Museum curator combines teaching, art


Last year, 5,149 children took field trips to the U-M Museum of Art. Sixty community docents took them on tours. Many of those docents were trained by Pamela Reister.

As the curator for Museum Teaching and Learning, Reister helps select, train and oversee UMMA’s volunteer docents. Before they can lead tours, docents must complete a yearlong class that goes over the museum’s collections and how to teach them.

Reister says the class focuses on the museums’ strengths, including its early western, modern and contemporary, Asian, and African collections, as well as education theory like multiple intelligence and inquiry-based learning.

“We try to teach through conversation and questioning. We’ll ask students, ‘What do you see?’ and have a fun, interactive learning experience,” says Reister. “You have to modify your teaching style for different ages.”

These Michele Oka Doner sculptures are some of Pamela Reister’s favorite UMMA pieces. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

The museum’s events range from Saturday story time for toddlers to art history field trips for high school seniors, as well as collaborations with U-M classes.

“The challenge is to engage them, to get to the kids’ level and find something they’re interested in that we can connect to, and help them see the art around them.”

With field trip numbers down around the country — Reister credits high gas costs, cuts in art funding and the “teach to test” mentality — UMMA changed how it runs its tours. New curricular tours tie what students are learning in their social studies, science and writing classes to artwork in the museum.

“Art and a subject area are two notes you play at the same time and you’re trying to get this harmonic going above them,” Reister says of the combination of art and classroom curriculum.

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One such tour, called Art Rocks, combines art and geology. Students look at medieval paintings where gold and lapis lazuli has been used as painting pigment, and discuss how rocks and minerals are made, traded and used. 

University students are benefitting from curricular tours, too. During the Understanding Race Theme Semester in winter 2013, UMMA created a tour that included contemporary Cuban artist María Magdalena Campos-Pons’s work about the legacy of African diaspora in Cuba.

“We could talk about the institution of slavery, how it still manifests today, how artists are responding to it, and how people talk back to it through their art,” says Reister, whose docents led several tours for U-M classes.

Reister works with students outside of class tours, too. A cohort of about 20 U-M students currently volunteer as student docents, with responsibilities ranging from conducting staff tours to writing for the UMMA blog, the Annex.

It was while she was a student at Pioneer High School that Reister first studied art.

“I fell in love with art history at Pioneer’s humanities program,” she says.

After teaching a figure skating class for Carlton College’s physical education program while finishing her undergraduate degree, Reister realized she loved teaching, too, and that she could combine the two by teaching docents.

She doesn’t have a favorite piece of art, but she does have a favorite medium: photography. Reister says she takes pictures of her family as a visual diary and loves studying photography.

“It covers everything in life and history, everything as mundane as documenting possessions for insurance and as interesting as art.”


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