In honor of International Museum Day, we sat down with Museum Educators Sabrina Phillips (School and Teacher Programs) and Monique O’Neil (Family and Community Programs) from the Blanton Museum of Art to chat about Art of the Book (part 1), a new collaboration between the Blanton and BookPeople, where we invite students to interact with authors and illustrators before exploring literacy themes in the galleries. We also discuss the great books they have hand-picked for a special BookPeople display and the museums that inspired their careers! Check out part 2 below and start planning your visit to the Blanton!
The Blanton has its own display at BookPeople with books you hand-pick. What is the selection process like? What are you looking for in a book?
Monique: One, length is a big thing, we don’t want them too lengthy. Specifically for our programs, I can decide if I want it to be more focused on SEL, or more journey driven. It’s never about a literal component, but about the way it can reflect the creative process or– for example, there’s this book called Moon, about a girl who’s going to school and stuck in this rigid schedule, following rules and doing her homework. And one day she decides she’s tired of following the rules, and she finds this wolf in the wilderness.
She wants to be free and wild like the wolf, and this book made me think– it’s like being an artist, this idea of pushing back on how things “should” be done, and being more playful. So the challenge for us is finding these translations– how does the book translate to artist, to process. There’s this one book called A River, where a girl is drawing from her window and there’s a river running through the city. She’s channeling through this river that’s taking her to the ocean and the forest– I saw that and I thought it would be cool for the museum to represent this river. And ask the kids to describe this journey we’re going on as we’re exploring the museum and letting “the river” take us around the space.
Sabrina: I’m mostly looking for SEL themes. I think my favorite was The Most Magnificent Thing. It’s about this little girl who’s trying to make something, but she can’t make what’s in her head so she gets frustrated. And so to me, it’s all about process, all SEL, all about managing emotions.
Monique: There’s this book called Shh! We Have a Plan, which was one of my favorite books we worked with last summer.
It’s about thinking how many times has an artist–or anyone, really– had an idea that just doesn’t work. And you’ve gotta figure out a way to make it come together. It’s the simplicity of the idea of having to try and try again, and trying something different. In the museum, we’d be looking at works of art and talking about the artist’s plan. We ask kids: “Do you think the artist met their plans, is this what they originally wanted to do?” Sometimes we show them photos of how a work of art started in the studio, versus how it ended up looking in the museum. It’s just like in books, where sometimes authors include an alternate ending. It’s neat to see the process, or what the work once was or could have been. That’s the way kids learn that not everything will always go according to plan and you gotta make it work!
BP: Since we’ve been talking about International Museum Day (5/19), do you remember having a fun museum experience when you were young that inspired you to pursue your career as museum educator? Did you have a favorite museum growing up?
Sabrina: I didn’t know you could work in a museum, in education– I didn’t realize that was a job. I was at teacher’s college in London, and I was learning about upper elementary with arts. There was an internship opportunity at the National Gallery London, and I was so excited to do it.
When I got there and saw what they were doing, I was blown away. I didn’t know– my mind was like, this is what museum education looks like? I was under the impression that it was tours. You know, I pictured an old lady with an umbrella telling you to come and look at this old artwork. So here I am sitting down in front of this giant Titian work, and this woman is talking me through and I caught myself in this moment, in this museum space, owning this artwork, and I thought, I want this experience for my kids. So I finished my degree in elementary teaching and everything I did from then on was all about artwork. I always thought in my head, one day I want to work in a museum, one day I’m going to do it. So I spent ten years working in schools, then I moved to Austin and I stayed at home with my first child and during that time I got a master’s in Art History, and the Blanton opportunity just happened. It all fit in, from having that transformative moment with this one work of art to finally be doing it myself. Sometimes I catch myself in my day thinking, I’m literally doing my dream job.
Monique: I grew up going to museums. My parents are art lovers and my mother is an artist, so I knew that I wanted to do something with art, but I was never an artist. My brother is actually an artist who does it for a living and I always thought, I can never be him. All the times I visited museums it was as a viewer, and it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college when I had an internship at the Guggenheim, where my brother worked, and I was doing installations for education, for their arts and literacy program.
I got to see the behind the scenes for Matthew Barney, when his crew was putting together his art installation. I was in the midst of hanging an education exhibition and at the same time getting to see this well known artist go through this set-up process. I loved the idea of being in this building that was like a classroom, and witnessing all the different decisions and the people it took to collaborate on this art piece. I also just kind of fell into museums because I couldn’t get a job as an art therapist after I came from New York and I found myself in a children’s museum doing expressive arts. I never thought I’d go back to a fine arts museum, but when I landed at the Blanton, it was such a different space. Museums for me have always been a playground, where things come alive– like the movie Night in the Museum! I love walking around and knowing that behind the walls, there’s people, there’s proprietors, all these moving parts. Just like a book!
Celebrate the wonder of museums with books like Historium: Welcome to the Museum, Peppa Pig and the Day at the Museum, The Museum Book, and books hand-picked by Sabrina and Monique, like A Child of Books and Journey.
The Blanton Museum of Art is located at 200 E. MLK Jr. Blvd. in Austin, Texas 78701