Holding Space: A Roundtable Conversation on Trauma and Teaching in the Museum

Color photographs of the four roundtable participants. At top left, Damon Reaves; at top right, Gabriela Martinez; at bottom left, Dalila Scruggs; at bottom right, Key Jo Lee.

Editors’ Note

This conversation continues the series titled “Hard Lessons: Trauma, Teaching, Art History.” Crafted in a moment of extraordinary collective trauma, “Hard Lessons” brings together contributions from art historians, practicing artists, and museum educators to explore the multivalent ways arts educators make space for learning through varied—and often intersecting—experiences of personal and collective traumas. We hope that the space “Hard Lessons” carves out for critical reflection, coupled with the tools and actionable advice offered by our contributors, will provide support for educators not just during this period of collective trauma, but beyond: we aim to foster an extended conversation, one that continues to build trauma-informed pedagogies explicitly tied to the teaching of visual materials as we return to in-person teaching and open museum doors.

—Jenevieve DeLosSantos and Kathleen Pierce, Series Guest Editors

Museums are formidable educational resources. Through their collections and programs, they enable myriad communities to access powerful cultural objects and narratives in immersive ways that are distinct from classroom pedagogies. Museums can reach a multitude of audiences and cultivate connections both in their own neighborhoods and on national and international scales. As facilitators of multivalent dialogues and designers of far-ranging programs, museum educators do crucial work for their institutions and the broader public. Now more than ever these educators are working to extend their organizations’ influence beyond their buildings’ walls and the scope of their collections. They are working to help museums serve as agents of social change as these institutions increasingly address issues of representation, repatriation, equity, and inclusion, in relation to both the objects museums keep and the operating procedures they pursue.

When many museums closed their doors for the safety of their communities in early 2020, museum educators reached out with new digital programming that not only furthered the mission of museum education, but also expanded it. “Holding Space: A Roundtable Conversation on Trauma and Teaching in the Museum” illuminates this power of museum education to create spaces of community, connection, healing, and social change. Our contributors, four museum educators working across distinctive collections, explore how museums and their educational programs have engaged with the collective trauma of the present moment while acknowledging the difficult, sometimes painful histories and origins their institutions’ objects might hold. Our speakers share their experiences working to bring communities together not only in the exploration of their institutions’ artworks, but also in rich and complex dialogues around loss, vulnerability, histories of gendered, racial, and imperial violence, systemic racism and sexism, and even personal reflection amid the ongoing collective trauma of COVID-19.  

Together Key Jo Lee, director of academic affairs and associate curator of special projects at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA); Gabriela Martínez, director of education at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), Long Beach, California; Damon Reaves, interim senior curator of education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) and incoming head of education at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, in June 2021; and Dalila Scruggs, coordinator of the Museum Education Fellowship Program at the Brooklyn Museum (BKM), share some of their working methods, their strategies for confronting potentially triggering content with their audiences, and ways they have generated collaborative programs such as Art and Empathy: Community Care through Art at the BKM, Community Conversations Initiatives at the PMA, I Learn (Storyshare) at MOLAA, and Close Looking at a Distance at the CMA.

What follows is a three-part roundtable that candidly and fluidly explores the intersection of museum education and trauma, which we recorded on January 29, 2021, and edited for clarity. The editors of this series hope that the experiences shared here will not only celebrate the incredible work museum educators do for their communities but also model trauma-informed practices that are applicable to a variety of classroom settings, both within and outside of museum spaces. 

“Holding Space”: Approaching Difficult Content in the Museum 

In part 1 of the conversation, the panelists address how they engage with topics that could potentially elicit a traumatic response in audience members. Noting the challenge—and potential danger—of too readily defining “difficult content,” particularly as one works with varied and unknown audiences both remotely and in the physical gallery space, the speakers discuss the need to thoughtfully construct supportive spaces that allow for vulnerability and personal reflection. Dalila Scruggs speaks to the collaborative ways she crafted these spaces with licensed art therapist Sarah Pousty and social work graduate student Lula Zeray for the program Art and Empathy at the BKM. This collaboration carved out room for the supported exploration of topics like loss and grief around art objects such as LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photograph Grandma Ruby and Me. Moreover, the speakers examine how museum education encourages teaching as an act of facilitation that creates a kind of “shared authority,” or as Damon Reaves puts it, “[the educator] has a certain knowledge and skill set to bring to the conversation, but so does everyone else in that room.” The panelists emphasize the significance of transparency and vulnerability as foundational tools for building trust, supporting community connections, and holding space for audience members to process, think, and feel. This section of the discussion closes with a consideration of the museum’s responsibility to address how its narratives, as well as particular collections, evoke pasts—and presents—of institutionalized racism, gender- or race-based violence, and colonialism and imperialism. 

Part 1 of the video roundtable “Holding Space,” conducted in January 2021. Seated top row, left to right: Jenevieve DeLosSantos, Kathleen Pierce, and Key Jo Lee; bottom row, left to right: Dalila Scruggs, Damon Reaves, and Gabriela Martínez.

Diverse Audiences, Creating Community

This second part of the discussion homes in on audience and community, examining how museums connect with both local and broader national and international audiences and how museum educators consider these myriad perspectives while they teach. The speakers consider practical teaching techniques that facilitate engagement with diverse audiences, especially as remote programming allows educators to reach an increasingly global audience; these include defining terms and not assuming prior knowledge, modeling vulnerability, and crafting community agreements. But they also explicate more abstract concepts, such as forging pathways from the collections into the history of art more broadly or, in Gabriela Martínez’s framing, making space for audiences to lead. The discussants also think through relationships among the local, the global, and the historical, emphasizing the ways that centering particular communities can create an access point for larger audiences; they remind us that specificity does not equate to exclusion.  

Part 2 of the video roundtable “Holding Space,” conducted in January 2021. Seated top row, left to right: Jenevieve DeLosSantos, Kathleen Pierce, and Key Jo Lee; bottom row, left to right: Dalila Scruggs, Damon Reaves, and Gabriela Martínez.

COVID-19 and Collective Trauma: Reflecting on Teaching through the Pandemic 

In this last portion of our discussion, we turn our attention to the complexity of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. While museums throughout the world have closed their doors, programming has continued and, in fact, has even extended to new and sometimes unanticipated audiences thanks to the global reach of web-hosted learning. This dialogue explores the lessons educators learned as they employed virtual platforms. Key Jo Lee, for example, underlines how collaboration with scholars and meditation professionals at the CMA worked to support learners and “ground” them in multiple “moments of respite” as they processed potentially traumatic content, ultimately producing generative space within a moment of collective trauma. The participants also highlight how web-based programming bolsters accessibility, and how this attention has forged pathways for improving inclusivity once teaching returns to brick-and-mortar classrooms. Crucial takeaways include the power of public educational programming that is developed in conversation with professionals from a variety of fields and the value of creating space for multifaceted forms of engagement.

Part 3 of the video roundtable “Holding Space,” conducted in January 2021. Seated top row, left to right: Jenevieve DeLosSantos, Kathleen Pierce, and Key Jo Lee; bottom row, left to right: Damon Reaves, Gabriela Martínez, and Dalila Scruggs.

Concluding Thoughts: The Museum and Hope

The museum holds incredible potential as a center of community care for audiences both local and beyond. Embedded within this dialogue, however, is an acknowledgment that museums are not equally welcoming to all visitors, whether in terms of accessibility or in the ways they have upheld structural inequities. The work being done by the educators in this panel highlights the generative power of museum programming to counter these traditions of exclusion. As our panelists demonstrate, the space that programs open up for patrons to share in the act of communal looking can forge vital inroads to understanding, growth, and connection. The museum and its physical and virtual environments can be essential venues for healing, for processing, for confronting, and for moving forward with a greater sense of oneself and one’s place in both the local community and a global society. As Lee explained in a follow-up conversation, it can be the confrontation itself of violent and painful pasts that does this essential work: “The direct address of the existential issues is how we become spaces of hope…if there’s no reckoning, then we are in a place where hope can’t actually exist.”

For more information on the artworks, programs, and readings mentioned in this conversation, see:

Works of Art

Draper, Louis H. Congressional Gathering, 1959. Gelatin silver print. Cleveland Museum of Art.

Frazier, LaToya Ruby. Grandma Ruby and Me, 2005. Gelatin silver print. Brooklyn Museum. See also Wesley Miller and Nick Ravich, LaToya Ruby Frazier Makes Moving Pictures, video for the Art21 series New York Close Up, which Dalila Scruggs mentions showing in her teaching of this photograph.

Howe Shoemaker, Innis. Exhibition text for Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney, Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 28–September 22, 2013. Exhibition organized by Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA. See on the same page the video Sweethearts of Rhythm for an image of the Pinkney watercolor referenced in this conversation.

Lewis, Norman. Alabama, 1960. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art. 

Sallée, Charles L. Bedtime, 1940. Oil on canvas. Cleveland Museum of Art. See also the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art’s collection.

Museum Programs

African American Museum in Philadelphia. “The Way We Mourn: Discussing Black Grief & Memorials in Uncertain Times.” July 9, 2020.

Black Liberation Center, in association with Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland and Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. “Art of Collective Care & Responsibility: Handling Images of Black Suffering & Death.” Five-part free virtual teach-in organized by La Tanya S. Autry, featuring participant Key Jo Lee. See also video recordings of sessions and educational resources.

Brooklyn Museum. Art and Empathy: Community Care through Art. Recurring. Attendance is open to all who preregister; upcoming events include June 3, 2021, 3:00–5:00 p.m. EDT, and June 3, 2021, 7:00–9:00 p.m. EDT.

Cleveland Museum of Art. Close Looking at a Distance, Art & Insight, and Desktop Dialogues. Upcoming Desktop Dialogues events include “An Art Anthology, Chapter Four,” May 5, 2021, 12:00 p.m. EDT. See also the video “Desktop Dialogue: Comfort with the Unknown,” January 13, 2021, which features mindfulness and contemplation guide Gwendolyn Ren.

Museum of Latin American Art. Arte, Mujer y Memoria: Arpilleras from Chile. Curated by Gabriela Martínez. November 24, 2019–September 6, 2020.

Museum of Latin American Art. I Learn (Storyshare).

Museum of Latin American Art. OaxaCAlifornia: Through the Experience of the Duo Tlacolulokos. Curated by Gabriela Urtiaga. March 1–November 8, 2020.

Museum of Latin American Art. Summer Arts & Culture Camp.

Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Final Fridays: Werk It!,” a house and ballroom scene program. See Bethany Ao, “Far from Black-Tie, This Art Museum Ball Celebrates LGBTQ Ballroom Culture,” Philadelphia Inquirer, January 24, 2019.

Philadelphia Museum of Art. Vlisco: African Fashion on a Global Stage. Curated by Dilys E. Blum. April 30, 2016–January 22, 2017.

Readings and Resources for Further Information

Armstrong, Jackie. “Museums Must Become More Trauma Informed.” Art Museum Teaching: A Forum for Reflecting on Practice, August 3, 2020.

Dockray, Heather. “Self-Care Isn’t Enough: We Need Community Care to Thrive.” Mashable, May 24, 2019.

Hendrick, Keonna, School Programs Manager, Brooklyn Museum. Various writings.

Hoffman, Kelly M., et al. “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113, no. 16 (2016): 4296–301.

Laird, Ross. “Mental Health Considerations for Museums: An Emerging Field of Practice and Discovery.”

Lewis, Sarah. “Vision & Justice: Guest Editor’s Note.” Aperture no. 223 (Summer 2016).

Palamara, Andrew, et al. “Trauma-Aware Art Museum Education: Principles & Practices.” Art Museum Teaching: A Forum for Reflecting on Practice, June 29, 2020.

Wiskera, Emily, et al. “Trauma-Aware Art Museum Education: A Conversation.” Art Museum Teaching: A Forum for Reflecting on Practice, May 4, 2020.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.

Jenevieve DeLosSantos is assistant teaching professor of art history and director of special pedagogic projects in the Office of Undergraduate Education for the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, New Jersey. In her dual role, she teaches art history courses while working on larger initiatives devoted to teaching and learning and undergraduate research. Her current book project with Rutgers University Press, “Poetries–Politics: A Multilingual Project,” explores project-based learning in the humanities. Her art history scholarship focuses on nineteenth-century American Orientalism and, more broadly, on race and imperialism in nineteenth-century visual culture.

Kathleen Pierce is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Art at Smith College. She
received her PhD in art history from Rutgers University. Her research focuses on the intersection of art and medicine in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French empire. She is currently at work on a book project, “Ephemeral Surfaces: Paper, Paint, and Pathological Skin in the Fin-de-Siècle French Empire,” which elucidates shared models of thinking about surface across medicine, public health, and artistic production. Recent writing has appeared in Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide and Medical History.

Key Jo Lee is director of academic affairs and associate curator of special projects at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). She designs programs to inspire scholarly engagement with the CMA’s collections; creates and tracks opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students’ exposure to humanities fields; and develops and oversees the CMA’s academic partnerships. Lee, whose expertise is in American art history, the history of photography, and African American studies, is responsible for curatorial and publication projects that both highlight the intersection of scholarly work and public audiences and illuminate works in the collection by artists of the Black diaspora.

Gabriela Martínez is director of education at the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, California, where she works collaboratively with diverse groups to develop art and culture-based programs and exhibitions that tell the stories important to their communities. Martínez holds a BA in painting and an MFA in printmaking and is a 2009 fellow of the Smithsonian Latino Center’s Latino Museum Studies Program. 

Damon Reaves is the interim senior curator of education and public programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). He earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania working in drawing, painting, and installation. Prior to his current role, Reaves was the PMA’s associate curator of education for community engagement and access and focused on building relationships between the museum and its surrounding communities. Reaves has also served as the director of community engagement at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and has worked as a teaching artist for the City of Philadelphia’s mural art program. In June 2021, Reaves will join the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as head of education.

Dalila Scruggs is an art historian and museum educator. She earned a PhD in art history in 2010 from Harvard University and has held curatorial positions at the Williams College Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Currently she serves as the coordinator of the Museum Education Fellowship Program at the Brooklyn Museum. In 2020 she developed a program called Art and Empathy: Community Care through Art, intended to make space for self-care, conversation, and connection during the COVID-19 pandemic.