Research Week 2009: Reviews

By Cristina Lleras

Monday May 18, afternoon session

Looking back at the presentations on Monday afternoon, there is a common thread that sows the argument of both research projects. Mette and Pippa are analyzing how visitors, especially adults, engage with art works in museums. Though their takes on the matter are very different, since one is looking at discourse propelled by objects and the other at representations through drawing, their work is about understanding how museums become meaningful sites to individuals rather than generically to “audiences”.

Mette Houlberg Rung
Dialogic Spaces. Experiences in the collections at the Statens Museum for Kunst

Mette´s presentation focused on how audiences use the museum as a space of action, where narratives are produced between audiences, space and objects. As she dives into her research, after a few months of having it on hold, she is looking at how adults engage with the 2006 rehanging of the National Gallery in Copenhagen. Initially the methods of data collection included tracking sheets and observation at one of the galleries in the post 1945 art area; she then decided to record 14 pairs of conversations.

What these recordings reveal is the use people give to art pieces in order to draw in other “objects” outside of the museum that are relevant to personal stories. Thus dialogue here (taken from Bakhtin) is about an exchange between people stirred by objects and space, marked by previous experiences and future dreams, as well as imagined spaces.

In fact the majority of visitors are in the company of another adult. This particular use is confirmed by the questionnaires answered by the pairs who participated in the study where 50% say that a good museum experience comes about striking good conversations. Their main reason to visit is to have an experience with a companion rather than learning, in a more traditional sense.

There are two themes that Mette highlights: the relevance of personal experience in relating to art works and the construction of social narratives in the formation of identities. Mette interprets the widespread use of judgments as a legacy of educational policies in Denmark, which encourages learning not as knowledge intake but rather as opinion formation. It is interesting how the use of the museum is done in cultures of discussion where learning is more about the development of the self in a social context.

A particularly interesting point in her presentation, following Michel de Certeau, is how the museum exists when people use it. This leads us to rethink the ways in which traditionally art museums have conceived their exhibitions as results of enlightened curators that expect audiences “to get” the discourses and art pieces in a particular exhibition. In a different model, curators of art could look at patterns of consumption as possibilities in the creation of narratives.

There was a short discussion at the end about the use of texts, which Mette said were hardly read. The issue might have to do with the fact that audiences are more educated and older and might not feel they have to read, plus only a minority is there for the first time. Ceri mentioned that this phenomenon says something about how we are conditioned to look at art and Amy commented how having no text might force people to really look at art works.

Pippa Sherriff
Drawing Engagement. The relationship between people and objects as viewed through the people who are encouraged to draw in museums of art and design

Pippa´s research is focused on the mediation of drawing in the relationship between people and objects in the museum. She mentioned previous research done in 1997, which shows that participatory activities encourage people to engage in art. This is significant because though governments might emphasize cultural experiences, there is self-exclusion and thus understanding how people engage with art works can be of relevance for projects undertaken.

Her research was carried out in the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool, with two participants as well as her own experience of drawing. Though she believes that more participants need to be included, Richard thought this might be unnecessary if the data was rich enough.

As far as her paradigm and where she is standing to analyze her data, Pippa stressed the use of bricolage as a way to connect the parts to the whole, where individual experiences are interpreted in the light of meanings for the totality. She follows the phenomenographic approach, where material collected reveals people´s experience and their constructions of that reality. Autoethnography also became an important source of data, as well as the significance of the drawings themselves in order to reveal how drawing encourages reflection and problem solving.

Visual tasks might get the brain to work in ways that are different. Pippa was critical of the use of digital technology because it is an instant record of our experience. She believes it suspends the reference (object), and instead the act of drawing allows the meaningful reconstruction of a tangible object and thus gives meaning to our engagement with art (Though I find this theory interesting, I am not in agreement since I have also seen how young people “appropriate” things in an exhibit when they take pictures of themselves with objects).

To the question of how to avoid romanticizing the experience of drawing, Pippa mentioned the use of the various experiences, including her own. Sandra pointed to the interesting tactile relationship between a person and an object that drawing encourages, while Sheila mentioned how Pippa´s research will dive into a particular form people use to make meaning for them.


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