Art as the Memory Keeper

I thought I’d add a little feel-good post to get us through the rest of the week…

ArtNews posted an article on November 1st about a new program going on at MoMA that is targeted specifically at visitors with Alzheimer’s and dementia. A little history, before we begin: “MoMA’s pioneering work with the Alzheimer’s population began in 2006 with a pilot program at a nursing home, developed by Francesca Rosenberg, director of the education department’s Community, Access, and School programs. In 2007, the MetLife Foundation awarded Rosenberg and her team a $450,000 grant to develop an arts-and-dementia program that could be adopted by other institutions. A second grant of $400,000 two years later funded an outreach effort that saw MoMA educators visiting institutions around the world to train museum professionals, caregivers, teachers, and health-care providers. A third MetLife gift, earlier this year, will underwrite yet more training.”

What I was able to glean from the article is that the educators are taking these visitors with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia through the galleries using VTS, or Visual Thinking Strategies. The basis of VTS is that the facilitator, or educator, offers absolutely no information to the visitors, and instead relies on the group to discern what a painting or object is about.  Facilitators ask three questions: What’s going on in this picture? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find? The facilitator repeats back each answer, sometimes rephrasing to get at certain key words, and accepts each answer at face value.  Visitors must back up their answers with evidence from what they see, but no answer is wrong.

This strategy of learning in the gallery, that has its roots at MoMA, is especially effective with Alzheimer’s visitors, according to the article in ArtNews.  Art can trigger emotional memories (the kind that dementia patients can still recall), and because there are no right or wrong answers when using VTS, participants don’t feel uncomfortable if they do not know a name or date. Patients with diseases that are increasingly isolating are allowed the opportunity to engage not only with the art, but with the community around them and their own memories as well.

I see this program as a museum at its best, using its collection to engage with and contribute to the community in which it exists. MoMA is taking theories and teaching techniques that were developed in its own house and applying them in ways that are not entirely obvious at the outset. Say what you will about MoMA, but this is the kind of program that should be emulated in museums everywhere.

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