Thesis Update: Teaching Older Adults in Art Museums

OKalin photoHi! My name is Olivia Kalin and I am a graduate student in CCNY’s Art Museum Education program, a new concentration within the Art History department that straddles art history, art museum education, and art education. I’m in my fourth and final semester of the program. I came to CCNY mid-career as a museum educator looking to strengthen my practice and to delve more deeply into the field that has become home to me. In addition to my studies, I teach families and K-8 school students in nature and art education at Wave Hill, a garden and cultural center in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and serve as ex-officio on the board of the New York City Museum Educators Roundtable (NYCMER). When I’m not teaching or studying, I can be found ogling flowers and trees in NYC parks and gardens, baking, knitting, and traveling.



Students walking the grounds at Wave Hill. Photo credit Joshua Bright.

I’m planning a study that will investigate the way art museums approach educational programming for one of the United States’ fasting growing populations: older adults..In my preliminary research, I spoke with a woman in her 90s who is deeply involved in such programs and told me that by being a regular at the museum made her feel visible again, and more alive than ever. Museums like MoMA and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London have reported on the major emotional benefits that participants in programming designed specifically for older populations receive from such programs. As museums evolve to become ever more socially conscious organizations, I believe that programs such as these will be one way museums maintain their importance to society.



As I’ve learned more and more about these programs, one thing I’ve noticed is that there isn’t much written yet on how museum educators are differentiating their teaching methods and modes of engagement to suit the specific needs of the audience. Studies have shown that older adults are in a position that is unique from younger and working adults: for instance, they have more leisure time, are more active than previous generations of retirees, and can more easily suffer from social isolation than people in other age groups. They have also displayed unique cognitive differences that can and should make educational programs designed for them formatted for these characteristics and needs. For my research study, I intend to explore some NYC art museums’ approaches to pedagogy for this growing audience. My hope is that by sharing what is being done to tailor museum education programs to the needs and strengths of older adults in conjunction with participants’ responses and gerontological research, my study will raise awareness of this audience’s unique attributes and encourage museum educators to fine tune pedagogy for older adults to best serve them.


Art museums are uniquely situated to offer exciting learning opportunities to older adults that can benefit participants on personal and larger levels. By offering spaces for seniors to learn and express themselves, programs such as these can raise participants’ spirits, inspire confidence in individuals, and help raise awareness of the vital benefits that older adults can provide to our society at large. I hope my project can do a little bit to help promote this cause.


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