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Look Slowly, Think Artfully

People around the world are looking for ways to engage with museums while they are closed. As many are discovering, visiting the museum online doesn’t have to be remote or passive. It can be dynamic and collaborative. It can break down barriers, build community, and expand conversations.

At the National Gallery of Art, we’ve found this to be the case in our Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), Teaching Critical Thinking through Art with the National Gallery of Art. The course introduces online learners, primarily educators, to the power of slowing down and thinking critically about works of art, while giving them tools to replicate the practice with their students. In discussion forums, teachers pose interpretations of artworks and share takeaways from lesson videos, working at their own pace.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound impact on teachers, who are suddenly instructing their students remotely. Our MOOC typically provides asynchronous learning opportunities to thousands of teachers globally, but we sensed the urgency of connecting more directly with our online community to support them during this crisis. So, we planned a live MOOC Meet-Up webinar.

Planning Our First Meet-Up

This was the first time we would gather MOOC participants from all around the world simultaneously. We had several goals for this event:

  • To demonstrate ways to use critical thinking methods with art in a virtual teaching context
  • To use art as a springboard for creative responses
  • To give MOOC participants a chance to come together in a community
  • To help us understand and meet the needs of teachers in this challenging time

The program would begin with a slow look at one work of art, guided by a set of open-ended questions. A poetry writing activity and time to reflect on the process would follow. The chat tool would be our arena for interacting with participants.

We wanted to pick a work of art that would resonate with the moment, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Queen Zenobia Addressing Her Soldiers seemed like the perfect choice. In this painting made in 18th-century Venice, Tiepolo depicted Zenobia giving a speech to her soldiers, probably before going into battle. Set in Palmyra in the 3rd century, the painting portrays dignity and courage in the face of adversity.

“Now I Am Calmer”

Our first Meet-Up on March 26 drew hundreds of educators, from Ecuador to India and from Rwanda to Serbia. Participants shared observations and interpretations about the featured artwork; educators from one continent built on the ideas of others 5,000 miles away.

To extend the conversation about the art, participants wrote perspective-taking poetry, in which many linked the ideas of courage and determination with their own feelings of the moment. As one educator shared in her poem about the painting, “I understand that we all have to work in harmony together to survive this battle.” Teachers also observed that poetry exercises like this could help their students “connect what you see to what you think and feel.”

The event was memorable and hopeful. Reflecting on our shared experience, participants described a sense of “total engagement,” “immersiveness,” and “feeling connected.” And although our objective was to offer professional support to educators, we learned that these live online encounters could be sustaining for us all—they could be a form of self-care. One participant noted, “I started this webinar feeling anxious, and now I am calmer.”

Looking Forward

We’re looking forward to continuing our Meet-Ups within the MOOC community, and we’re opening up these events to educators who may not already be enrolled in the MOOC. Our next Meet-Up webinar on Tuesday, April 28, is open for registration, with sessions at 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. (EDT).

Of course, this live program can have a meaningful impact even if you’re not an educator, so we’re inviting the public to join us at Look Slowly, Think Artfully, a new webinar based on this experience. These sessions for the general public will be held on Thursday, April 30, at 11:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. (EDT).

By slowing down and responding together in real time, we can engage with art in a dynamic and nurturing way. Our hope is that these conversations will make art more accessible to all and foster connectedness and community across the world.