Museum Education on Land and Sea: Working at the Grey Art Gallery and at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum
October 18, 2019
by Katelyn Ragsdale
During my final year in NYU’s MA program in Museum Studies, I interned at both the Grey Art Gallery and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. While the positions entailed different tasks and different audiences and subjects, there were also many similarities, such as the skillset required for each position, which in turn helped me to excel at the other.
My internship at the Grey Art Gallery, which began in August 2018, was my first foray into the world of museum work. The Grey is New York University’s art museum, located on Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Founded in 1975 by Abby Weed Grey, it has approximately 6,000 items in its permanent collection, including extensive holdings of Iranian, Indian, and Turkish modern art. The collection also features examples of postwar American art, and late 19th- and early 20th-century European art. During my internship, I not only learned about the works in the Grey’s permanent collection but also researched the artists and artworks in exhibitions that the Grey organized in-house—such as Metamorphoses: Ovid According to Wally Reinhardt —and hosted, such as the current travelling exhibition Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989.
My research on the aforementioned exhibitions and others led to giving gallery talks, with which I had little previous experience. At the Grey I also undertook projects related to collections management and public programming, and attended meetings and events that I wouldn’t otherwise have been aware of or invited to join. My personal goals for gallery talks were to teach the concept of active looking, to encourage close observation, and to motivate my groups to explore an object’s content, intent, and their personal interpretations of it. Even if they did not remember all the facts I relayed, I wanted them to walk away with these tools for the next time they visited a museum or gallery.
A few months after beginning my internship at the Grey, I accepted a Per Diem Educator position at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York. The Intrepid Museum was founded in 1982 with the acquisition of the retired aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Intrepid—launched in 1943—which served during WWII and the Vietnam War, and later as a recovery vessel for NASA’s Gemini and Mercury space missions before being decommissioned in 1974. The ship and museum is now a National Historical landmark and is located at Pier 86 in Hell’s Kitchen, with views from the flight deck of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline. The goal of this non-profit museum is to “promote the awareness and understanding of history, science and service through its collections, exhibitions and programming in order to honor our heroes, educate the public and inspire our youth.” This is uniquely reflected in the history of the Intrepid and in that of the other crafts on view, including the Enterprise (the first space shuttle), 28 restored planes like the Lockheed A-12 (a military and spy plane) and the British Airways Concorde, and the Growler (the only American guided missile submarine open to the public).
Traveling to my assigned school a few times a week, I taught students for a semester about the history of the Intrepid, in addition to space-related content, the basics of flight, and other topics related to the museum. Lessons included learning about the four forces of flight and making a rotocopter; creating and designing a 3-D printed aircraft; learning about early space exploration and making space capsules followed by an egg drop challenge to see if the students’ “egg”stronauts survived reentry; and learning simple coding with ozobots (small coding robots). The students I taught challenged me in the best ways, asked amazing and insightful questions, and pushed me to be a more adaptable, capable educator.
My education positions at both the Grey and the Intrepid equipped me with invaluable skills and lessons that I intend to carry forward into my museum career. At both museums, I strived to engage with and spark the curiosity of all my listeners, relaying the content in an easily grasped and accessible manner. I also gained experience teaching and speaking in a more formal atmosphere, which boosted my confidence in speaking to larger groups. I learned to be more adaptable and to think on my feet, as the individuals I encountered—especially kids—would ask thoughtful questions for which I was sometimes unprepared. As a scholar, it wasn’t too difficult to accept that I didn’t have all the answers, but I occasionally had to address this in a direct, face-to-face manner. I would always strive to find an answer and follow up in-person or via email. I also strongly encouraged questions and observations, and made a point to remain unbiased toward answers and ideas when I asked more open-ended questions. This skillset was especially important for interacting with children, as I didn’t want them to feel discouraged, uninterested, or to have their curiosity crushed. This was important for my gallery talks at the Grey as well, as I didn’t want the group to disengage or for individuals to feel like they said the wrong thing. These approaches boil down to two skills that are foundational to my education practice—compassion and active listening. When interacting with children or non-expert groups, it is important that they feel listened to, that their observations are acknowledged, and that they are treated with respect.
While these positions definitely had many similarities, there were also differences that I had to adapt to and that helped me grow as an educator. One of main differences was that I developed my own content for the gallery talks I gave at the Grey. I was given sources to reference; but was able to select works that caught my interest and organize my talks in a way that I thought best relayed the content of the exhibition. At the Intrepid, however, I was given lesson plans. I had some freedom in how I approached and presented the information to my students, but still had to adapt to this more formal, structured approach to teaching. I also had to adjust to the physical space. At the Grey, the artwork was typically right beside me and I could point to specific areas of interest and invite my groups to look more closely at a piece. At the Intrepid, I taught mostly in a remote classroom, and worked with PowerPoints, touch objects, and facilitated activities related to the lesson, with a few scheduled class trips to the museum each semester. Working with the students and seeing them think critically and creatively as they participated in their activities became my favorite part of working in this position.
The amount of time I spent with my groups differed as well—at the Grey, it was approximately an hour; and at the Intrepid, I met with my students twice a week for a few hours each session. This allowed me to get to know my students better—their areas of interests and how they best responded to certain teaching styles and lesson structures—and to build on previous knowledge each week during the semester. Another significant difference was in the size of the groups. My gallery groups ranged anywhere from eight to twenty, and the student groups that I taught through the Intrepid were capped at twenty-five. The final and primary difference was in the diversity of the groups that I encountered at each institution. At the Grey, I gave gallery talks to visitors of varying demographics, including graduate and undergraduate students, middle and high school groups, and mixed groups of varying ages and backgrounds; while at the Intrepid I taught only fourth or fifth graders.
In short, while my positions at the Grey and the Intrepid were both focused on teaching, I left these internships having learned just as much—if not more—than my gallery talk groups and students did; and as a result, I have grown significantly both personally and professionally.
“About The Museum.” Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Accessed May 10, 2019.
“Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989.” Grey Art Gallery. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Grey Art Gallery website. Accessed May 10, 2019. https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/.
“Metamorphoses: Ovid According to Wally Reinhardt.” Grey Art Gallery. Accessed May
10, 2019. https://greyartgallery.nyu.edu/exhibition/wally-reinhardt-pages-ovids-metamorphosesjanuary-9-april-6-2019/.
“Our Neighborhood.” Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Accessed May 10, 2019.
Katy Ragsdale is a former graduate intern at the Grey Art Gallery. She received her M.A. in Museum Studies from New York University in the spring of 2019.