Living Interpretation

Interview with Ryan Hill, by Kate Clark and Christopher Kennedy (January 2012) |

Describe for us the interpretive guide program at the Hirshhorn:

The interpretive guide program actually started at the Guggenheim before I began working at the Hirshhorn and basically consists of museum using inquiry techniques to create audience and visitor engagement within the structure of a tour.

So I was working through this idea of inquiry – and the interesting thing about inquiry is that it’s really not just asking questions, but asking questions in a way that calls for open responses. Open response is not something that everyone can get. So, with that all said, I found that I wanted to go outside of a tour structure in order to create these kinds of experiences. There is already an implied power dynamic within the structure of the traditional tour.  The person giving the tour becomes the expert and the attending people are there to learn.  The learning is never considred to be a two way process.

At the Guggenheim there was an opportunity to engage security guards in a hybrid program between visitor services, security and education in which I trained educators in light security tasks, to do security and also gallery interpretation with visitors. From that program I developed what was called gallery guides. These were paid positions to be doing both light security and also supporting visitor interpretation.

As an artist I’m interested in putting the visitor in the place of the creator and have them think about artistic choices as if they was theirs. Artists’ work in museums tends to become validated through academia. And I think that’s not always what the artist is interested in.  It’s important that whoever is an interpretive guide be someone who either has an artistic bent  or has a sympathy with the artist or the visitor. That’s philosophically what the program is about. It’s been running at the Hirshhorn for about 5 years now and it continues at the Guggenheim but in a different form.

Could you talk about your transition in working on the ArtLab+?

I was really interested in how technology could be interpretive. But also too, technology can be very emancipatory because it gives voice to personal interpretation. This challenges institutions and also give feedback to institutions on how to be more responsive to what their audiences really need. So I saw the opportunity to work with a community of teens and interacting with the art as a way of empowering them, especially if they’re considered high risk or not getting the usual channels and access to technology. I also saw it as an opportunity for the museum to learn from the teens. These teen groups I’m working with are actually going to be the people who come to museums in the future. And if there is a narrowing amount of funding available to museums, we’re going to have to figure out ways to reinvent ourselves. The Smithsonian is lucky that we get government funding. It allows me to do these kinds of programs, so I don’t have to be completely responsive to an elite interest.tumblr_inline_mi4xr4XPJd1qz4rgp

The most innovative stuff that’s happening is not happening at the big institutions at all. Because they’re too slow and not very responsive. It’s really happening in smaller towns, with nonprofit spaces, in places where they need to be more responsive to their community. Larger institutions are so driven to be global and be engaged with prestige they start to neglect the innovation that could come from being responsive to community. Because the community can now be global, it’s not that hard. Once you have access to digital media, you can do it. So that’s where the innovation is, looking at how to be responsive locally and taking that globally. And talking about how that can be a model for other places. And then it’s more about an exchange. But I don’t think exchange actually helps institutions completely reinforce their authority. A lot of them are afraid of that dialogue.

The ArtLab is situated in the sculpture garden, separate from the the museum. So in terms of thinking about the student projects being produced in the ArtLab – how do you see them overlapping with the actual physical institution of the Hirshhorn? Is there much crossover?

The problem was, the ArtLab was originally supposed to be in the lobby. The ambitions of the museum were to built a state of the art educational space – but those ambitions exceeded our funding. So in order to implement what our funders wanted, we had to go to the ArtLab in order to give us more time and immediately do it. Right now the way that we are a part of the infrastructure is through content. So we have some community responsive workshops, and some museum workshops. Sometime they’re a blend of both. And because the museum is also a community were serving. We use the model of a design firm, and the design firm always has a client, and the teens are always the designers. Their challenge is always to serve that client. So whether the museum is the client or the community they have to analyze what the clients needs are and then produce with that goal in mind. And we find that that actually – as much as I love unending process – we find that with teens, that goal can have real-world products and gets them excited about being invested. And this is actually lessons learned from the Learning Institute and the MacArthur Foundation and all their philosophies on how to setup a space. There are spaces setup with the philosophy of HOMAGO – hanging out, messing around and geeking out. HOMAGO is about interactive zones, genres of participation that the teen can be a part of. What we’re probably going to do is make the hanging out and messing around section be in the lobby of the museum, and the more geeking out be in the Artlab. The Artlab has a cave-like hermetic clubhouse feel to it, and we feel that it might be nice to keep that. The messing around and more social activities can be more exhibitionist in the glass lobby. It can be ways to connect the whole museum. We tried linking QR codes to works in the gallery – there are a lot of ways to do it.

Are there guiding themes for student projects at the Art Lab+?

Each workshop has its own theme. Basically we do the workshops structured around the idea of a challenge or a mission. I hand over a lot of creativity to the mentors because each of them is coming from a different perspective and each of them is hopefully representing a perspective of kids that are coming in. So I kind of give them license to develop something that’s responsive to the kids. The teens actually have to tell us what they’re invested in, then we make our workshops based on that. One of the themes is being responsive to the teens, just as interpretive guides are responsive to the visitors. So it’s the same model with a feedback loop.

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Do you have a future vision of the ArtLab or Hirshhorn’s education program in general?

One of the things I want to have happen is to have one of the arms of Hirshhorn to be community responsive. We’re trying our best but we’re not reflecting the community we’re serving. And one of the ways we could do that is by beginning to hire the alumni of the ArtLab so that over time the community that’s coming to the ArtLab will be the community that’s teaching its own community. But also at the same time those people are bringing a sensibility into the art museum that is far more down to earth. They can balance out what the museum is doing.

The other thing is, I’d like to do programming that’s intergenerational where we have teens actually not only being mentors but teaching adults how to use technology. So that there is this bridging of the gap between older folks and younger folks. And that’s also mentoring that could happen within that intergenerational exchange. The older folks can say, hey, these are the lessons we learned, we don’t have the language you have with technology but that perhaps there is something you can learn from us. By teaching us…I think this network of digital labs, digital centers can fill in the blanks that public schools aren’t filling in. And be responsive in terms of technological needs and professional development that kids need and aren’t getting in high school.

What I think is happening is the rich are able to send their kids to schools that will get them into college, to schools that will prepare them to be really teachable in a college environment. They also have the money to tutor them whenever the schools are failing them and what I would like to see that these digital labs be tutoring centers that use digital media but also help anyone get into college because the biggest divide is a linguistic divide. Populations have different cultural vocabularies and unless your institutions are generous in who they’re looking for then a lot of people could be disadvantaged and not be able to be a part of higher education.

There is class, gender, sexuality throughout our culture. So in the bigger picture we’re talking about developing a safe space. And also a space that empowers anyone to have access to knowledge…and I would just hope that the ArtLab could be something like that, or a model for allowing anyone to have advances to higher learning and institutions. Because they have access to the Smithsonian by being in the ArtLab and that is paid for by the government so that its accessible to anyone. I would hope that places like the ArtLab would spring up all over to give people access to all kinds of institutions so there isn’t kind of an elitism and so that there isn’t that 1% who is only getting access with that information. Or sustaining a history that only supports the identity of that 1%.


ArtLab+, Hirshhorn Museum
700 Independence Avenue Southwest  Washington, DC 20560
(202) 633-1000


Ryan Hill is the Hirshhorn’s director of digital learning programs. Hill is from Manhattan Beach, California and received a BFA – Fine Arts and Film Theory, MA – UC Santa Cruz, Film and Television, University of California Los Angeles, MFA – Studio Art, California Institute of the Arts.

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