THROUGH THE PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART on any given day and you
might find 4-year-olds lying on the floor mimicking the geometric
patterns in Persian carpets with their bodies. Or inner-city sixth-graders
firing colorful clay tiles they designed in a kiln, for use in
a neighborhood mural project. Or even parents and teens building
giant sculptures with rolled-up newspapers.
like these are a routine part of museum life is largely because
of the energetic resolve of Marla K.
Shoemaker '73, the museum's curator of education for
youth and family programs. "Most kids have the impression that
art museums are boring," says Shoemaker, who has made a career
of trying to prove otherwise. Take an ordinary school tour--a
prime opportunity to spark youthful interest in art. Rather than
reel off names and dates while steering kids around the galleries,
she challenges them to really think about what they're seeing.
"I say, What do you think these people were thinking about
during this time? Why are all these paintings religious? What
are the materials they're made of?"
force in developing new museum activities and attracting new audiences,
Shoemaker works hard to promote progressive arts education for
children. This year, her efforts have been recognized with two
major awards: the National Art Education Association named her
National Museum Educator of the Year, and she was selected as
a Museum Guest Scholar at The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles,
where she is researching how children can connect with art at
AS AN ART
MAJOR WITH MINOR IN EDUCATION, Shoemaker discovered she could
put it all together during her last semester, spent at the Philadelphia
Museum's department of urban outreach on a program sponsored by
the Great Lakes Colleges Association. There, she painted murals
and held jewelry workshops for underprivileged kids. But she also
gave tours of a hugely popular Eskimo art show. And that's when
the light bulb went off: "For the first time I realized you could
actually do art history and education, and it could be the same
thing," she says.
when a job opened up in the museum's education department, she
began teaching there while earning a master's in museum education
at Goddard College.
THE CHILDREN WELL
Shoemaker heads that same department. And under her stewardship,
it has launched all kinds of family, preschool, and after-school
programs, like art clubs for inner-city kids. "There's been a
big initiative to occupy middle-school kids in some meaningful
activity between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.," says Shoemaker. "Left
to their own devices, they often don't make good decisions about
what to do with their time."
The art clubs
provide free art lessons and give kids the chance to meet with
staff from the conservation labs, where they see firsthand all
that goes into taking care of the art. "We do this pretty early
in the year and find their gallery behavior really improves after
that session," says Shoemaker.
To help children
appreciate the exhibitions--like last spring's "Splendor of 18th-Century
Rome"--even more, she develops activity guides to make them fun.
These guides prompt kids to find certain places or motifs in the
pictures, turning exhibitions into scavenger hunts rather than
detached strolls through the museum.
"I had to
synthesize the big ideas of the show and figure out how to engage
kids in those," she says. "A big idea is that people came to Rome
from all over the world. Or that the Catholic church ruled Rome,
so it had a lot to do with the way art looked." This fall, she's
planning another guide for the show on van Gogh, a favorite with
children who all know the ear story.
the bread and butter of her department remains the 70,000 children
a year who visit the museum on school tours. "That's still our
big learning laboratory," she says. "That's where we figure out
how people think about art. Works of art are full of the content
of life. They're full of emotion, they're full of human endeavor.
They're full of history, in addition to design and aesthetics.
There's almost no conversation you can't have."
is a contributing editor to ARTnews magazine and the author
of New York's 100 Best Party Places (City & Company, 2000).