Last summer, online music retailer eMusic invited 25 listeners to a masterclass in rock’n’roll tastemaking with none other than “Little” Steven van Zandt – music collector, DJ, and guitarist for the E Street Band.
This past spring, Harvard dance students panted to keep up in a masterclass with Antonio Douthit of the Alvin Ailey dance company.
And as I write this entry, animators from Pixar Studios are leading a tutorial in technique and story development for experienced and aspiring animation artists.
As diverse as these learning experiences are, they’re all building on a tradition in arts education that started more than a century ago: the masterclass.
The masterclass format brings small groups of serious students together with an accomplished professional widely respected for his or her achievements. Masterclasses begin where textbook learning, drill and practice and lecture-style teaching end. They’re for advanced students, those who have acquired the fundamentals of their art forms and tested themselves onstage or in the field, and are now ready to take charge of the more subtle kinds of learning they need to further their careers. Masterclass students are developing their own ideas, but are open to receiving the wisdom and guidance they can get from masters of their craft. The direct power of the student-teacher relationship results in customized feedback, informed by experience, that can help students make a leap to the next level.
So is there such a thing as a museum masterclass? That’s what SHA is. Only students get not one master teacher, but a a dozen or more – and an outstanding peer group of professionals as serious as yourself.
Instead of musical instruments or dance shoes, SHA students bring their varied observations from their early experience in the field, their recurring questions, and their ideas about the future of museums and the leadership work that lies ahead. In discussions, interactive sessions, and fieldwork, they study with “masters”: experts in fields central to history organization leadership, people whose working lives and significant achievements have given them the perspective and that helps students step up their professional thinking skills.
Individually and as a group, students test their ideas, question assumptions, and form ever bigger questions. Master instructors offer responses – individualized, personal, real, and specific – that make for targeted learning to promote rapid professional growth.
SHA’s masterclass instructors are dynamic and varied, all selected from the top ranks of the field. Individual sessions and presenters are too many to name, but they run the gamut of specialties in the museum field and touch on all major areas of mission and management With leaders like Spencer Crew and David Young, debate questions of community engagement and institutional response, honestly exploring the tensions that arise when long-established views are challenged. Wrestle with the increasing demands for relevance and meaning in historic sites with preservation leaders Jim Vaughan and Ken Turino. Take on the challenges of leading change in case studies posed by museum management gurus Barbara Franco and Laura Roberts. With an impressive roster of equally talented educators, explore finance, interpretation, visitor research, management, and many more vital topics.
As a student at SHA, you’ll find yourself acting just like students do in arts master classes: listening attentively. Questioning intently. Jotting down bits of wisdom to draw on later. Experimenting with new ideas. Trying on new presentation styles and leadership tactics. You’ll sometimes argue passionately, think critically, and even change your point of view. SHA’s masterclasses produce leaps of insight and open up new avenues of inquiry. You’ll often get a few good laughs in, too.
It's this “masterclass” approach to teaching the skills of historic administration that makes SHA distinctive and powerful. Day-to-day working life rarely allows the extended, targeted dialogue between accomplished and emerging museum leaders that SHA provides. That intense and customized focus allows students to grow in professional skill by leaps and bounds in a short three weeks – the same way a dancer’s expressive motions can be transformed by an intense afternoon with a dance master, or a guitar player’s imagination can overflow with new melodic ideas after hearing a master musician break down his approach. Experienced artists know the master class is the most efficient tool for move to the next level of performance – it only makes sense that, in the world of museums, SHA knows it too.