Book Review: Teaching in the Art Museum

Rika Burnham, Elliot Kai-Kee, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience. J. Paul Getty Museum; 1st Edition edition (April 19, 2011)
Reviewed by Anita Nikkanen, former Departmental Teaching Fellow of Classics and Comparative Literature

Teaching in the Art Museum is, as the name makes plain, a book about teaching and learning with and about the art objects in museums. But, as the subtitle, Interpretation as Experience, suggests, the book argues for a particular philosophy of museum education. Drawing on philosophers and theorists of aesthetics and education ranging from Gadamer to Dewey, Burnham and Kai-Kee advocate a model for museum teaching that combines experience and understanding. They argue that “good gallery teaching works to discover meanings rather than to assign meanings to works of art and that educators must avoid assuming an authoritative voice, in order to allow visitors to construct their own meanings” (p. 59). Interpretation of the artwork, they emphasize, is the activity of the participating learners, not something imposed by the teacher. Their goal for gallery teaching is for the visitor, the learner, to have a kind of Deweyan experience, “marked off from ordinary experience by a sense of wholeness and unity, and characterized at [its] close by feelings of enjoyment and fulfillment” (p. 9).

The book is most directly relevant to museum educators and anyone engaged in teaching with art objects, but it has significant value for a wider audience, as well. Indeed, Burnham and Kai-Kee themselves note that “reframing gallery teaching as interpretation has allowed us to view our work as part of a broader interpretive practice that unites many disciplines” (p. 60). Likewise, I found many of their insights about effective pedagogy for the gallery equally applicable to other fields in which I have worked and taught. Most notably, their model of interpreting art works that draws on Deweyan principles to arrive at understanding is also applicable to teaching the interpretation of literary texts. Furthermore, the chapter outlining the philosophical bases for their approach offers food for thought to anyone looking to clarify the principles that articulate their teaching, and those on the use of questions and discussion and dialogue are relevant to teachers in a discussion-based format. (See, for example, chapter 1 on the philosophy of gallery teaching, chapter 3 on teaching interpretation, chapter 5 on discussion and dialogue, chapter 6 on questioning, or chapter 7 on use of information).

One of the advantages of the book, in fact, derives precisely from the field it deals with. Burnham and Kai-Kee observe that despite the fact that the practice of museum teaching is a century old, there has been no written history of it (chapter 2 represents their endeavor to begin such an account). Starting from scratch enables the authors to take a fresh look at the art of teaching. Specifically, their way of thinking about the learning (and teaching) experience, based as it is not in the university but the art museum setting, offers a different way of looking at questions about teaching that are also shared by those teaching in the former setting, where this kind of unhackneyed look at teaching may offer a welcome shake-up. For example, Burnham and Kai-Kee’s definitions of conversation, discussion, and dialogue as three distinct teaching methods with different outcomes can help those using the discussion format to create variety in their classroom. Further, in the chapter “Questioning the Use of Questions,” they discuss the aims and merits of different kinds of questioning that various pedagogical trends have promoted, with specific reference to their contribution to the educational aim of enabling students and museum visitors to have “an experience” in the Deweyan sense. They demonstrate the shortcomings of various kinds of questioning (with illustrative narrative examples) and advocate for a pedagogical approach in which the teacher ignites the dialogue but asks no questions – rather, the questions come from the students and arise out of their interests. The dialogue is then moved forward by the students’ questions and observations, for example, on an artist’s use of an unusual color palette in his late works. This in turn points to questions about why the work under consideration is different from others by the same artist, whether he was experimenting, or what models he might have been using. The teacher listens for questions from the students that lead to understanding and “break open” the art object for the viewers; this is what gives direction to the exchange between the students, the teacher, and the art work. I am curious to try out this pedagogical model in a discussion section. It reminds me of my undergraduate admission interview, in which a professor did not ask me a single question, but engaged me in a conversation instead – an experience I still remember, over a decade later. If that is what it takes to create truly memorable teaching and learning, I think Burnham and Kai-Kee may have a point about pedagogy here that could be widely applicable to discussion-based teaching, even outside the art museum.

In her chapter on the use of information in gallery teaching, Burnham likewise touches on an issue with which most of us as teachers must grapple at one point or another in our teaching careers: how much background information to give our students and how much to encourage them to come up with their own interpretations of the material, to come to an understanding of it on their own terms? The focus of her discussion is on the place of information in her method of teaching: the dialogue in front of an art work, during which she encourages students to discover its meaning for themselves while providing information and helping with interpretation as prompted by their questions. Yet she also contrasts her approach with a different one, that of a more lecture-like gallery talk providing the visitors with art-historical, curatorial, and scholarly information. This affords a moment to contemplate the use of information in different kinds of teaching settings and the aims, purpose, and effectiveness of each.

In short, then, the book is a collection of freestanding essays, unified by Burnham’s and Kai-Kee’s overarching teaching philosophy. Excepting the second one, on the history of museum education, each chapter treats a different topic pertaining to teaching in the art museum, including interpretation, dialogue, questioning, use of information, and the teacher’s research and preparation. They balance more abstract discussion of the aims and means with concrete, narrative examples of gallery teaching and transcriptions of gallery talks to create a well-illustrated meditation on the philosophy of teaching in art museums. The chapters are conveniently bite-sized to fit in the schedule of even the busiest teachers and scholars to offer a moment of contemplation on teaching – with the bonus of aesthetic pleasure offered by the works of art that are the book’s objects of study.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Teaching in the Art Museum

  1. Good review. May look for this book. I agree with the interpretation concept. The visitor ( to art museum) will complete the art….this is from another book i just read…the Denver museum of art..

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