Introducing: Museum as Teens’ Studio

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #10 in October 2010]

It is important for us to have a museum, which we call our own. The museums of today are filled with artifacts, sculptures and paintings, all of which represent famous artists and famous time periods. These museums share knowledge with us about various cultures and people, but few acknowledge teenagers. As people, we have all experienced a time where we transition from childhood to adulthood … The teenage period in our lives is an important one and should be represented in a respectable way, such as a museum. —Patricia Thompson, 17

Over 34 million people in the United States are between the ages of 12 and 19. What better way to creatively showcase teen opinion, preserved through exhibits, programs, and presentations to the public, than in a cultural institution teens can call their own. Founded in 2006, the Chicago Teen Museum (CTM) is the first museum dedicated to the preservation of teen culture. At CTM, teens are not only participants, but also integral stakeholders in the organization, contributors to its collection and programming framework, exhibit developers, and curators. The institution works to engage teens—starting with Chicago teens—to create a teen-driven cultural institution through multi-disciplinary arts projects and virtual interactions.

Founded in 2006 by School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumna Erin Dragotto and DePaul University alumna Melissa Brookes, the Chicago Teen Museum aims to bring together Chicago area teens to provide a forum for expressing current youth issues. As the organization keeps evolving to build the art educational programming, Carol Ng-He was hired as the CTM’s first teaching artist and program developer. Teens participate in creating their own institution that exemplifies and preserves teen culture. Dragotto, who now directs the organization, saw Chicago, with its central location in the Midwest, as a hub for a network of teen-led museum-making projects. We focus on developing a sense of ownership, mentoring, friendships and a practice of creative collaboration, and we are encouraging teens to be active leaders in the organization. The museum represents their opinions on teen culture, rather than making them recipients or attendees of programs determined by adults. This reversal of decision-making power has yet to be seen in the existing museums and cultural institutions in the city and the country. In other words, the museum fills a gap left by other museums that don’t involve teens as cultural producers.

In fall 2009, the teen council was established composed of alumni of the previous summer’s After School Matters program and new members recruited from different neighborhoods in the city. The council helped the organization to develop a conceptual framework. These members met twice a week during after-school hours, and designed the direction of CTM’s potential exhibition themes, programming ideas, and target audience. Over eight weeks, teens participated in a guided discussion focusing on audience development, developing priorities among issues that concern Chicago teens at large, as well as visiting the Chicago Children’s Museum to help advise exhibit developers on four designs for the museum’s new space. They brainstormed and shared issues that could serve as exhibit themes: cliques, urban teen culture versus suburban teen culture, teen pregnancy, violence in our community, fashion and music. We also visited the Chicago Children’s Museum to give advice to their future exhibits targeting “tweens,” or pre-teen populations. At the end of the Teen Council project, the teens gave a public presentation on the conceptual framework for CTM at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. The teens’ ideas will be adapted into physical art projects on different aspects of teen culture. One of them is the “Paper-cut Teen Space” workshop which will take place in fall 2010 at Rumble Arts Center in Humboldt Park. As we grow and thrive, developing our programming and strengthening our structure, we will seek to involve more teens and adults who want to join in our endeavor in the future by offering their insights and skills with us.

These projects will ultimately be showcased virtually, via our website ( Our next major project is to re-design the current site to serve as an information hub to collect, preserve, and educate its public and peers on teen culture through teens’ perspective. This way, our museum exists without walls and borders, enriched by the creative contributions of teens and institutional partners.

Next, we envision that the Chicago Teen Museum will team up with schools, art educators and youth to create curricula that explore the process of museum-making. It is our vision that the organization can help improve the current educational system. As Jessica Shapiro writes in What Kids Can Do, “the Chicago Teen Museum is a wake-up call that we can contribute … make a difference to society in the way that people often think teenagers can’t. Even if it doesn’t exist yet, isn’t tangible yet … it’s in process, and the energy that it provides is life-changing. We don’t have to wait to see if it’s a success in the future. It already is a success.” We want the CTM to serve as a model to allow other educators and museum professionals to rethink museum-making as self-education for community-empowerment. Conversely, we aim to help educators shed light on how teens’ lives, society, and school conditions affect the way teens learn. One of our members from previous projects summed up the importance of a teen-led institution like Chicago Teen Museum as follows:

When an anthropologist studies a particular culture, they often partake in a field study, in this way they get as familiar with the culture as possible by becoming part of it. When it comes to my examination of teen culture … I am surrounded by it everyday, at school, and with my friends … In this way, I have just as many qualifications for understanding the teen culture as a well-studied anthropologist. —Roswitha Gugliotta-Kremer, 15

Museum making, teen culture, and educational impact are the cornerstones of Chicago Teen Museum. By building this new infrastructure together, the CTM strives to attain a series of goals: we hope teens will examine their surroundings more critically, collaborate with our educator partners to fill in the void in the museum field, and create their own pedagogical movement. ◊



Further readings about Chicago Teen Museum:

Revolutionizing the Making of a Museum: Putting Teens in Charge at Community Arts Network (

A Teen Made Museum: Chicago Youth Interpret Teen Cultures at What Kids Can Do( 04_teen_made_museum/index.html)

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