Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture

By Buffington, Melanie L. | Studies in Art Education, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture


Buffington, Melanie L., Studies in Art Education


Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2000). Routledge: London. 195 pages. ISBN 0-415-08633-7

As understandings about the nature of knowledge and approaches to objects have changed, the notion of a museum has changed from the modernist museum, based on the transmission of knowledge, to what Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (2000) terms the "post-museum" (p. x), based on cultural approaches to objects. In Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Hooper-Greenhill makes this assertion and investigates the ways museums display visual culture objects as related to their role as educational institutions. She builds her arguments on a well-developed theoretical basis that reflects postmodernism, feminism, educational theories, museum studies, and cultural studies. While concepts of visual culture and its implications for teaching and learning art are clearly articulated throughout contemporary art education literature (Ballengee-Morris & Stuhr, 2001; Barrett, 2003; Bolin & Blandy, 2003; Chapman, 2003; Duncum, 2001; Freedman, 2003; Krug, 2003; Smith-Shank, 2003; Tavin, 2003; Wilson, 2003), the role of visual culture in a museum setting is not often addressed in art education. This book consists of seven chapters that use case studies to investigate visual culture in museum settings. A unifying thread is the importance of looking at museum objects through multiple viewpoints and recognizing that their meanings shift with time, context, and in relation to other information. In the preface, Hooper-Greenhill explains the two main questions the book investigates: "How are objects and collections used by museums to construct knowledge?" and "How can the relationships of museum audiences to this knowledge be understood?" (p. x).

In the first chapter, Hooper-Greenhill introduces a variety of terms and explains their usage throughout the text. One of the terms most crucial to this text is visual culture, which she explains as follows:

'Visual culture' as a concept and a methodology refuses to accept the distinction between high and mass culture.... Visual culture as a field of study raises theoretical questions about the social practices of looking and seeing, which are related to processes of learning and knowing, (p. 14)

She believes that the concept of looking is complex and involves the person who looks, the object that the person views, and the physical location of the object. She writes, "But to recognize something, it is necessary to have prior knowledge of it-thus observation depends on already knowing that for which one is searching. This contradictory and complex situation is at the heart of the museum experience" (p. 15). Many authors in art education consciously and consistently include examples of mass-produced objects, including advertisements, websites, clothing, CD covers, etc, when addressing visual culture. The examples that Hooper-Greenhill uses throughout the text are handmade objects (though not necessarily traditional art museum objects) including portraits, a Maori meetinghouse, and a Lakota-Sioux Ghost Dance shirt.

One case Hooper-Greenhill investigates is the inception and initial decade of collecting by the National Portrait Gallery, London, in which she questions the collection and display of the portraits and complicates the narrative they create. Of the 225 portraits acquired during the museum's first decade, 203 were of men and 22 were of women. The men fit into a variety of categories including government officials, artists, clergy, scientists, philosophers, educators, or members of the royal family. The majority of the women (14) represented in the collection were members of the royal family. During the first decade of the National Portrait Gallery, more than 200 million people were under the rule of the British Empire; however, people of color and white women are largely invisible in this collection. Hooper-Greenhill explains that, "The public display of these collections makes a visual narrative which naturalises these underpinning assumptions and which gives them the character of inevitability and common sense" (p. …

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