Productive Information: Contextual Knowledge in Art Museum Education

By Hubard, Olga M. | Art Education, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Productive Information: Contextual Knowledge in Art Museum Education


Hubard, Olga M., Art Education


Contextual Information: Hindrance or Blessing?

Group dialogue holds a prominent place in today's art museum education. Through guided discussions, educators can engage students in meaningful investigations of artworks. Effective discussions have a back-and-forth character: Viewers pay close attention to the works in front of them, drawing from their lived experiences to make sense of what they see.

There is much that educators can do to encourage group inquiry. For example, they can pose thoughtful, open-ended questions that encourage people to look more closely at works of art. They can acknowledge all responses, and weave them together into a larger web of meanings. They can invite students to ground their comments in what they see, and ask them to probe deeper into their thoughts and feelings.1

Museum educator Rika Burnham (1994) wrote that the purpose of group dialogue is not the "time-efficient transfer of information" (1994, p. 523) about an object. The aim, rather, is to empower audiences to collectively discover layers of meaning in works of art (Barrett, 2000; Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2005; Greene, 2001; Rice, 1995; Rice & Yenawine, 2002). Group discussions are, therefore, closely aligned with art criticism, as interpretation is the central activity (Barrett, 1994).1

What, then, becomes of all the information that traditional lectures used to deliver? Should educators attend to artists' biographies, art historical categories, and critics' interpretations? Or should they focus exclusively on the personal relationships that can be forged between a viewer and an object?

Burnham (1994) explained that programs based on the delivery of information can "severely limit the possibility for a perceptual and personal relationship with a work of art. . .. Students realize their participation is irrelevant, that other people have already denned what is important and significant, . . . [and they] tune out" (p. 521).3 Likewise, Philosopher John Armstrong (2000) said that a preoccupation with information "can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing that they are supposed to serve: We end up knowing about [emphasis added] the picture ... but not knowing it [emphasis added]" (p. 14).

Nevertheless, Armstrong (2000) and Burnham and Kai-Kee (2005) explained that contextual knowledge does not necessarily lead to impoverished engagement. Information can foster more detailed perception and open up viewers' appreciation. It can change, guide, and develop the way people see, deepening and enriching their experience. In short, contextual knowledge is not in itself a hindrance or a blessing. It is what a spectator does with the information that matters. What art history student has not felt the satisfaction of walking around a museum, fitting objects into all the right categories? This one is Cubist, this one from Crete, that one by Carracci. "Getting it right" can bring about a feeling of satisfaction and even impress others. Yet, merely attaching to a painting the label "Cubist," keeps a viewer within the realm of impersonal generalizations. It is only when one explores with fresh eyes how Cubist precepts play out in a particular picture that information about Cubism helps deepen understanding.4

The Role of Teachers

How can teachers help students use information productively within dialogues about art? How can they ensure that facts will act as catalysts for significant meaning making?

These questions are frequent in the classes I teach to future art museum educators and school-based art teachers. I often cite Burnham (1994), and tell students that the viewers' experience comes first; that "information should be added only when it is not injurious to the free flow of ideas and when it can validate understanding" (p. 524); that facts should be offered "gently and sensitively and at the right moment" (p. …

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