Presenting Cultural Artifacts in the Art Museum: A University-Museum Collaboration

By Chung, Sheng Kuan | Art Education, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Presenting Cultural Artifacts in the Art Museum: A University-Museum Collaboration


Chung, Sheng Kuan, Art Education


With increasing emphasis on multicultural art education and integrative pedagogy, educators have incorporated community resources, such as cultural artifacts exhibited in art museums, to enrich their programs (Blandy & Congdon, 1988; Chung, 2003; Donley, 1993; Higgs & McNeal, 2006; Marcus, 2007). Cultural artifacts are human-made objects which generally reveal historic information about cultural values, beliefs, and traditions. Cultural artifacts are accessible to school children because they are concrete manifestations of artistic expression, cultural heritage, scientific discovery, and sociopolitical development; therefore, they can be effectively used to explain complex concepts, values, traditions, and ideas from various cultures to enhance learning experiences (Chung, 2003; Higgs & McNeal, 2006; Marcus, 2007). A contextual exploration using a variety of cultural artifacts thus can foster historical thinking and multicultural literacy/understanding while helping students understand the diverse visual world around them.

Nonetheless, several art educators/scholars identify issues and problems associated with multicultural art appreciation, and particularly ways in which art museums display cultural artifacts as fine art objects (Chung, 2003; Karp, 1991; Stevens, 2007). This article reports on a multifaceted, collaborative project consisting of artifacts research, museum exhibition, and curriculum development that involved university faculty, graduate students, and museum staff. This university-museum collaboration addresses ways to change how cultural artifacts are presented to museum authences and illuminates the significance of such collaboration for art education.

Problems of Cultural Artifacts in the Art Museum

Museums are visual repositories of history, culture, and knowledge. Cultural artifacts including images give us a sense of place and time (Muffoletto, 2001). Therefore, they afford myriad possibilities for learning about the most cherished aspects of human civilization and wisdom accumulated over time in a tangible manner. Although many historical objects are presented in art museums because of their social, religious, utilitarian, and technological significance, they are usually approached from a formalist standpoint and displayed as fine art objects in a decontextualized fashion. A two-dimensional piece, for instance, is usually hung on a wall, while a three-dimensional object is placed on a pedestal in a window case, with labels giving limited, often inadequate, information to help viewers understand cultural artifacts. Chung (2003) cautioned that the formalist treatment of cultural objects in art museums prevents viewers from looking beyond objects' outward artistic decoration and limits museums' ability to educate about the range of human accomplishments. Indeed, these formalist museum practices not only deprive cultural artifacts of contextual meanings but also ignore ideological conflicts between the essence of most cultural artifacts and notions of Modern art.

Cultural artifacts are automatically considered to be art if they are displayed in an authoritative institution such as an art museum permeated by the aura of art Additionally, similar to those of art objects, stories of cultural artifacts are predominately constructed by museum authority through the curatorial process, including selection and presentation that "affects not just what the visitors see but how they are encouraged to construct meaning and understand their experiences" (Robins, 2005, p. 150). Robins and Woollard (2003) found that most art teachers are unaware of issues of curatorship or consider them irrelevant to learning about museum objects. Teachers' lack of opportunity to engage with curatorial practices affects their understanding of how meaning is (re) constructed by the museum authority from a particular standpoint. Educators should also note that most cultural artifacts displayed in art museums were not initially created for public display or aesthetic gratification. …

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