Teaching and Learning in the Art Museum
Abstract and Keywords
Activities that actively and deliberately support museum visitors’ engagement with art and promote learning occupy a distinct, though contested, place in the history and current framing of the art museum across the globe. Despite its many benefits, educational work in art museums has grown erratically, frequently without formal structures, systems, or strategies, and it has been critiqued in the past for lacking a robust theoretical framework and consistent methodological principles. It remains the case that the field is broad, diverse, and continually evolving; in the early 21st century, the boundaries are shifting, for example, between what constitutes curatorial practice and learning practice in contemporary art museums. This fluidity and heterogeneity has enabled the emergence of creative and responsive practice that encourages visitors to learn with, through, and about art, but it poses challenges when the goal is to present a coherent overview. Therefore any summary of this complex domain will necessarily be selective. Nonetheless, taking the practice as it has been developed in the United Kingdom and the United States, where this work has been theorized and communicated to the greatest extent (and with reference to the practice in Europe, Canada, and Australia), it is possible to identify common historical developments, shared philosophical and pedagogical principles, and collective challenges and opportunities that contribute to a comprehensible picture, albeit one that is replete with contradictions. As a field, art-museum education continues to define itself. And although valuable research and theorization have been undertaken, in part by practitioners drawing on their own experiences, further work is required, not least to broaden the understanding of the practice as it is manifest globally and to make explicit the increasingly important role of art education within the art museum.
Introduction and Terms of Reference
The 21st century has presented museums with extraordinary opportunities for growth, yet this has been coupled with significant challenges in maintaining their positions as authoritative yet accessible cultural institutions. Art museums are being expanded, renovated, and constructed across the world; attendance figures in the West rose from 22 million in 1962 to over 100 million in 2000 (McClellan, 2008, p. 2). At the same time, in Europe and North America at least, museums exist in a climate of reduced public funding and intense competition for corporate sponsorship. This is coupled with global expectations of greater cultural participation and co-production, generated by new technology and social media. Moreover, as highly visible manifestations of sanctioned culture, art museums are implicated in the reality of a more divisive and polarized society, where gender and race politics are at the forefront of public debate. There is an urgent need for museums to address issues of social and cultural discrimination, as well as to attract new audiences and offer cultural experiences that are relevant and engaging.
The urgency to “grasp the opportunities presented by our changing society or lose relevance within a generation” (Black, 2012b, p. 7) finds form in the museum mission statements and statements by gallery directors that declare their ambitions to reach out, become more inclusive, and prioritize the visitor. No longer circumscribed exclusively by the accumulation and preservation of its collection, the 21st-century art museum is ostensibly defined by its social role as a public-oriented civic site, whose purpose is to stimulate debate, foster active participation, and work collaboratively with its audiences. The drive of art museums to reach out has fueled an expansion in education programming as a means to achieve these ambitions. However, teaching and learning activities have occupied an uneasy place in the history of the art museum, challenging those institutions from within, yet simultaneously offering innovative pedagogy and creative forms of artistic engagement with collections. At times overlooked or misunderstood, art-museum education would benefit from sustained and detailed analysis to more fully understand the contribution it has made and the value it brings to museums and their visitors across the globe.
This article begins by clarifying key terms and making the specific opportunities presented by the art museum clear, before outlining the historical development of art-museum education from the late 19th century onward. It then spells out the diverse agendas and ambitions for museum education, to help rationalize the diversity of practice found in the art museum in the 21st century (see the section “Clarifying Terminology”). Art-museum education is informed by a variety of disciplines and intellectual traditions, theories, and practices. The section “Art Museum Epistemology and Pedagogy” details these, drawing attention to the central role art practice plays in shaping the forms of teaching and learning taking place in the museum. The article concludes by drawing attention to the challenges facing art-museum education and the outstanding questions that would profit from further research.
To understand the field of learning in art museums it is necessary to clarify various terms, not least the descriptors “museum” and “gallery,” which tend to be employed interchangeably but are applied differently in the United Kingdom and the United States. A commonly accepted worldwide understanding of the museum is as a “non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education study and enjoyment” (International Council of Museums, 2007). Museums are thus characterized both by their social and educational responsibilities and by the curation of their collections (as suggested by the Latin origin of the term: curare, “to take care of”). These responsibilities are not commonly ascribed to galleries, particularly in North America, where the name “gallery” implies a commercial enterprise. However, in the United Kingdom, “gallery” can refer to public institutions with permanent collections (the National Gallery in London being one example). And increasingly, education activities are programmed in galleries, art biennales, and temporary art spaces. These practices adhere to and inform the principles and pedagogy of education work in the art museum, and at times work indivisibly with art museum education. Yet further confusion arises because the term gallery is also applied to art-exhibition spaces within museums, arts centers, and artists’ studios. For ease and clarity, the term art museum is employed here to refer broadly to collection-based art institutions in which education activities take place, recognizing, however, that teaching and learning occurs in art spaces more widely.
The terms learning and education are similarly used interchangeably in relation to pedagogic practices in art museums, and require contextualization. Although in the United Kingdom and parts of mainland Europe, the professional field is known as “gallery education,” since the early 2000s there has been a shift toward using the term “learning” to reinforce the process-driven and creative activity of gaining new or revised knowledge, skills, and values through engagement with art. This is in preference to “education,” which has come to be associated with structures, systems, and processes that are allied to formal instruction (Cutler, 2010). The term ‘teaching’ is rarely applied as a descriptor for art museum education, despite being evident in the gallery, in part because of the focus on constructivist pedagogy (see section “Art Museum Epistemology and Pedagogy”). This trend is most visibly manifest in the renaming of departments in individual museums from “education” to “learning” departments. In German-speaking countries, the term Kulturvermittlung covers a wide range of practices that broadly encompass the exchange of knowledge and ideas about the arts (Morsch, 2013); in the museum context, Kulturvermittlung embraces curatorial concepts and exhibition design, in addition to education (Richter, 2013). A similarly broad term—médiation culturelle—is gaining popularity in France. This refers less to the pedagogic practices of knowledge transmission and more to “the act of forming relationships of mutual exchange among publics, works, artists and institutions” (p. 7). Neither term has an exact English equivalent, although the term “cultural mediation” is most commonly substituted for both.
A third designation that requires qualification concerns learning in the art museum, rather than in museums generally. The former shares many of the epistemological, pedagogical, philosophical, and practical characteristics of learning in science, natural history, and ethnographic and historical museums, yet there are some fundamental differences, which are not always recognized in the museological literature. Hooper-Greenhill, for example, differentiates between “museum” education and “gallery” education in the title of her widely cited 1991 text, yet outlines a common educational philosophy and methodology to be applied across both (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991). This generalization owes partly to the lack of writing on art-museum education specifically; however, perceived variations in the approaches taken by artists and educators, the nature of the learning experience, and the expected outcomes of the learning process have been identified (see, e.g., Allen & Clive, 1995; Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011; Xanthoudaki, Tickle, & Sekules, 2004).
Historic formalist conceptualizations of the art object positioned it as uniquely capable of facilitating transcendent contemplation in the form of an “aesthetic experience” that, as described by Clive Bell in 1914, is visceral and embodied (1993). This experience instills in the viewer an appreciation of beauty and a love of “art,” and it sets the art object apart from all other material artefacts. This view has subsequently been challenged by, among other concepts, the view that looking at art is essentially a cognitive activity, analogous to deciphering a text (Barthes, 1977). Although the notion that the art object can and should be appreciated in and of itself without reference to its historical and social context has also been critiqued (for an introduction to this “new art history,” see Harris, 2001), the specificity of the art work, its relationship to its maker (the artist), and the theoretical discourses surrounding it continue to shape the distinctive pedagogic practices and content knowledge employed in the art museum.
Even in art museums, ontological differences exist between the modern and contemporary art work and the historic object that play out in the forms of teaching and learning that are adopted. A number of contemporary art galleries in the United Kingdom and internationally adopt a pedagogic model that draws on concepts associated with what has been described as “conceptual art,” in that it asks questions, not only of the art object—“Why is this art? Who is the artist? What is the context?”—but also of the viewer, “Who are you? What do you represent? It draws viewers’ attention to themselves” (Godfrey, 1998, p. 15). Conceptual art by its very nature proposes a complex relationship between form and content, and the meaning of a work is not always easily accessible through viewing alone. Furthermore, the inevitable instability of meaning and the “shifting consensual process of determination” of contemporary art allow, if not require, diverse narratives to be held simultaneously (Sitzia, 2017). Teaching and learning in relation to these works is thus characterized by criticality and self-consciousness; it seeks to actively interrogate the ontology of the art object and the viewers’ relationship to it in ways that are not necessarily foregrounded in the study of historic art (Pringle, 2006).
Learning in art museums has its roots in the 19th-century philanthropic drive, coupled with a belief in the power of art and culture to improve the individual and society at large. Ideas originating in the 18th-century Enlightenment shaped the perception held by early museum founders that the arts could enable the individual to transcend everyday concerns and emotions (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991). Visual art was considered to be intellectually, emotionally, and ethically beneficial, elevating the tastes of the working man, the museum providing an ideal space for self-improvement (Newson & Silver, 1978). In their early formulation, art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and Museum of Modern Art in the United States and the Victoria and Albert Museum and Tate Gallery in London, were understood to be intrinsically educational; their function being to enable individuals to “improve” themselves through access to art. Educators were employed in U.K. museums, first at Tate, in 1914 (Charman, 2005); and the first “docents” (trained volunteers) made their appearance in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1907, their function being to act as “intermediaries” in the galleries, guiding and assisting visitors (Kai-Kee, 2011).
However, in the early 20th century, competing understandings existed as to whether visitors benefited most from learning how to appreciate the finer qualities of art through visual engagement with the art work alone or from being informed of its history and the processes of creation. This dialectic between aesthetic pleasure and education continues in art museum teaching and learning, manifest in debates ranging from whether there should be interpretation labels in the gallery (Roberts, 2012) to the content of talks and workshops in the gallery (Rice, 2003) to the role of the museum in society (Dewdney, Dibosa, & Walsh, 2013).
Despite the educative ambitions ascribed to museums at their inception, from the early 20th century onward curators, which as Cameron noted in 1971 were drawn largely from a middle-class academic elite (2012) tended to focus on the development and preservation of collections, occupying themselves with scholarly research instead of engaging with a visiting public. Education activities grew erratically and were increasingly centered on support for a wide range of schools provided by specialist educators, commonly in the form of lectures and guided tours through the galleries. In the United Kingdom, some museums even housed schools providing general education during the First World War (Hooper-Greenhill, 1991). In the United States, there was a growth in museum-based practical art classes that were extracurricular to school provision for children in the 1920s and 1930s. Influenced by the work of John Dewey, museum educators allied themselves with the ideals of progressive education and sought to instigate nonauthoritarian, cooperative, and informal learning and greater active participation on the part of the learner (see, further, Kai-Kee, 2011). It was during this period that key individuals, including Arthur Lismer, who worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Canada, from 1927 to 1938, were instrumental in establishing education programs in art museums in North America. Basing his work on democratic principles, Lismer saw art as a form of vision and understanding, and education as a fundamental responsibility of the museum. Likewise, over a long career (1937–1969) at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Victor D’Amico implemented wide-ranging programs for adults and children at the museum and exerted a profound influence on the emerging professional field of art-museum education. Yet notwithstanding these innovations at key institutions, education provision for adult visitors declined in both the United Kingdom and America during the mid-20th century.
Overall, this period saw a repositioning and relegation of education programming, which museum directors and curators perceived to be secondary to the collection and preservation of art works (Charman, 2005), despite the robust arguments being made at the time for the value of education (Low, 2012). Although the status of learning departments has improved since the 1960s, this hierarchical dilemma, arguably, remains in place for education professionals working in art museums today, and it plays out in institutional systems, structures, and funding allocations that locate education as a subsidiary function (Ebitz, 2008; Morsch, 2011). This is despite the popular discourse of greater museum inclusivity (Serota, 2016) and growing calls for museums to be more relevant (Black, 2012b) and participatory (Simon, 2012).
Late 1960s Onward
During the period of social and political unrest in the 1960s, art museums came under pressure from both artists and the broader public, who actively critiqued institutional exclusivity and elitist structures, policies, and practices (Cameron, 2012). Shaped by the discourses of the civil rights movement, postcolonialism, feminism, and gay liberation, artists sought to interrogate and reveal the dominant exclusionary practices within cultural organizations (Marstine, 2017). Art museums in Europe and the United States, concerned about their social relevance, responded in part by reaching out to artists, inviting them into the institutions to make explicit the hidden hegemonies, a practice that became known as “institutional critique” (Fraser, 2005). Simultaneously, yet not always symbiotically, art museums expanded their education programs, introducing or foregrounding teaching methods intended to attract and engage audiences new to the institution.
It is during this period that a split can be identified between two strands of practice that operated concurrently in the United Kingdom and United States. One response to the critiques of museum exclusivity was to focus on expanding education provision and widening audiences, drawing on pedagogic methods devised to encourage participation, creative expression, and skillful looking (Kai-Kee, 2011). However, particularly in the United Kingdom (although also in North and South America), educators aligned themselves with the mid-century discourses of liberation (Allen, 2008) and developed pedagogic practices informed by critical pedagogy, most notably, the writings of Paulo Freire and Augusto Boal. In Britain, these practices were, in turn, informed by the burgeoning community arts movement, which was itself driven by an ambition to democratize art practices and address issues, challenge societal structures, and bring about change (Dickson, 1995). In the United States, the Works Program Administration in the 1930s—in particular, the Federal Arts Project, which employed artists as teachers—provided a historic legacy for artists to draw on in reframing the social and political role of art-museum education.
Informed by artists including Joseph Beuys, Alan Kaprow, Judy Chicago, Mary Kelly and Jo Spence, this more radical and democratic strand of gallery education developed in the 1970s and 1980s in the United Kingdom and the United States and, subsequently, in mainland Europe (see Morsch, 2011). Art museum education became a means by which artists and educators sought to agitate with and advocate on behalf of those members of the public who were unrepresented in mainstream art institutions by surfacing hidden histories and lobbying for change. Led by practicing artists working in the museum, teaching and learning was characterized by a belief in the cultural potential of everyone and empowerment through participation in a democratic creative and critical process (Pringle, 2006). Thus, though the general motivations for the practice, on both sides of the Atlantic, came from a desire to demystify the art museum as an institution and enable broader audiences to learn from art and generate new meanings and understanding, one strand of the discourse was more overtly concerned with using art for critical and emancipatory purposes.
During this period, the ambition to open up the cultural institution and democratize art and culture was realized outside the museum, notably through television programs. These included John Berger’s 1972 series Ways of Seeing, which broadcast initially in the United Kingdom on BBC2, went on to be shown around the world, and then was reformulated as a book (Berger, 1972). Informed by Marxism, the program was intended in part to be a response to the BBC’s earlier and more traditional series Civilization that had set out to present a canonical view of art history. As such, Ways of Seeing adopted a critical perspective toward art and aesthetics, in dialogue with the field of visual culture and what was being called the “new art history” (Harris, 2001). Its impact was felt in the art-museum sector, where it helped shape, for example, the structure and philosophy of workshop programs for schools at Tate (Charman, Rose, & Wilson, 2006) and provided the visiting public with critical tools for deconstructing the visual image.
The relationship with television has continued, and the one with digital technology has become increasingly reciprocal. Museums, operating much as broadcast media, have exploited television and the Internet to raise the profile of their collections and communicate with their audiences. Not all of these activities are necessarily designed or implemented by education departments in museums, but they are among the strategies museums employ to connect with, engage, and, to some degree, educate their visitors.
Pedagogic Agendas and Ambitions
Over the last 100 years teaching and learning in the art museum has embraced a plethora of agendas, each of which continues to shape contemporary practice. On one level, the history of art-museum education can be understood as a dialogue between collection-centered pedagogy, where the remit is to help the public understand the curated displays, and exhibitions and learner-centered practices, where the responsibility is to enable visitors to generate their own meanings of the art works. Yet within this dialectic exist multiple more-nuanced ambitions, including, on the one hand, the desire to invoke a largely unmediated aesthetic experience centered on the formal qualities of the art, contrasted with, on the other hand, the ambition to transmit predetermined art historical information.
Morsch (2011) attempted a categorization of the four dominant discourses of art museum education, based on how it fulfills various institutional “functions.” In the first of these, museum education is identified as “affirmative” when it services the museum’s mission in terms of promoting cultural heritage to an already informed and interested audience. It functions in a “reproductive” capacity when it brings in children, young people, and others unfamiliar with the institution, replicating the skills and knowledge the museum specialists consider necessary for understanding the exhibits and engendering a broad interest in art. Morsch and others are critical of both approaches for their perceived lack of self-reflexivity, for reinforcing existing relationships of power, and for entrenching art museums as social and “political” institutions carrying out ideological functions (Duncan, 1995). In the context of the art museum, education is thus cast as a means of inculcating the other into a middle-class habitus (Bourdieu, 1979). Pedagogy amounts to no more than enabling individuals to “make the correct (posh) noises . . . a kind of etiquette which will allow us not to make fools of ourselves in the appropriate social circumstances” (Harrison, 1984, p. 10). This process, in which the scope for challenging the institution and dominant discourses is limited, can be seen as coercive, akin to Bourdieu’s (1979) concept of “symbolic violence,” which describes the nonviolent imposition by a dominant class of its systems of meaning, or culture, onto a subordinated group, who, by perceiving the dominant class’s actions as legitimate, become complicit in their own subordination (Pringle, 2011).
An alternate formulation frames these competing ambitions as a tension between “democratizing culture,” the art museum’s drive to communicate its knowledge and values in forms that neither expect nor invite debate, and “cultural democracy,” which sees the museum as seeking to enable individuals to develop creative and critical skills and articulate their own cultural expressions in ways that may not align with those sanctioned by the cultural institution (Kelly, 1985). In practice, museum educators negotiate between the institution and the collection and simultaneously respond to the needs of audiences by drawing on a range of methodologies and disciplines. For example, with audiences very new to art, the focus might be on teaching skills that build confidence and can be applied beyond the context of the gallery, such as visual awareness and critical thinking. Yet this arguably more culturally democratic approach would not preclude the same educator from communicating the sociocultural and art historical specificity of art works as embodiments of aesthetic, historical, and cultural values should the pedagogic context require it.
Cultural democracy can be allied with the third of Morsch’s “functions” for gallery education. “Deconstructive” museum-education practices work to enable participants to question embedded and frequently invisible assumptions in art and art museums (Morsch, 2011). Associated with critical museological practice, in that it is characterized by a critique of objects and institutional practices (Vergo, 1989), and with critical pedagogy, in that it fosters a self-reflective understanding of education, teaching and learning practice, this scenario includes a reflexive examination of power relations to promote critique and self-empowerment. In this, it seeks to transform the institution into a space in which those who are not at the center of the art world can generate their own meanings and representations of art.
This critical practice has itself been subject to criticism, in part by art-museum-education professionals who are conscious of the extent to which the cultural institution is genuinely open to critical deconstruction, given that it sets the agenda for these practices (Morsch, 2011; Pringle & De Witt, 2014). Further criticism has addressed the question of who benefits from the processes of institutional critique. Ebitz (2008) and Cutler (2013), for example, recognize that critical practice can help reveal institutional hierarchies and enable education to define itself within the institution. Cutler, however, warns that a focus on discourses of power can overwhelm a discourse of learning and does little to provide meaningful and more productive alternatives. Critical practice in her view also firmly locates education at the margins of the institution, thereby limiting its scope to bring about “the possibility for new and different articulations” (Cutler, 2013).
Despite the obvious contradictions that are present in these agendas, underlying them all is the awareness that art museums have a responsibility to support everyone (from the art novice to the expert) to learn with, from and about art, and that this learning brings about positive intellectual and emotional changes in individuals that can also benefit society. This idea was originally manifested in the paternalistic view that art “improves” people, both morally and intellectually. Arguably, the residue of this questionable discourse of “improvement” remained throughout the 20th and continues into the 21st century. It is apparent in the language used by programs that seek to address issues of social exclusion or to transform “problem” young people through access to art (see Buckingham & Jones, 2001). This is despite efforts on the part of art-museum-education professionals and academics to challenge language and practices that reinforce traditional relations between the museum and “others” (Sandell, 2002).
At the same time, this “transformational” discourse, which equates to the fourth and final of Morsch’s “functions,” can be seen to inform critical and liberatory education programs that seek to address inequalities and bring about social and institutional change. Education departments have a strong history as agents of change and sites of debate and experimental practice in art museums, underpinned by research. Tate Exchange, for example, is a three-year initiative, instigated at Tate in 2016 under the auspices of a learning department, that seeks to examine the role of art in relation to broader societal systems and structures, and specifically, to better understand how art makes a difference in people’s lives and, through that, to society more widely (see https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/tate-exchange). Likewise, the MASS Action (Museum as Site for Social Action) initiative convened by learning staff at the Minneapolis Institute of Art asks how the museum can be used as a site for social action. And programs including the Edgeware Road project, instigated by the education department at the Serpentine Gallery in London are challenging institutional modes of knowledge production. These initiatives raise questions about whether it is the responsibility of the education department alone or of the art museum as a whole to effect social change (Black, 2012b). And though the shift toward art museums becoming more community centered, “representing multiple perspectives, and exploring the relevance of the past to people’s lives today” (Black, 2012a, p. 267), has, in theory, positive implications for the role of education, the question arises, if the museum is framed in its entirety as a learning organization, should education departments be disbanded (Cutler, 2010)? Art-museum educators, and their colleagues in the institution and beyond, need to further investigate how pedagogy working alongside curatorial programming and interpretation can contribute to a culture of dialogue and debate. How can learning departments act as drivers for ethical change in the museum and beyond? What role should education play in a 21st-century art museum committed to inclusivity and toleration?
Shaped by these agendas, and frequently manifesting more than one of them concurrently, contemporary teaching and learning practice in the art museum takes a multitude of forms. These include informal visits to galleries by schools, families, and community groups, supported by learning resources that range from in-gallery interpretation wall texts, paper-based worksheets, and bespoke objects that can be handled in the gallery to audio guides and digital interventions and materials.
The offer to school groups includes professional development programs for teachers that take shape as lectures, workshops, and courses, some of which provide academic accreditation. However, the most common provision for schools involves one-off structured teaching sessions in the gallery led by an educator or, frequently in the United States, a docent. In the United Kingdom, participatory, artist-led workshops in the gallery have been a staple of gallery education practice for the last 40 years. Longer-term projects with schools may involve a combination of gallery and classroom-based programs. These focus on developing specific learning skills and include the VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) program in the United States and creative learning initiatives in the United Kingdom that nurture ways of thinking and working that encourage imagination, independence, tolerance of ambiguity and risk, openness, and the raising of aspirations (Pringle, 2012). A strong tradition of schools-focused programs that directly address issues of racism or bullying, for example, also exist. And notably, given the current radically conservative sociopolitical climate in the United States and the United Kingdom, there are increasing calls from the art-museum-education sector for the profession to redouble its efforts to counter discrimination by working alongside individuals, schools, and communities. For example the Journal of Museum Education devoted an entire issue in June 2017 to ‘identifying and transforming racism in museum education’ (Identifying and Transforming Racism in Museum Education, Journal of Museum Education).
Structured programs for adults commonly range from lectures, conferences, and in-gallery talks designed with the specialist art audience in mind to courses and informal programming intended to attract a more-diverse public. Longer-term projects, in which artists work in and beyond the gallery with communities, frequently to address specific social issues, are common in the United Kingdom (Marstine, 2017), the United States (Finkelpearl, 2013), and across Europe, South America, and Australia. However, this practice appears to be relatively under-researched, particularly as it exists beyond the familiar art-world centers, and would benefit from a comprehensive survey. Recognition that the art museum can engender improvements in health and well-being (see the Engage, 39: Visual Arts and Wellbeing, Spring 2017) has prompted the instigation of programs such as those for adults with dementia, a well-known example being the Meet Me at MoMA program. Moreover, the research-led imperative of art-museum education is evident in such projects as The Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts that has been established at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. These include a five-year study that researches practices that foster compassion and enhance related emotional skills, with the goal to inform the design of leaning and engagement programs.
Overlaps can be seen between what has become defined as “socially engaged practice” (see, further, Bishop, 2012; Finkelpearl, 2013; Kester, 2004) and artists working under the auspices of museum education, not least in a shared commitment to engagement through creative dialogue. Similarly, the so-called educational turn in art and curatorial practice has drawn attention to the pedagogic potential in both (O’Neill & Wilson, 2010). Yet it is noticeable that art-museum education has been conspicuously absent from these discursive fields, which to some educators is evidence of long-standing prejudices, misconceptions, and entrenched hierarchies (Mahlknecht, 2017).
The conflation of different museum-based practices, often to the detriment of education, reinforces the importance of articulating the histories, ambitions, and practices of teaching and learning and acknowledging the specificity of pedagogy in the art museum. Understanding whom it is for, how the pedagogic relationships are structured, and what constitutes success is essential for the development of the field. For example, programs targeted at young people or “teens,” aged usually between 15 and 25, are growing in popularity. Varying in scope and ambition, these initiatives range from those aiming for audience diversification and professional development and training to programs seeking to engender cultural empowerment and critical practice in their young participants. And while research has been undertaken on the nature of participation and the impact of teenage engagement with art museums (see, e.g., Hirzy, 2015; Sayers, 2011), further work is required.
Art museums are becoming increasingly adept at using digital media for education purposes. Social media platforms provide opportunities to break down formal communication barriers and share information. Podcasts of gallery talks are now a regular offering, and the larger institutions have gone further, in some cases providing online courses for the general public and professional development programs for teachers (Armstrong, Howes, & Woon, 2013). Designated spaces, such as the Taylor Digital Studio at Tate Britain in London, allow for targeted programming and the facilitation of courses and events utilizing digital technology in the gallery. Yet research has indicated that art museums are struggling to move beyond the one-to-many broadcast model and take full advantage of the many-to-many model of networked and distributed digital communication, whereby knowledge is generated and shared through less hierarchical channels (Walsh, Dewdney, & Pringle, 2016). This suggests that further research interrogating the specific affordances of the digital in the context of art-museum education would be of value.
Art Museum Epistemology and Pedagogy
Considering the range of activities and ambitions for learning in the art museum, it comes as no surprise that that the practice today is informed by a variety of disciplines and intellectual traditions, most notably sociology, cognitive and developmental psychology, critical pedagogy, progressive education, critical theory, art history, philosophy, and anthropology. Indeed, one characteristic of the art-museum educator is the ability to shift among disciplinary persona (being at certain points a philosopher, artist, art historian, or critic) in response to the needs of the learner (Rice, 1988). Art-museum educators draw on the work of a range of key thinkers and writers, adapting ideas and pedagogic techniques to work effectively in the gallery context. For example, John Dewey’s writings on the experience of art continue to inspire museum educators seeking to engender for visitors the intense and engaged encounter he described (Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). Dewey’s framing of education as experiential, social, and learner centered, driven by problem-solving and critical thinking to prepare the student for engagement in civic life (Dewey, 1897) also underpins education activity in museums today.
In the United States, research with practitioners has identified that museum educators reference psychological theories of learning, including Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow (Ebitz, 2008). Also influential is the work of developmental psychologists Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, whose work in particular informed the widely used visual thinking strategies (VTS) model developed by psychologist Abigail Housen and former museum educator Philip Yenawine. VTS’s recognition of the centrality of the learner is allied to constructivist learning theory, wherein learners are identified as active and learning is constructed as a process of individual sense-making in which learners build on their existing knowledge and experiences to generate new understandings (Watkins, 2003). Constructivism locates the museum object as devoid of inherent meaning; instead, the meaning is generated through the visitor’s engagement with the artefact (Hein, 1998). Teachers are positioned as expert facilitators, whose role is to ask questions and facilitate the learner’s connection to art. In the VTS model, teachers refrain from sharing their own knowledge and experiences, so as not to disempower the learner. The emphasis in VTS on developing critical thinking skills through attentive looking seeks to enable visitors to develop the skills necessary to generate their own understandings. The model has, however, been criticized for failing to draw viewers’ attention to the historical or social conditions of a work and for denying the expertise of the curators and educators, thereby promoting a sense that every interpretation is of equal value (Rice & Yenawine, 2002). Further criticism centers on the need to acknowledge the social and cultural frameworks that shape individual interpretations, instead of focusing exclusively on the individual (see Kai-Kee, 2011; Hooper-Greenhill, 1999; Rice & Yenawine, 2002). Nonetheless, the VTS model is perceived to be particularly effective in supporting younger students and those who have less familiarity with art to engage with art and develop confidence in connecting with the art museum.
Notwithstanding a focus in recent years on constructivist teaching and learning, “traditional” (Hein, 1998) or transmissive models of teaching and learning can be found in art museums across the world. In the traditional scenario, learners are identified as passive and are given knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values by an expert (Watkins, 2003). The content of learning exists independently of the learner and is transferred to him or her through a process of assimilating facts, information, and experience, most commonly in the art museum in the form of talks or lectures, or through texts, such as exhibition catalogues. In practice, educator-led sessions in the gallery frequently combine both constructivist and transmissive elements. Educators guide learners using a combination of questioning to support individual meaning making and deploying their knowledge at key moments to enrich the overall learning experience (Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011; Pringle & De Witt, 2014; Rice, 1988; Thomson, 2014).
In the United Kingdom, art practice is perceived to be central to teaching and learning, particularly in the modern and contemporary art museum. Art practice (instead of constituting a particular pedagogic model) is where artists, participants, and issues meet; and though it is not widely documented, there is evidence that the principles of the community-arts movement remain at the center of much education work today (Allen, 2008; Pringle, 2006). Community artists located artistic practice as a means to enter into productive dialogue with nonartistic constituents. However, this is not artistic practice as espoused under a particular understanding of modernism, wherein art is perceived as synonymous with the rebellious antagonist existing in “romantic exile” (Gablik, 1995, p. 5). Rather, community arts promoted communication, interaction, and engagement to enable participation in the creation of culture, characteristics that are still central to the art-museum learning experience.
Furthermore, artists working as educators are perceived to be central to learning in the U.K. art museum because they are steeped in a largely conceptual—that is, creative, analytical and reflective rather than craft-based—art process, which corresponds with a creative learning process (Pringle & De Witt, 2014; Sekules, 2003). Attributes these artists are seen to possess include the ability to facilitate active questioning and open-minded inquiry, playfulness, and risk taking; they can accommodate the unexpected, and they value curiosity, imaginative response, and the freedom to explore concurrent strands of interest. They recognize that productive failure occupies an important place in their practices and are comfortable with not knowing (Pringle, 2009). It is important to note that these qualities are not the exclusive preserve of artists; skilled art-museum educators consistently draw on creative questioning and reflective techniques in their work (Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). What is specific about this scenario is that learning is perceived to come about through direct engagement with works of art in the context of the museum via an artistic process modeled by a practicing artist. This process has been described as a “pedagogy of encouragement” (Thomson, 2014), one that commits to dialogue, questioning, and reflection and recognizes the agency of learners to adopt elements of the process that are most relevant to them in a trusting and safe environment.
Artist educators in the art museum aspire to collaborate to educate, and their practice and pedagogy necessarily become one, as learning emerges through shared processes of facilitated dialogue and making activities. Their work continues to be informed by artists, such as Beuys and Kaprow, alongside educational theorists, notably, Paulo Friere, bell hooks, and Maxine Greene. Museum educators and artists align their practices more to a critical, “co-constructivist” theory of learning, wherein knowledge is socially constructed and meaning making is a collaborative, communal process (Watkins, 2003). As with constructivist learning, the focus is on dialogue and the asking of questions to enable the learner to both share and question knowledge. However, in this scenario the teacher functions as a co-learner, instigating dialogues and voicing and reordering their own knowledge in collaboration with others. Learning in all constituents requires that all participants, including the educator, work and learn together and that all must benefit, not only in terms of cognitive development but also in the social and cultural domain.
Co-constructivist learning is not only found in the United Kingdom; multiple examples of collaborative, socially grounded teaching and learning can be found in the literature on U.S. practice (see, e.g., the work of researchers Kevin Crowley, Karen Knutson, John Falk, and Lynn Dierking, who all identify learning as active, collaborative, and social, and that of museum professionals who advocate participatory approaches, such as Nina Simon). However, in 2001, Ebitz found little evidence of U.S. educators’ interest in critical pedagogy or other critical theories that problematize the museum. Elsewhere, Griffin (2011) described the growing popularity of dialogic practices in Australian art museums, and Sitvia (2017) has provided insight into European practice, citing a range of educational theories that are gaining interest in art museums in the Netherlands, in particular, Kolb’s experiential learning model and Mezirov’s “transformative learning sequence.” Sitvia identifies the latter’s focus on learning as coming out of a “disorientating dilemma,” followed by self-examination and the construction of new competencies, as particularly well suited to the exhibition context. This resonates with research conducted with art-museum-learning professionals in London, who described learning as a moment of rupture that comes about through instances of disruption (Pringle & DeWitt, 2014). Aligned with the concept of the “learning event” as articulated by Atkinson (2011) drawing on Alain Badiou, learning is here conceptualized as a shift from a state of familiarity to one that is new and previously unknown. In the museum, this “event” occurs through encounters with art and with ideas, both of which can serve to interrupt visitors’ existing emotional and cognitive states of being. In this framing, the educators’ role is to scaffold learners, as they become aware of what they do not know or the unfamiliar nature of something they have encountered, and to steer them through this unpredictable event, so that new knowledge is generated and learning happens.
Teaching and learning in the art museum is therefore characterized by diverse theoretical underpinnings. There is not a fixed body of disciplinary knowledge that predetermines and circumscribes the field. Instead, practitioners draw on ideas from varied disciplines according to their needs and to fulfill their pedagogic ambitions. These ambitions include enabling participants to gain greater understanding of and knowledge about art; developing learners’ critical, analytical, and reflective skills; encouraging participants to engage with artistic practice to develop their own creativity and empowering learners to articulate their own views and cultural formulations. And though this theoretical capriciousness has exposed the field to criticism (see Dobbs & Eisner, 1987), arguably, it is a logical response to the varied contexts in which educators work and the multiple agendas and audience needs they negotiate (Ebitz, 2008; Rice, 1988). Educators, as practitioners, continuously draw on their practitioner knowledge, or “know how,” learned through experience and expressed through practice. At the same time, their actions are informed by their considerable propositional-theory-based knowledge, although the value of this is determined by the extent to which it can usefully inform and improve their practices (Charman, 2005; Pringle, 2009). Therefore, it is praxis, rather than discipline-bound theory in and of itself, which can be seen as one of the defining characteristics of art museum pedagogy.
Challenges and Further Questions
In 1986, the Getty Center for Education in the Arts in Los Angeles commissioned a national study of art-museum education. Museum educator Stephen Dobbs and academic Elliot Eisner interviewed a number of museum directors and educators in America to try to better understand the current state of the profession. Their findings regarding the mission of art-museum education, and the status, role and professional training of museum educators; program resources; the quality of research and evaluation; and the relationship to the community were largely damning (Dobbs & Eisner, 1987). Notably, they identified that, alongside the lack of a solid theoretical foundation within art-museum education:
Scant attention to museum education as a professional field of study in the nation’s universities, a peripatetic literature; the paucity of well-established journals or even a primary text; a widespread perception that museum education lacks a map of its terrain and may not even be certain of its destination. (p. 78)
Needless to say, the response to these findings was mixed, some in the sector criticizing the authors’ methods and results, and others acknowledging the difficult truths their report exposed (Kai-Kee, 2011). And while much has changed since the report was published—there are recognized and well-established post-graduate university courses on museum education, for example, and a growing body of literature addressing the field—challenges similar to those identified in 1987 persist. The relationship of theory to practice remains complex, and there is still no overarching theoretical framework that explains the practice. Morsch’s (2011) model of the four functions of art museum education has provided an interesting starting point, and the visual thinking strategies model is readily applied in many art museums in the United States; yet it would appear that the field is resistant to the development or imposition of a grand theoretical metanarrative. There have been attempts to rationalize this. Researchers have drawn attention to the heterogeneity and diverse epistemic foundations of the practice, while also acknowledging that the working conditions of museum educators make theory development challenging (see Charman, 2005; Ebitz, 2008; Rice, 1988). For example, programming pressures and a lack of time are cited as major factors that prevent education practitioners from reflecting and writing on their work (Ebitz, 2008). However, art-museum education is a field dominated by women, typically young, who often work part-time in relatively poorly paid positions, and there remains little or no research on the impact of the gendered nature of the profession or on the professional motivations of educators, recognizing the implications of this for theory formation. Similarly, concern is growing regarding the narrow sociocultural and racial make-up of museum education staff, dominated as the sector is by white middle-class professionals. Yet this unease has not been accompanied by detailed research implications of these trends for theory and practice.
Further research on the epistemological hierarchies present within the art museum and their bearing on the status of teaching and learning would also be valuable. For instance, the relative undervaluing of the more ludic, process-based forms of teaching and learning, which underpin much art-museum education activity with children and young people, compared to more academic programming, such as talks or lectures, requires interrogation. Charman (2005) drew attention to the legacy of the 20th-century privileging of collection-based scholarship, arguing that it resulted in a “denial of the nature of scholarship in art museum education” (p. 4). Others have not gone so far in pitting art history against education; however, there is broad agreement that the nature of art-museum-education scholarship and educators’ expertise is still not widely understood, even in the art museum, let alone in the wider academic community.
As noted, this lack of understanding of art-museum pedagogy is also manifest in its absence from the discourses of socially engaged art, the “educational turn” in art and curatorial practice, and in writings on “relational aesthetics.” One way of framing this oversight is as a form of epistemological elitism that sanctions existing power relations and resembles the dilemma faced by education when compared to art history (Morsch, 2011). An alternative is to view the omission as a strategy by curators and theorists to circumvent the complex, critical, but also at times mundane and “unglamorous” task of engaging with learners to be able to focus exclusively on the “great collective possibilities of curatorial knowledge production” (Sternfeld, 2010, p. 20). In either case, it is clear that a deeper understanding of shared and divergent practices, historical trajectories, modes of engagement, and desired outcomes is needed.
Dobbs and Eisner reserved some of their most pointed criticism for the lack of adequate training of art museum educators in professionally relevant research and evaluation methods. They recognized that this failure had negative implications, not only for the validation of individual programs, but also for the overall development of the profession. Despite the history and the current emphasis on research-led programming at larger institutions, including Tate, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, MoMA, and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, it remains true that greater professional development for educators on research methods is needed. Informed debates on how best to research and evaluate art-museum teaching and learning are also necessary, not least because funders and policymakers require evidence of the positive impact of museum-based learning. In line with discussions across the cultural sector, there are widespread and unresolved views on how best to account for the value of creative and cultural engagement and, in particular, which methods will generate the most robust findings (see Crossick & Kaszynska, 2016). For some, using quasi-scientific approaches, including randomized control trials, can provide a means of demonstrating improvements in, for example, critical thinking skills (see Greene, Kisida, & Bowen, 2014). However, this has raised concerns among practitioners, who argue that this method fails to capture the richness and complexity of the pedagogic process in the art museum and does not represent the practice authentically. Ethnographic approaches have also been employed in the museum, alongside case studies and action research, yet it is safe to say that there is considerable room for further research, not only on the practice itself, but also on how best to capture and account for it.
A review of the development and characteristics of teaching and learning in the art museum makes it apparent that this diverse field is rich and dynamic but can seem eclectic and unsystematic. This has led some to argue for a more structured and regulated approach and the formalization of an agreed overarching theoretical framework. Yet practitioners working in museums consistently argue for the value of different theoretical and practical approaches that can accommodate the range of audiences and variety of institutional contexts they face. This article has sought to provide as comprehensive an overview as possible, but without question, there are important geographical areas of practice that have not been addressed in depth. In part, this is because the field is so far-reaching that it is simply not possible to cover everything. Yet is also true that accessing information on art-museum education beyond the art world centers is a challenging endeavor. Within the field, ideas and innovations are generally disseminated through professional networks and conferences. This is invaluable for those working in the sector, but it limits the possibilities for debate and dissemination in wider academic, education, and policy contexts. Without question, further research is required, and far more knowledge sharing in and beyond the sector, particularly across international boundaries, would be hugely beneficial.
In the more enlightened art museums of the 21st century, where dialogue, participation, civic engagement, and creativity are seen to be central, education plays a crucial role. Yet there remains a sense among some in and beyond the profession that art-museum education needs to justify its existence. At a time when social and political divisions are growing, and economic and ecological pressures are ever more pressing, art museums need to be proactive in reaching out to diverse communities and committing to equitable and sustainable practice. Museums across the world have demonstrated that education can play a key role in achieving these ambitions. What is needed, therefore, is recognition of the value of this long-standing practice on its own terms; acknowledgment of the specific contribution it can make; and support for its intellectual and creative development from the sector, the academy, funders, and policymakers. The challenge facing practitioners and researchers is to ensure this recognition comes about.
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