Tuesday, June 19th 2012 (Day Two) Participation not Learning: Who, What, and How Much?

I have been working on and thinking about learning in museums since I was lucky enough to part of the UPCLOSE Lab at the University of Pittsburgh in 2004.  One of the things that always struck me as challenging is that, while my intuition tells me that museums are wonderful spaces for learning, it is difficult to assess the learning that takes place in a museum.  This is for a whole host of reasons including:

  • The short length and sporadic nature of museum visits
  • Not having a measure of what people know before they come into a museum
  • Difficulty tracking changes in visitors knowledge over time
  • The inability to use our traditional assessment tools like test or projects
  • Undefined learning goals

The learning goals in contemporary art museums seem to be particularly difficult to define. Are we hoping that visitors walk away with a greater knowledge of the art world, studio practices, issues in contemporary society or all of these things?

Being part of the Kitchen Lab at the Walker Art Center this summer has enabled me to think about this issues from a new perspective. My art practice has frequently focused on engaging the public and my research practice is focused on understanding how people learn. This is the first time I have brought these two aspects of my work together. 

As I started to explore how I could assess my own role in the museum as an artist I began looking at literature that talked about participation in the museum rather than learning in the museum. A short paper by Matusov and Rogoff summarized an approach to treat learning in a museum as participation in a community of learners rather than just acquisition or transmission of knowledge. To important points jump out at me from this approach that are especially applicable to the Kitchen Lab:

  • First, the community of learners is not just a visitor to the museum – it may includes members of the museum such as curators, education staff, tour guides, guards, and  gift shop staff. There are other people who are part of the community of learners in a museum such as the friend, parents, grandparents, siblings, and of course the artist. (in the case of the Kitchen Lab this includes all of the collaborative including students and visiting speakers too!)
  • Assessment is based upon changes in participation not changes in the acquisition of knowledge.

For assessing the Kitchen Lab we need to focus on mapping the ecology of learners involved and then observing how their participation changed. Simpler said than done, but a first step in defining what our goals are with the Kitchen Lab.

Betsy

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