Art museums and intellectual inclusion

As usual, I have been looking at programs and exhibitions that foster wellbeing or social change and asking the question, ‘What is the unique contribution of the museum to this impactful experience?

Last week, (during my search for museum volunteer opportunities) I received some interesting answers with respect to art museums and the resources and pedagogies that make them ideal venues for intellectual inclusion.

These thoughts were inspired by attending Conversations at The Kreeger Museum, a program that offers art talks for individuals with memory disorders and their caregivers. The talks facilitate discussion and connection through visual art and music (see link).

I arrived twenty minutes early for the program and was ushered through the gallery onto the back terrace where a small group of participants were already engaging with the two pieces of art on the agenda—sculptures, Torso Sheaf and Hurlou, by Jean Arp. The docent was moving around the sculptures, visually engaging participants’ attention on the works.

I found it wonderful that participants could arrive early and walk straight into a lively, dynamic discussion of the art. The close proximity to the art allowed participants to explore its detail, trace its shape with their hands (as the docent suggested), and soak in the natural warmth and light that was hitting the terrace.

At 11am, participants took their seats for a more formal discussion of the two works. Following this, they adjourned to another gallery to listen to a thoughtfully curated piano performance by Ralitza Patcheva.

My experience at this program gave me a new perspective on the roles and resources of art museums, and the potential for inclusive, educative experiences.

I would like to share a few observations and thoughts from my experience:

  1. Art is very intellectually accessible.

As I watched the docent skillfully engage the participants (including the caregivers), I noticed how effortlessly art affirms intellect, regardless of experience or background.

  1. Art offers multiple ‘ways in.’

Perhaps one of the reasons that art is so welcoming of all intellects and backgrounds is that it offers multiple levels on which to connect, including (in this case) poetry, history, music, movement (art has ‘energy’), and personal experience (art connects us to our histories).

  1. Art and education work together (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

In a recent blog post on Art Museum Teaching, Andrea de Pascual wrote about the art education collective, Invisible Pedagogies, and the work that they do to transform and innovate on traditional educational paradigms. She explained that she and her colleagues work to promote the idea that art and education should work together rather than separately (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

During the Conversations program, the docent clearly embraced this philosophy, frequently encouraging participants to engage with the works in both an educative and an artistic manner. She also allowed participants to experience themselves as creative or artistic beings by enquiring about their own artistic and musical hobbies and histories.

  1. Visitors are valuable knowledge-producers (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

Andrea also argued that museums should treat participants as knowledge-producers whose contributions are equally valuable as those produced by artists and curators (Andrea de Pascual, Art Museum Teaching).

The docent facilitated and validated this knowledge production in several ways:

  • She frequently used participants’ comments as jumping off points for discussion.
  • She recalled participants’ comments and re-integrated them into the group’s newfound knowledge.
  • She helped participants to learn from each other by connecting one participant’s comment to another’s.
  • She asked participants to explain or re-interpret material for newcomers.
  1. Art education enriches all of us.

Conversations Program Manager, Rebecca Carr, explained to me afterward that the program is aimed equally at the older adult participants and the caregivers. This dual focus was very evident to me during the program as the docent frequently asked the caregivers to share their opinions and ideas. At the conclusion of the art discussion, the docent asked carers what they would remember and take away for further discussion. I thought this was an effective way to get the caregivers thinking about ways in which they could extend and continue the discussion beyond the museum walls.

For myself, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the discussion and engaging with the works. Though I attended as a prospective volunteer, I was able to quickly integrate myself into the fabric of the group and feel like any other participant. Thus, the program accommodated the varied needs of participants while also creating a sense of ordinariness.

  1. Art museums are special places with valuable social assets.

Art museums offer access to unique resources and opportunities for inclusive art education:

  • art and authentic art experiences
  • curators, educators, and volunteers
  • museum scholarship and research
  • beautiful and safe surroundings

This program offers an important restorative experience for individuals with memory disorders and their caregivers, arguably providing an essential service for organizations and families that need to share these uniquely beautiful and stimulating opportunities with their clients and loved ones.

I would be very interested to read any related opinions or research and would love to be directed to relevant resources—if anyone knows of any.

Note 1: My thinking on this topic has been greatly informed by my masters dissertation research. Two programs in particular have helped me greatly in developing ideas about programming for older adults living with dementia. If you are interested, check out National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Alzheimer’s Program and the collaborative Creative Aging program of The Phillips Collection and Iona Senior Services.

Note 2: Please forgive the absence of a photo. I was completely absorbed by the experience and forgot to take one!


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