Judy Koke stands in front of case at Art Gallery of OntarioGuest post by Melissa Smith, Art Gallery of Ontario and CAGE executive member

My favourite memory of Judy Koke, a leading museum educator and theorist, happened during the Youth Summer Party at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She was the Chief of Public Programming and Learning, a significant leadership role, and was on the floor running back and forth through a throng of dancing teenagers to make sure that everyone had enough water. This memory encapsulates Judy for me as a museum professional. She’s always right in the thick of it with you – focusing on how to support visitors first and foremost. She continues to further our understanding of the museum field in her role as Director of Professional Learning with the Institute for Learning and Innovation. The following post shares Judy’s answers to five questions that relate to the Canadian Art Gallery Educators upcoming symposium in Ottawa, where Judy will be speaking.

You’ve previously worked as a physiotherapist, how does that inform your museum career?

It influenced my museum career in two ways. I specialized in rheumatology as a physiotherapist and tried to help patients understand their disease process and how to control it. You can cause a flare up and manage a flare up, for instance. I realised people learned very differently and I didn’t know anything about it. I started taking adult education courses at the University of Denver to be a better physio. Then I moved to Toronto and took courses at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). I came to realise I was interested in free choice learning and the people who were studying this were in the museum field. In particular, John Falk’s visitor motivation theories helped me understand why some people wanted to learn about their arthritis and others didn’t. Secondly, my experience as a physiotherapist helped me in my management and leadership roles in museums. You get promoted when you’re really good at making decisions that solve the problem not the symptoms of the problem. In physio, you probe to find out what is the root of the problem. Museum and physio work are really deeply connected for me.

What does education in an art gallery mean to you?

To me it means facilitating personal connections and learning. Education isn’t my favourite word and maybe that’s political because museums use the transmission model of learning and prioritize the expert. I want to underscore our role as educators as being a partner with the visitors instead of being hierarchical.

How do art gallery museum educators stay relevant?

We need to build communities of practice. Each of us should be asking how do I continue my learning as a professional? We understand learning as social, situated, active, and continuing and build those experiences for our visitors – but not for ourselves professionally. We should also be able to speak to our theoretical foundations. I say hermeneutics – and that’s a long tradition. What is your framework? Vygotsky? Experiential learning? Pick something and know it. When you can connect research to practice this makes your work informed, rather than a personal opinion.

What strategies do you use to encourage reflective practice?

I think it’s important to find a learning buddy. Push each other and try to figure out how to tie it back to theory.

What should educators been doing to support the field and get noticed?

This is hard – I used to say – we need to publish. I’ve had the longest publication list, longer than most other employees, and it was irrelevant in my place of employment. I continue to think we need to publish, however, so that we can point to it and participate in developing the field. But the thing that really gets noticed institutionally is visitor research – that, in my experience, is the only thing that really gives us traction. If you can articulate outcomes and demonstrate the success, that gets noticed. We need to be more ambitious with the outcomes and connect to mission and vision. This way you are seen as forwarding the museum agenda. We need to more officially conduct experiments and you aren’t conducting an experiment unless you are gathering data.


If you haven’t registered already, don’t miss your change to hear Judy speak in person on Thursday May 3rd at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Come join our Community of Practice!