In the spirit of the crisp back-to-school air, let’s talk about education in the art museum today.

If you’re already an art museum educator, you’re probably aware that there is already a whole blog called Art Museum Teaching. It’s a great space for in-depth analysis of some of the points that I want to raise today. As many of y’all probably know by now, this is my place in the art museum, and I’ve been exploring writing more about my own specific field lately. To drill down a little deeper, I work more specifically in the realm of interpretation, which is some education, some exhibit design, some public engagement. We scraped the surface of what art museum education is in Cardboard Cutout Kids. Working with school groups is typically the foundation of an art museum education department. Education departments in many art museums also facilitate studio and art-making experiences. Many art museums have a whole separate division dedicated to studio art. These enterprises are facilitated via traditional instructor-to-pupil education.

But there is more to art museum education besides Common Core and painting classes! Museums are one of the primary places in which we encounter “free-choice” learning. “Free-choice learning is about deciding what, where and how we want to learn over our lifetime. It’s self-motivated learning that takes place all the time, outside of a classroom setting.Museum interpretation works in service of free-choice learning. It structures the museum experience to appeal to different learning styles. I think of it as the museum education that happens without a face-to-face connection. Interpretation can look a ton of different ways, but here are the core values from the Association of Art Museum Interpretation:

  • Creates multiple pathways for understanding by creating an experience that equally values the visitor, the art object, and the organization’s mission.
  • Encourages audiences of varying backgrounds, knowledge levels, and learning styles to make relevant connections between art, ideas, and their lived experience.
  • Practices socially, intellectually, and physically accessible and inclusive interpretive strategies onsite, offsite, and online.
  • Creates learning opportunities that invite visitors to shift previously held views and expectations through intentional, respectful, and often playful provocation,
  • Utilizes collaboration, curiosity-driven experimentation, rigorous evaluation, reflection, and skill building, to create meaningful interpretive experiences.

Emily Pringle, a London-based museum research and learning expert wrote in 2018, “as a field, art-museum education continues to define itself,” despite the field being over 100 years old.* I’ve written before about how museum education has been over-theorized in an attempt to prove that we are just as good as curators, which is how I personally feel our identity crisis continues to brew. But I won’t just blame us – there’s also some truth to the fact that we’ve needed to claw our way out of the basement. There are a lot of different kinds of museums – and lots of different kinds of museum nerds – and they all have different associations and priorities when it comes to objects, stories and learning. Think about your experience visiting a science museum – and contrast it with your experience visiting an art museum. Of course, the experience is different – but learning doesn’t have to just mean internalizing new facts. One of the best things art museums have to offer is empathetic thinking, for example, or learning to see a question in a new way:

Disorientation, of course, is fundamental to the art experience. Many modern and contemporary artists skillfully utilize disorientation as a medium. But even a traditional sculpture or painting can pose questions that are not easily answered, which in itself, especially for science- and logic-focused individuals like doctors and lawyers, can be disorienting. 

Why Connecting Legal and Medical Professionals to Art is Essential, Sam Ramos for Hyperallergic, 8/2021
I can tell you confidently that I did not learn anything about this giant canvas hanging from the ceiling.

The fact that this type of thinking can be disorienting to some people more than others illuminates the need for a guided experience. Yet, despite our awareness of the importance of offering something for everyone, increasing accessibility and catering to different learning styles, it can be hard for many people to stomach the concept of sullying fine art with explaining it. And believe me, as a lifelong art lover, I do get it. I think my (non-educator) colleagues would be shocked to hear that I get it. The point of art is that it isn’t words; it is a way of expressing that which is intangible. Inserting a mediated experience can interrupt the transcendence of immersing yourself in an artwork. That sentence might sound absolutely silly to you – or it might make perfect sense – and therein lies the reason for museum interpretation. I made a joke last month about visiting Dia Beacon and how it exhibited 0/5 of the traits of a “welcoming museum,” but followed it up to say that it isn’t a museum. So it’s well within their rights not to explain anything and to allow folks to have unmediated experiences with aggressively modern art. But what about when art is in a museum? Does the museum have a responsibility to teach visitors about it? Is looking learning?

Museum education has taken on a larger role in art museums over the past two decades or so. This rise in the visibility of art museum education just happens to have coincided with art museums’ scramble to retain relevance, as their origins as monuments to wealth and power have become less interesting to less and less of the population. As Pringle writes in the same article, “Teaching and Learning in the Art Museum,” “as highly visible manifestations of sanctioned culture, art museums are implicated in the reality of a more divisive & polarized society, where gender and race politics are at the forefront of public debate.” We are fond of saying that museum educators are “experts on the audience” while curators are subject-matter experts. It’s hard not to feel that after having that taken for granted for 80 years, we’re being turned to now as a last-ditch effort to connect with audiences before it’s too late.

And yet, even with all of this mounting evidence that art museums need to connect to audiences to remain relevant, there continues to be pushback against doing it. I thought about this even more than usual when visiting the Delaware Art Museum last week. The museum embarked on a multi-year project to engage their community (very Michelle Obama and Community Building of them) in which they actually left visible tape up on the walls to invite visitors to share what they would like to know about artworks. I’d read about this years ago and was eager to see it in real life. And I was not disappointed at all! The reinstalled first floor galleries teach directly, but gently. While their Pre-Raphaelite galleries are really worth checking out as well (if you have no idea what “Pre-Raphaelite means, that’s perfect, they’ll explain it) but it was their early American paintings that signaled a real paradigm shift to me.

The primary message in these newly installed galleries is that America’s past isn’t neutral or innocuous, and looking at artwork from the period of time while our nation was looking to shape its identity can help us to work through that history. The wall text and object labels are refreshingly clear about slavery and Indigenous genocide.

Slide for the new label about this pair of portraits

I am embarking on teaching an abbreviated American Art History to the volunteers at my own institution on Monday, and one of the things that really speaks to me about this new installation is that it actually makes teaching American art a whole lot easier. If we only focus on aesthetics and the Academy for 200 years and then suddenly dip into political art in the 1930s, things are very confusing. You know? There are lots of things that we could learn about these early American paintings, but to refer back to the core values of art museum interpretation, this approach values the visitor, the object, and the museum’s mission.

This is one extremely specific example of what learning can look like in the museum, but sometimes, it’s something as simple as a Touch Station that can allow us to process materials, or a quote on the wall by an artist that gives us insight into their psyche. Not every object requires additional interpretation. What is required of an art museum to prioritize education and learning is trust in the team with the expertise in this area.

What are your thoughts on prioritizing education in the art museum? Should art museums be places to experience art first-hand – and is doing so education in and of itself? What do you think of the Delaware Art Museum’s approach to their early American galleries? Should education only be prioritized in traditionally facilitated experiences? How many more questions can I come up with about this?

*Teaching inthe Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee, Chapter 2, “A Brief History of Teaching in the Art Museum”.

Posted by:museumdrip

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