|Burnham and Kai-Kee's Book|
Last week I did a gallery presentation on Chinese ceramics, so educating in the gallery is very much on my mind. I gambled that I'd be thrown into one of later galleries, so I pulled some information together about Ming and Qing ceramics. Alas, I ended up in the Han Dynasty with the instruction "not to do any of the big pieces that people already know about" and five minutes to figure out which piece I would present. I scanned the room, looking for something small and insignificant that would still give me something to talk about. "Not that, not that, not that... oh dear. Well, that one's got no hands. We could talk about that. Earlier Tang dynasty, earthenware, hmm." And so we began.
|Lady Holding an Incense Burner|
Tang Dynasty, Probably 618-700
Glazed Low Fired Ceramic
Burnham and Kai-Kee are by and large on board with the process above. They advocate a whole lot more preparation, which is a luxury a docent trainee doesn't yet have. But despite this rigorous preparation, the two stress that it's a bad idea to throw art history lectures at museum visitors. It makes perfect sense to me to put educational methods at the forefront of museum education, yet I see that they're having to argue against an avalanche of momentum (several centuries, actually) that privileges one person with a unique, curatorial view of an object and delineates a large class of people who can only hope to imbibe this knowledge through osmosis. Yet without this rarefied knowledge base, Burnham and Kai-Kee find it difficult to conduct proper museum education.
Silk with Gold Thread Embroidery
But what I really found provocative was Burnham's description of how to engage with a work of art. Able to spend significant amounts of time wrestling with pieces in locales such as Venice, she describes a transformative experience with a work almost as profound as a religious awakening. She resists, she gets angry, she gets frustrated, she almost leaves, and then "the object stares back... [and] I stare back at the object" (69). Pulled into an intimate and personal experience with the art, "the seduction is complete. Bellini has pulled me in, made me fall in love again with one of his great pictures. I am moved to tears. Awakening as if from a trance, I also realize that time has stopped, that the moment of my small epiphany has been a small eternity" (70). It is this experience, not just a moment of connection, not just a moment of emotional and intellectual exploration, that we are seeking to recreate in a museum. "What more can we ask for than that our visitors fall in love with the artworks we offer for their contemplation" (76).