Tuesday, June 19th 2012 (Day Two) Participation not Learning: Who, What, and How Much?

I have been working on and thinking about learning in museums since I was lucky enough to part of the UPCLOSE Lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 2004.  One of the things that always struck me as challenging is that, while my intuition tells me that museums are wonderful spaces for learning, it is difficult to assess the learning that takes place in a museum.  This is for a whole host of reasons including:

  • The short length and sporadic nature of museum visits
  • Not having a measure of what people know before they come into a museum
  • Difficulty tracking changes in visitors knowledge over time
  • The inability to use our traditional assessment tools like test or projects
  • Undefined learning goals

The learning goals in contemporary art museums seem to be particularly difficult to define. Are we hoping that visitors walk away with a greater knowledge of the art world, studio practices, issues in contemporary society or all of these things?

Being part of the Kitchen Lab at the Walker Art Center this summer has enabled me to think about this issues from a new perspective. My art practice has frequently focused on engaging the public and my research practice is focused on understanding how people learn. This is the first time I have brought these two aspects of my work together. 

As I started to explore how I could assess my own role in the museum as an artist I began looking at literature that talked about participation in the museum rather than learning in the museum. A short paper by Matusov and Rogoff summarized an approach to treat learning in a museum as participation in a community of learners rather than just acquisition or transmission of knowledge. To important points jump out at me from this approach that are especially applicable to the Kitchen Lab:

  • First, the community of learners is not just a visitor to the museum – it may includes members of the museum such as curators, education staff, tour guides, guards, and  gift shop staff. There are other people who are part of the community of learners in a museum such as the friend, parents, grandparents, siblings, and of course the artist. (in the case of the Kitchen Lab this includes all of the collaborative including students and visiting speakers too!)
  • Assessment is based upon changes in participation not changes in the acquisition of knowledge.

For assessing the Kitchen Lab we need to focus on mapping the ecology of learners involved and then observing how their participation changed. Simpler said than done, but a first step in defining what our goals are with the Kitchen Lab.



Monday, June 18th 2012 (Day One!!!)

After months of planning and preparations – we begin!

Welcome to the Walker Kitchen Lab!

The day began with donuts. Appropriately enough.

Then it was introductions around the collective. We are composed of designers, landscape architects, mechanical engineers, artists, and educators. An eclectic collective.

Then an introduction to the project as a research project: the Walker Kitchen Lab as a platform for experimentation. What are we experimenting with? Two things: new forms of design and new forms of learning. These “new forms” might be called social design or social practice, learning ecologies or communities of learners. They are characterized by three qualities: they are public, they are collaborative, and they have an agenda. One of the tasks of the research, then, is to develop markers of these qualities, so that we might better understand, describe, critique, and inform these practices.

So what is going to be created? How will the Walker Kitchen Lab take form?

The basis for the physical components of the Kitchen Lab are a set of boxes. These boxes stack, they can be transported by being carried or with a bike cart, they have a shelf to hold trays within them, and beyond that, they are open to interpretation.

Later in the afternoon, our first guest collaborator joined us: Barry Kudrowitz. Barry has a background in engineering and toy design, and he led us through a series of games and activities, to prepare us for collaboration in brainstorming and design. This was followed by our initial brainstorming, through which we identified key activities, objects, and issues of the kitchen. Finally, we documented and shared our perspectives on what makes Minneapolis and St. Paul distinctive — these ideas and issues will be what shapes the objects and events of the Walker Kitchen Lab into forms that have social relevance and local salience.


“Theories and Practices of Community Engagement” + “Hearth”

As a student and a citizen, I am excited to delve into Kitchen Lab because I am passionate about finding ways that design can form community and activate positive change in our world. Innovative design can create new and healthy modes of community interaction and engagement, subverting traditional patterns, processes and structures that fail to bring us together.

The complicated realm of the kitchen is specifically loaded with potential for ways to us share our stories, our resources, our skills, our traditions, our successes and failures, our needs and desires, our gifts, our time and more.

We political, design-based social innovators who investigate concepts of community-engaged art ought to remember, then, that when we discuss these terms (especially with respect to food and the kitchen) we are talking about human beings relating to each other in intimate, complex ways. Back in February the Walker hosted a brainstorming session for Kitchen Lab, and participants wrote down their associations with the “kitchen” on a collection of sticky notes. Terms like hearth, home, satisfaction, fear, mystery, tradition and all sorts of isms came up.

Associations with the idea of "kitchen"

Much later, I was working on the course outline with the Kitchen Lab team and I started to wonder about our language in the project description. We wrote that we are “re-conceiving the ingredients, structure and function” of the kitchen, and the syllabus went on to present phrases like “theories and practices of community engagement,” “experience design,” “socially engaged art and design,” and “qualitative and design research methods for socially engaged art and design.” That all seemed very academic and heady (albeit super interesting) and somehow distant to some of the things we wrote down on our sticky notes way back when—words like “hearth“.

These theoretical terms and more visceral associations with the kitchen are not mutually exclusive, of course, simply different vocabularies. Reconciling them will be part of the coming challenge. I hope that the speakers we’ve invited to talk to the class will be able to address some of the more complex experiential/cultural/historical aspects of “the kitchen” within the context of our students’ design process.

I also look forward to discussing all the ismssexism, veganism, imperialism, etc.—and asking what it means to have a crew of academically trained, primarily young and probably well-intentioned white people tinkering with/redesigning something that has deep and deeply different meanings to a lot of different people.

Needless to say, I’m excited to put in my two cents and see what products, processes and experiences come out of the Kitchen Lab.

Things Are Getting Busy

With the public launch of the Walker Kitchen Lab in about 10 days, things are getting busy.

Emily Stover, Erin Garnaas-Holmes, Derek Schilling, Anna Bierbrauer, and Rebecca Krinke have been working with Patrick McKennan in the University of Minnesota design shop preparing prototypes of the containers that will be the basis of the Kitchen Lab.

Betsy and Carl are doing their best to keep both the research and studio components of the project moving forward (developing interview questions, rubrics for the studio work, observation themes), as well as working on their Kitchen Lab event for the evening of June 21 (more on that next week).

And Susy Bielak has been tirelessly contributing everywhere, while also managing all of the necessary groundwork at the Walker Art Center.

Over the next 10 days, we’ll begin to post more and more on the project: what’s going to happen from June 18 to the 29th, the various motivations behind the project, and our hopes for how the project will move forward after the 29th.

For starters, below are some images of the Kitchen Lab container prototypes. There will be six of these. Each will be organized around a different food issue or theme, and will contain various tools, ingredients, and instructions for its use. Precisely what those issues and themes are, and what’s designed to express them, will be developed over the course of the workshop.

Introducing the Walker Kitchen Lab

Not the Walker Kitchen Lab, this is Julia Child's kitchen as installed at the Smithsonian.

The kitchen has changed. Over the centuries, it has evolved from a fire pit and a flat stone into an elaborate place for storing, making, and eating food. But in recent years, notwithstanding the rise of “the foodie,” it has devolved, for many, to little more than a microwave and a sink. We eat out or on the run, and when we do use kitchens, prep work has been outsourced to backroom workers making convenience foods, as science and technology streamline food production from field to table.But go to any gathering or party, and you’ll know exactly where guests and hosts will be hanging out. During a two-week residency at the Walker, Carl and Betsy DiSalvo explore the inevitable pull of the kitchen as a social space: a place for sharing knowledge, culture, and community.

The Atlanta-based duo—designers and researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology—are expanding, in part, on their “urban foraging” workshop held last summer at Open Field. In unpacking a constellation of kitchen issues, from organic farming to urban food deserts, that daylong project included forays into downtown Minneapolis’ skyways, farmer’s markets, and storefronts to source materials for a shared meal.

This June, the DiSalvos focus on reconceiving the kitchen: its ingredients, structure, and functions. Teaming up with University of Minnesota scholars and students, they will consider that space from an array of vantage points: studio art, landscape architecture, food systems, urban planning, design, ceramics, public health, cultural studies, theater, engineering, and more. Participants will design and build a new kind of kitchen—a mobile, modular “lab” that can be set up anywhere. They envision a public place where people congregate for experiences with food, and in the process spark new kinds of social interaction and civic engagement.