Discovering Connections: Teaching Institute Hosted by the Asian Art Museum, SFMOMA, and the Fine Arts Museums

For the past three years the education departments of the Asian Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have met to explore how collaborative programming can better support Bay Area teachers. Last week, building on this objective, the museums jointly hosted a four-day institute for high school teachers that focused on the theme of Discovering Connections.

With the shared goal of empowering students to learn through art, the museums set out to provide a toolbox of experiences and activities designed to help teachers consider the educational potential of the galleries. During the application review process, it became clear that the high cost of bus transportation makes annual field trips nearly impossible for many teachers and that the majority of teachers are looking for ways to integrate images into their classroom. With this in mind, the program’s focus turned from guiding students through museum galleries to looking critically at techniques to bring art into the classroom.

On the first day participants met at SFMOMA to explore strategies and motivations for looking at art objects in close, careful, and sustained ways. Teachers discussed The Flower Carrier by Diego Rivera for 20 minutes, sharing observations about the subject and its composition, their own personal anecdotes, and the work's historical context and art historical themes. Together they came away with a multifaceted understanding of the painting that went beyond any one interpretation. Putting observation at the center of their experience, teachers recognized how the process of observing forced them to slow down, a notable change of pace for them and their students.

The second day took place at the Asian Art Museum, where participants dug deeper into images and developed themes and lines of inquiry to guide their students’ looking.


Photograph by Kaz Tsuruta. ©Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

The teachers developed overarching questions to challenge students in analyzing and interpreting works of art within a thematic study, such as “How is power represented in objects across time (and culture)?” or “How are we influenced by the past? In what ways do these objects reflect influences from their histories?”


Seated Buddha, approx. 300-500 A.D. Northern Pakistan; perhaps Jamalgurhi, Peshawar valley, former kingdom of Gandhara. Schist. Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S393

On the third day participants met at the de Young in Golden Gate Park and investigated how museums shape visitor experiences, from architecture to labels.

Activities were designed to prompt teachers to consider how the museum context structures the way objects are interpreted.

Looking at the de Young’s architecture and the current special exhibition Marco Breuer: Line of Sight, participants questioned the construct of the traditional museum “syntax” and “read between the lines” to uncover assumptions about who shapes the voice of the museum and how their students’ observations and interpretations might complicate or expand this message.

The final day concluded with a day of reflectionat the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, where participants were charged with presenting an outline of a lesson or unit of study inspired by their work at the four museums during the week.

The lessons ranged from an assignment to “go on a date” to the museum with a friend to discuss a specific work or exhibition for a history class, to a year-long study of stories told through artwork in an English classroom.

We hope these teachers left the Legion of Honor feeling inspired and intrigued by the connections they discovered at all of the institutions they visited throughout the week. Stay tuned to find out how these teachers applied what they learned in the museums to their own classrooms when we check back in with them in December!