A Postmodern Puzzle: Rewriting the Place of the Visitor in Art Museum Education

By Mayer, Melinda M. | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

A Postmodern Puzzle: Rewriting the Place of the Visitor in Art Museum Education


Mayer, Melinda M., Studies in Art Education


At the same time as the postmodern call to reexamine traditional notions of scholarship blazed new paths through many disciplines, art museum education was a field in transition. From the 1970s through the mid 1990s, the writings of art museum educators revealed changing and contested beliefs regarding their pedagogical purposes. This study focuses on how art museum educators wrote and rewrote theory and practice regarding the role of the museum visitor in meaning making. Theorists of visual literacy, museum literacy, and interactivity will serve as the guides to this intertextual historical examination.

For the past 30 years, postmodernism has challenged the foundations of many disciplines regarding what counts as knowledge, theory, and practice. Art education is replete with such examinations (Clark, 1996; Efland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996; Hutchens & Suggs, 1997; Gaudelius & Speirs, 2002). Multicultural, feminist, ecological, and critical theories have changed the landscape of art education theory and practice from the late 1970s until the present. During this same period, art museum education became a stronger presence within art education and signs of an influx of postmodern theory into art museum education1 had begun to appear in the literature of art education. Special issues of Art Education devoted to art museum education included articles reflecting the authors' engagement with postmodern theories (Hazelroth & Moore, 1998; Mayer, 1998; Chung, 2003; Reese, 2003; McKay & Monteverde, 2003). No historical inquiries exist, however, examining the paths of postmodernism through art museum education.

This study seeks to examine art museum educators' changing notions regarding the role of the art museum visitor in interpretation from the 1970s through the mid-1990s influenced, in part, by postmodern theory. Although these educators have not published prolifically during the past 30 years, the literature reveals visual literacy, museum literacy, and interactivity as bellwether discourses revealing changes in the field (Berry & Mayer, 1989; Yenawine, 1988; Rice, 1987; Rice, 1988; Williams, 1984/ 1992).

Chronicling postmodernism2 through art museum education entails a glance at art history as well. Until the mid-1980s, most art museum educators held degrees in art history (Eisner & Dobbs, 1986). When teaching or designing education programs, their ideas regarding what should be taught and how it should be taught were determined by what these educators learned regarding art historical inquiry in their own education (Muhlberger, 1985). By the mid-1990s, the academic qualifications of art museum educators expanded to include degrees in art education, education, museum education, museum studies, or studio art. Art history, however, remained the most prevalent field of study for art museum educators (Mayer, 1999). Moreover, the power relations in art museums privileged art historical interpretations made by the curatorial staff3 as appropriate content for dissemination to art museum visitors. However, what counted as scholarship in art history was changing from the 1970s through the 1990s, giving rise to the new art histories (BaI & Bryson, 1991; Bryson, 1988; Clark, 1984; Moxey, 1994; Preziosi, 1989; Rees & Borzello, 1986). Pluralizing the term art history reflects the diversity of theories from which art historians drew as they examined their methods. For example, developments within literary criticism were a potent source for retheorizing the interpretation of works of art (BaI & Bryson, 1991).

In traversing the tangled paths art museum educators followed during this postmodern period, I will embrace an intertextual approach to examine their writings. Intertextualiry arises from semiotics, particularly a poststructuralist semiotic approach to reading texts. Semiotics, the study of signs, moves beyond written texts as it postulates all conveyors of culturally laden meaning as signs to be interpreted (BaI & Bryson, 1991).

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