What Are We Doing As Museum Educators?

Burnham and Kai-Kee's Book
Rika Burnham is in the city hobnobbing about the Asian Art Museum, and Elliott Kai-Kee is soon to join.  The reason?  Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience, their 2011 book.  In preparation for their visit to docent training class on Friday I've dug into the first half of their work.  The book tackles the very simple scene of a museum educator (often masquerading as a docent) standing with a group of people in front of a work of art.  In the process they unravel the power dynamics underlying group learning, the purpose of art and the museum's responsibility to the public, and just what is supposed to happen when someone looks at a piece of art.

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

The presentation went well, thanks to a group primed to look closely.  I did what I always do in the gallery:  identify the importance of what we're looking at (why are we looking at a lump of old, hard clay?), encourage everyone to look long and closely at the piece (what are you really seeing?), and stimulate a process where people are connecting not just intellectually, but emotionally, with a piece of art.  Then the fine art of free-for-all starts, where people begin sharing their reflections to create a shared, yet very individual, reaction to the piece in front of them.  Valuing people's contributions while managing disparate reactions and being aware of interactions that have the potential to shut down conversation is a challenge.  And to leave space for the group to develop their own interpretation around a piece without dictating the outcome... it requires a great deal of faith on my part.  

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.

Wedding Textile
Perhaps 1900-1950
Silk with Gold Thread Embroidery
What I was surprised to discover from the book is that almost all practical, day-to-day museum education in this country is conducted by unpaid volunteers.  There are simply too few museum educators, and more importantly, too little funding, to pay trained professionals to do the bulk of museum education.  And while museums understand the importance of training their docents (three years of importance at the Asian), docents never have the firm basis in art history that a professional museum educator has open to them.  The bulk of docents find themselves a contemporary adaptation of the funny 1950's flashback of the "best museum volunteer" that  Kai-Kee identifies:  "She is a married woman, thirty to forty-five years old, with one to two children in school, and a husband in an executive position... she seldom has formal training related to her volunteer job but may have developed useful skills in other activities" (30).  Kai-Kee traces the varying ways that professional museum educators have defined themselves since the 1890's, concluding there's often broad consensus that museum education is important, but a great deal of disagreement about what museum education is and looks like.  And docents, often unawares, are the linchpin holding the entire system together.

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).

Rika Burnham
This religiosity is something we've seen before in museum education (see my previous post on VTS).  I wonder sometimes if museums are our contemporary stand-ins for religious institutions.  Darshan-like, we come to see and be seen by art, to be profoundly transformed through an achingly intimate encounter with artwork.  At the Asian this process is heightened by the fact that many of our works are actually religious (coming out of temples and mosques and monasteries and religiously defined burial sites).  Are museum educators modern day clergy mediating a personal experience of the divine through art?  Or is that perhaps too presumptious on our part?  After making my husband my guinea pig for my summer tour (see my post on my summer tour) , he told me "That was a totally transformative experience.  I entered an entirely different universe in the way you talked about those pieces.  And never ask me how I "feel" about a piece of art again.  It makes you sound like a psychologist."  We win some, we loose some.  We are after that peak experience of transformation (because that's the experience most likely to bring those visitors back), but I feel it's worth looking at what form that peak experience should take and how it might be most appropriate for us to mediate it.