Museum Education: From Connoisseurs to Convicts

Springtime at the museum always features a plethora of educational presentations, and this year was no exception. In addition to reinventing the compass countless times and leading virtually every sixth grader in Escondido through the Qin  秦 emperor's murderous exploits, the museum has brought educational programming to some unconventional locales this year.

Most members have enjoyed PowerPoint presentations at the openings of our many temporary exhibits, but now we are making many of these lectures available on demand and even off-site. That's right, now you can experience our rotating exhibits from the comfort of your own classroom or auditorium. The lecture accompanying our Five Dynasties of Chinese Pottery exhibit, Chinese Pottery: from Potsherds to Porcelain already proved a big hit with the Mingei International Museum docents and the Asian Arts Council of the San Diego Museum of Art. Of course, we will not always be able to offer lectures about exhibits on loan from collectors and other institutions, but all the really good ones are curated by the museum anyway (not that I'm biased or anything). 

It’s truly a rare privilege to be welcomed into the renowned museums of Balboa Park, but this May we learned that it could be equally rewarding to work with those languishing on the margins of society. On May 13, Agnes Chuang and I drove nearly an hour to give a calligraphy presentation at Barrett High School, a division of the Juvenile Corrections Intervention Program. Nestled in an isolated Alpine valley, it could be mistaken for a resort if it weren’t for the razor wire fences and armed guards.

Stepping into a classroom filled with tattooed teens incarcerated for minor offenses was only briefly intimidating, because it soon became clear that they were filled with curiosity and really appreciated our presence. At most high schools, there are a few spoiled students who think they are too cool to attempt the singsong tones of Mandarin, but these alleged troublemakers eagerly imitated every Chinese word I spoke. After Agnes had written each of their names in Chinese, they even presented each of us with a bouquet of flowers, something that’s never happened even at the elite private schools we have visited. When we had answered the last of several questions about China (unfortunately, I didn't have an adequate translation for "thug life"), guards came to escort the young men back to their dormitories, and they had to turn their pockets inside-out to show that they had no weapons nor contraband, but they still reverently carried their packets of Chinese characters, carefully protecting the wet ink on their new Chinese names.


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