About Us: Museum Educator and Chaplain

Susan Dodge-Peters Daiss, MA, MDIV

Growing up in a medical family in the 1960s—the daughter of a nurse and a physician—nursing and social work were frequently mentioned as professional choices. Elementary or high school teaching was a possibility, if I left the fold. Who knew that working in a museum was even a profession, let alone a career in museum education? Raised in Boston and drawn more to the arts than science, museums were a destination of choice as soon as I was able to navigate the city on my own, and I identified ready access to museums as an essential criterion for selecting a college. Following several years in a college just outside New York City and a senior year in Paris, I was primed for graduate study in the visual arts, not as a practicing artist, but as a student of art history.

To start my professional training in the mid-1970s, I chose a graduate program associated with several museums. The objective of the program was to train the next generation of museum curators and art historians. With faculty who came from both the museum field and academia, connoisseurship—the discipline of applying finely tuned visual skills to identify the work of individual artists—and rigorous object-based scholarship were the grounding principles of my education. The privilege of studying actual art objects—observing the materials they were made of, their current physical condition, and understanding the significance of their provenance— was a revelation. Examining the complex historical context in which these objects were first made—the artists’ training, the sources of patronage, the religious and political forces reflected in these objects—was equally compelling. Museum education wasn’t even a footnote in my training.

Over the decade immediately following graduation, working first in a museum and then writing an art column for a weekly newspaper, my academic perspective was challenged by the realities of connecting audiences with art. Visitors to the museum where I interned and then worked focused my attention on their interests and experience, not my academic opinions. Thanks next to an exceptional editor, my “cherished” verbiage was red-lined and ended on the cutting room floor. The readers, I was reminded, deserved clarity, not theory. It didn’t take long before introducing audiences, especially novices to the world of art, became a passion. When I accepted a position to direct a department of museum education in 1987, I entered a field in transition in which museum educators were emerging as powerful institutional voices advocating for the visitor. Where a museum visit in the past might have featured the art historical expertise of the guide, the audiences’ interests increasingly guided the selection of artwork and modes of engagement, including developing new visual literacy pedagogies to help visitors look on their own. Over the next decade, MAG developed a “learning to look” approach that influenced everything from staff interaction with visitors to docent training, an approach that would serve as the foundation for Art and Observation and the Five Question Protocol (5QP).

In the mid-1990s, an interest in spirituality and religion that had been important since childhood found expression both in my work at MAG teaching with a diversity of sacred objects in MAG’s collection, but also in my decision to pursue a Master’s in Divinity (MDiv). From the beginning of my Master’s work, I kept hearing about a program referred to only by its initials: CPE. CPE, I would learn, stands for Clinical Pastoral Education, a national accreditation program in practical theology, developed to train chaplains in a range of settings, among them hospital chaplaincy. CPE training at Strong Memorial Hospital is distinguished by training that balances direct patient care with a rigorous didactic schedule that includes writing verbatim accounts of patient experiences. These verbatims include a reflection question to ensure that chaplains thoughtfully reflect on and acknowledge any personal or professional experiences that informed, and potentially influenced, our patient encounters. Clinical engagement in a program that emphasized the significance of reflection and self-awareness was valuable not only in my experience with patients themselves but also in the development of the 5QP. It was during my internship year in CPE, 2002-2003, that I received a call from the Division of Medical Humanities and Bioethics wondering if I had heard of the fledgling partnerships in a few medical schools and museums exploring the use of the visual arts in medical education? I wouldn’t understand the significance of the call immediately, but that year I began to integrate multiple strands of my professional and personal identities.

Following the completion of my internship in hospital chaplaincy, I began to explore ways to develop programs to integrate the visual arts in healthcare. Intrigued by art’s possibility to serve as more than decoration in the hospital, I developed Art at the Bedside, a program launched in 2009 to visit patients in the hospital and on hospice with works of art. At the museum, I began to dedicate any available non-administrative time and non-teaching time to enhance the museum’s programming for individuals with disabilities. In recognition of Rochester’s significant community of individuals who are deaf—the second largest in the country—we welcomed a Deaf individual to our docent training program in 2003-2004. In 2006, planning a program for individuals with dementia, we visited the Museum of Modern Art’s newly launched Meet Me at MOMA; MAG implemented Meet Me at MAG, in 2009. Access for individuals who are blind or partially sighted has a long history at MAG . In addition to offering tactile tours, in 2011 we wrote and recorded verbal descriptions of selected paintings, that we made available online and on cell phones. Also in 2011, we collaborated with a creative arts program at the ARC of Monroe County, New York, to develop a training manual to assist professionals prepare their clients for visits to MAG. In the background of all these efforts was the development of the art and observation practice that came to be known as The Five Question Protocol (The 5QP), which is now (2018) introduced to over 500 students annually. Included are not only medical and nursing students at the University of Rochester, but students in all the healthcare training programs in the Greater Rochester area.

My academic introduction to the field of medical humanities came through the discipline of the visual arts. My chaplaincy training and experience, however, grounded me in the reality of patient care. In 2012-2013, I took a leave of absence from the museum and enrolled in the year-long residency in chaplaincy training, once again at Strong Memorial Hospital. At the end of December 2013, shortly after the conclusion of my residency, I formally resigned my administrative position at the museum to accept a joint appointment at MAG and in the Division of Medical Humanities and Bioethics (MHB) in the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Though it doesn’t fit neatly in a professional survey, a formative personal force had been present just below the surface in this narrative. I didn’t grow up in Rochester, but the University of Rochester and Strong Memorial Hospital were constant references in my family of origin. Both my parents graduated from the University of Rochester: my mother from the School of Nursing in 1947, and my father from the School of Medicine, in 1948. Throughout my childhood, a photograph of the entrance to the medical school hung prominently in my father’s study. When I accepted a one-year fellowship to the George Eastman House in 1977, little did I know Rochester would become my home, and the University of Rochester—both its museum and its medical school—where I would dedicate my professional life.

Sarah Lawrence College, BA, 1974
Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art, MA, 1977
Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, MDiv, 2007

Professional Experience:
International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1977-1980
City Newspaper, Rochester, New York, 1981-1987
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 1987-2013
CPE at Strong Memorial Hospital, University of Rochester Medical Center: 2002-2003; 2012-2013.
Memorial Art Gallery and Division of Medical Humanities and Bioethics, University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry, 2014-to date.