Can Philosophical Change Take Hold in the American Art Museum?

By Mayer, Melinda M. | Art Education, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Can Philosophical Change Take Hold in the American Art Museum?


Mayer, Melinda M., Art Education


At the close of this decade, this century, this millennium, change or the demand for change is evident even where. In education the cry for reform rings out from the national to the local level That cry also is heard in the disciplines which form the foundation of what is taught in schools. Art educators in schools and museums readily find signs of shifting theories and practices in the disciplines which shape their teaching. The purpose of this article is to reflect upon the patterns of philosophical change which occurred during the 20th century in art museums and explore whether changes now taking place in the discipline of art history, called the "new art histories," are likely to result in systemic change in art museums. Will a new relationship between the art museum and its audience, especially the schools, emerge?

I will begin by examining differing notions of the educational mission of art museums in America. Four philosophies of art inquiry that determined educational practices during the 20th century will be mapped. The persistent dominance of one, the art history philosophy, will be examined in terms of the structures which allowed it to reign supreme. Particular attention will be focused on the 1930s and 1940s when education made great strides towards becoming the primary mission of the art museum. The writings of Theodore Low, director of education at the Walters Art Gallery, will illuminate this period. Lows prophecies and critical analysis might also serve as a signpost indicating whether current shifts in the discipline of art history will result in changing educational practices in art museums. This article will close by considering the significance of the new art histories to art museum/school relationships.

EDUCATION AND THE ART MUSEUM'S MISSION

Is the primary mission of the American art museum to serve people or works of art? The answer to this question determines the nature of the institution, specifically whether or not it is an educational institution. A quick perusal of the founding charters of the first American art museums indicates that the question was settled over 100 years ago: American art museums are educational institutions. In fact, the importance American museums placed on their educational function distinguished them from European museums dedicated to the acquisition and care of collections (Rawlins, 1978). If the question was settled a century ago, why pose it now?

In truth the place of education in the mission of the American art museum is far from settled. It is a divisive issue that has stirred debate among directors, curators, and museum educators throughout the 20th century. How these professionals define education and how important a function they deem it directly affects the status of the museum educator in the organization, his or her voice in policymaking, and, most importantly, the educator's opportunity to perform his or her job.

After 1870, no museum (hereafter "museum" will refer to art museums) in this country was founded without including education, in some form, in its mission statement (Rawlins, 1978). The crux of this debate, therefore, is not whether a museum has an educational purpose, but what the director, curator, and museum educator view as education. Embedded in that definition of education is its relative primacy in the institution.

One conception of education held by some museum directors and curators is that by displaying the object the muse um has fulfilled its educational function. The viewer is educated simply by looking at the work of art (Lee, 1978). The extreme of this view is recorded by Eisner and Dobbs (1986). A director interviewed for their report on the field of museum education states, "If you hang a picture in the dark, that is not education. If you put a light on it, that is education" (p. 8). This philosophy centers on the work of art and endows the object with the power to speak for itself. Although not all museum directors share this perspective, it continues to assert a strong presence. …

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