Bridging the Theory-Practice Divide in Contemporary Art Museum Education
Mayer, Melinda M., Art Education
Today's art museum educators face a challenge that is unprecedented in the field. Where not too long ago little was known regarding how people learn in the museum, now multiple theories have emerged (FaIk & Dierking 1992,2000; Hein 1998; Roberts, 1997; Yenawine, 1988). New theories breed new practices. The dilemma for art museum educators is to select the theory and craft the practice that will promote meaningful learning experiences for visitors, who can be anyone from children to Senior Citizens.
This predicament of aligning theory and practice points to the maturation of the field of art museum education, which was criticized in the 1980s for its lack of grounding in educational theory (Eisner & Dobbs, 1986). Now, the contemporary art museum educator has access to various theories of learning as well as emerging teaching strategies. Although K-12 art educators experienced shifts in notions of learning during the last decades of the 20th century, the focus in this article is art museum education.
The challenge for K-12 art educators and art museum educators is different due to the more structured character of school learning and the narrower range of ages. On what basis, therefore, should art museum educators decide the theoretical foundation of their teaching? Once having made that choice, what are the difficulties involved in translating that theory into good practice? Before taking up these questions, some context regarding teaching in the art museum is needed.
Prior to developing knowledge regarding how people learn in museums, art museum educators focused their attention more on what and how they should teach than on the learning processes of museum visitors. The content of art museum teaching seemed obvious-the collection. Providing educational programs that elucidated and illuminated the works of art in the collections was the basis of teaching (Excellence and Equity, 1992). Art museum educators were expected to pass along the art historical information provided to them by the museum's researchers, the curators. The discipline of art history, therefore, played a determining role in the content of educational experiences in the art museum. To figure out how to teach, art museum educators looked to sources beyond art history.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, art museum educators increasingly explored such fields as communication theory and educational psychology in order to create effective, interactive teaching techniques. Whether developing questioning strategies designed to stimulate higher order thinking skills or differentiating gallery teaching for the multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) of art, museum visitors, these educators strove to teach not only about their collections, but also in ways that made the experience of the museum personally meaningful to visitors. Museum education programs provided background information on the artist and work, introduced cultural contexts, defined useful vocabulary, cultivated the looking skills of visitors, facilitated interpretation, and enabled visitors to make connections between their lives and the artworks (Yenawine, 1988). While art museum educators focused their practice on what to teach and how to teach, researchers attempted to identify how people learn in museums.1 As was the case in art education at large, throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s the results of research appeared in the burgeoning literature of museum education. Here, then, is an overview of current theories and strategies of museum learning.
A theory of learning that is gaining influence among museum educators is constructivism. Writers and researchers in many areas of education draw upon the work of such educational psychologists as John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky in formulating constructivism. The most thorough presentation of a constructivist theory for museums is George Hein's Learning in the Museum (1998). Hein writes that visitors construct knowledge by making connections between their lives and the objects they encounter in museums. …