Museum Student Guides in a Year of Upheaval

The first training session for the Colby Museum of Art’s Student Guide program began on February 29, 2020. Three weeks later, the Museum was closed—with staff working from home and students transitioning to all-remote classes. 

It was a challenging beginning for the group of twelve students who had been hired to create and lead educational experiences in the galleries for campus and community audiences. The program needed to adapt to the new realities of the 2020­–2021 academic year—limited options for in-person programs, the Museum open only to the campus community, and safety concerns preventing students from interacting with the larger Waterville community.

As the Mirken Curator of Education and Engagement, I had the opportunity to lead this group of students during the past year. We worked together to figure out how to pivot and develop projects for our campus community audiences that encouraged creativity, introspection, and joy during a demanding time.  

Kris Bergquist, Mirken Curator of Education and Engagement

The Student Guides for the 2020–21 academic year were: Sofia Arleo ’23, Mary Bevilacqua ’23, Aakanksha Chandrashekaran ’23, Katherine Hernández ’23, Sally Kashala ’23, Addie Paige ’22, Anosacha Peete-Meyers ’23, Julia Pfau ’21, Blythe Romano ’21, Emily Tan ’23, Sol Treister ’23, and Marta Torelli ’21. 

The Beginnings

The Student Guide program was designed to help students gain a deep understanding of museum practice, particularly as it relates to education, engagement, and visitor experience. 

A previous student docent program at the Museum had done terrific work involving students, developing their knowledge of museum education, and teaching them how to lead gallery experiences, but one of the problems was the difficulty of synchronizing student schedules with tour request times. During some staff transitions that began in 2018, the program was put on hold, which afforded time to reassess and reimagine the work. 

Education and Engagement Intern Saam Rasool ’22 and I began the process of building a new program during fall 2019. We talked to educators at about ten college museums around the country to gather ideas and best practices. Each program was somewhat unique, designed to best serve its college community and museum audiences.

We decided that in the new iteration of our program, we wanted to keep the same rigor and focus on learning about museum education and working with a wide variety of audiences. But we wanted to concentrate on connecting with the wider Waterville community to strengthen the great work already being done at the Museum and to align with the Civic Engagement initiatives at the college. It also made practical sense—the majority of the Student Guides’ projects and programs could take place on evenings and weekends, when community audiences and students were most available. We had plans to create events for homeschooled audiences, expanding our offerings for families with young children, conducting in-person tours in gallery spaces, creating museum mentor programs for people who like art but don’t feel comfortable in museums, and developing a partnership program that would pair Student Guides with specific community organizations to strengthen relationships and develop sustainable and meaningful projects together.

But in order to keep the college community and the wider community safe and healthy during the 2020–21 academic year, contact between Colby students and community groups was restricted. In addition, community groups were trying to navigate this new normal and didn’t have the capacity to develop programs and projects with the Museum. Our in-person program and tour options were limited in our gallery spaces—even for our campus community—so the Student Guides needed to figure out new ways to help make connections with art at the Museum.

Projects and Programs for the 202021 Academic Year

Create-It Kits for Colby

Create-It Kits for Colby were developed to offer Colby students, staff, and faculty an opportunity to create their own works of art in their living spaces. During the 2020–21 academic year, we distributed more than one thousand kits. All the projects were inspired by a work of art on view, and the instructions included an invitation to view that work of art in the Museum. The kits were designed to replace the various art-making programs that were no longer possible to have at the Museum and to offer a chance to relax and rejuvenate with a creative activity. They built on the success of a similar project, Art Kits for All, which provides art kits to people in the Waterville community; the Museum was one of the founding collaborators in this multipartner project led by the Waterville Creates organization. 

Art Kits for All, created in partnership with Waterville Creates

The Student Guides and I developed the art projects for the Create-It Kits each month during the fall and spring semesters. The projects needed to be fun, fascinating, and meaningful for our campus community users. They had to be inspired by a work of art on view at the Museum; we asked people to work in the style of a specific artist or to use materials similar to those used by that artist. The project had to be something that could be done in a living space. The materials had to fit in a plastic gallon bag and cost about $5 to $8 per kit.

Once the art project was decided, materials were ordered, the directions were written and designed, and then the kits were packed. By the end of the academic year, all the Student Guides had played a role in completing one or more of these kits.

Colby Student Guide Channel on Spotify

A group of Student Guides wanted to work on new ways for visitors to interact with art in the Museum spaces and started exploring audio tours and other sensory activities. They landed on developing a Colby Student Guide Channel on Spotify, which has playlists that people can listen to in the gallery spaces or anywhere they wish. Some of the playlists include music that was part of an artist’s collection, often played in their studio (Roy Lichtenstein). Other playlists include songs that were of the time when an artist was working (James McNeill Whistler/nineteenth-century Americana) or music that an artist referred to as an inspiration in interviews (Romare Bearden).

The project is a work in progress, with plans to continue creating playlists as well as developing podcasts and other audio experiences.

Thursday Art Party

By the end of the fall 2020 semester, the staff and students who work at the Museum decided there were things that could be done to activate the Museum spaces. We had success with one Sweet Study Break event in December that drew about fifty students to the Museum for hot chocolate, brownies, and Create-It Kits. During Jan Plan, we brought back our comfortable, upholstered furniture to encourage people to hang out in our lobby and added larger tables and lamps to increase the size of the study space. We also developed some new in-person programs, including a Thursday evening event coordinated by the Student Guides.

Students gathering for the Museum’s May “Gimme a Museum Break” activity

Unfortunately, our Thursday Art Party events were canceled in January, February, and March due to health and safety restrictions on in-person gatherings on campus. But we were able to do one program on April 29. We provided individually packaged snacks, background music curated by the Student Guides, materials to design a pin to show solidarity with the Take Back the Night event happening later that evening, the April Create-It Kits, “Earth Connections, Sketching in the Galleries”, and other looking activities for the gallery spaces. Plans are underway to continue this program during the 2021–22 academic year.

More Projects and Programs

The Student Guides took advantage of other opportunities that popped up—leading gallery experiences for a Jan Plan class, creating art activities at the new Arts Collaborative space in downtown Waterville, developing art activity sheets for Colby Cares About Kids (CCAK) mentors, packing winter care kits for the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter during MLK Week, developing looking prompts for the Your Museum Time journal program, and piloting the Art Tunes program that brings music to the Museum’s lobby space on Thursday nights.

A still-life drawing station, set up for the Museum’s March “Gimme a Museum Break” 

In addition, there were many behind-the-scenes projects that began this year—information sheets about works of art in the collection, discussion guides related to DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Access, Inclusion) issues museums are grappling with now, research into works of art in preparation for articles for The Lantern, and the development of short Museum Moment videos. We also practiced leading gallery experiences at numerous training sessions and getting comfortable looking at and talking about art.

This summer, the Linde Family Foundation Curricular Intern, Collins Kibet ’22, and I will be assessing the work that was done during the past year and making plans for the 2021–22 academic year. My hope is that we’ll be able to realize some of our original plans for the program, interspersed with the innovative work that we developed this past year. 

For students interested in becoming Student Guides, we likely will be hiring for the 202122 academic year. Look for announcements in August 2021 on the Museum’s website, the student job board, ColbyNow, and Handshake (Davis Connects). And, if anyone has ideas, suggestions, or questions about the program, I would welcome feedback. Please contact me at [email protected].