brainstormed solutions to this problem. Last spring, NelsonAtkins@Home, a virtual resource that fills the need for connection and provides engaging, virtual opportunities for the museum’s community of art lovers, was launched and well received by adults and children alike.

Yet, as it became clear 2020-21 would be a school year like no other, we realized more creative solutions were needed. There are few things more informative (and fun!) than a lively, interactive field trip, so we began to look for ways to engage and support K-12 students and educators virtually.

We began by researching the offerings of other institutions, and participated in many virtual tours to learn what works. Building on state and national learning standards, our virtual field trips engage students with art and contemporary issues, improve visual literacy and observation skills, and contribute to current-day learning, empathy, and critical thinking needs and skills. The virtual field trips are delivered via Zoom and engage students in verbal conversation and via the chat feature. Students play an important role and choose which artworks to discuss. In a classroom setting, the field trips can be projected to the group, while also allowing individuals to log in from home to participate. Art-making workshops are tailored to incorporate materials that students have available at home or in the classroom.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was the technology. We knew, in theory, how we planned to deliver virtual tours and worked closely with the museum’s web team to bring that concept to reality. We trained our docents and teaching artists on the content they would deliver and introduced the new technology. We made a conscious effort to build their confidence as they moved forward with us on these exciting new teaching opportunities. And our efforts paid off.

“Connecting with students again was so much fun and reminded me why I became a docent,” said Kathleen Wilhite. “Initially, I was nervous about all the technology, but I have received a lot of support. Once you start interacting with the students, it all seems more natural. This is the future, so I am committed to conquering the process.”

Teachers whose students took part in a recent virtual field trip were thoroughly impressed.

“Your team ROCKED IT!” said Chelsey Kusek, art teacher at Bell Prairie Elementary School. “Please share a big thanks with all of the docents. I was very impressed with their expertise in validating the kids’ responses, keeping the conversation focused, and keeping up with the chat. My students really enjoyed their time, and I am certain this will be the highlight of their activities during their quarantine.”

Students aren’t the only ones benefitting from the museum’s newly created virtual experiences. The Nelson-Atkins also offers live, interactive virtual experiences for adults each month. Zoom into Art launches toward the end of January and takes an immersive, close look at one artwork, using the capabilities that digital technology offers to draw viewers’ eyes to details. Docents invite participants to share their unique observations and thoughts through Zoom’s audio and chat features.

Beginning in March, the museum will offer thematic virtual tours for adults to register for individually or with friends. Participants will be encouraged by docents to make connections between artworks and contemporary life. Also, a virtual tour can be requested by a private group for a fee that supports educational programming during COVID-19.

This entire experience of rethinking how to connect people and art during a time of social distancing has been very exciting, and we are thrilled with results. We look forward to creating more virtual art experiences and engaging more audiences in the months to come. Check in regularly at nelson-atkins.org to learn more.

–Jaime Ursic, Head, School and Educator Programs and Christina Shutts, Coordinator, Docent and Tour Programs

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