One of the things that I have always maintained as important in arts education is the importance of authenticity in what a facilitator – be that docent, artist-instructor, lecturer or coach – has to say about their chosen topic. Are they invested, excited and impassioned by their discourse or do they simply rhyme off a rehearsed speech? This is a key concept in many business coaching programmes, but sometimes is forgotten when it comes to more educational settings, and certainly in more traditional museum settings. While they are fewer than they used to be, tour scripts and pre-set lesson plans still exist in many educational settings. The logic for this is often fairly sound – there is a set of facts or skills that a student should learn, and a solid plan will ensure that everyone learns these things. The results are less convincing.
Two things have converged recently to remind me of this idea. First, I have been working with an exciting contemporary exhibition that poses the idea that a visitor need not know anything about art to experience and enjoy the works on display (are you experienced? is on view now at the Art Gallery of Hamilton). Second, I attended a talk by two members of Museum Hack – a tour company based in New York City that provides what they call ‘alternative’ museum experiences.
In the exhibition, the artists have created works that encourage both an instant and a reflective response. The works reference the body and each contains elements of the ‘familiar made strange’. Each person will experience the works with reference to their own physical and emotional states, and will create meaning from that. While this sounds fairly theoretical, it is actually an intuitive and rewarding process. Everyone will have a different response and that what the artists and curator want.
On another tangent, the approach that Museum Hack tour guides take is to abandon the traditional scripted tours, and to get really involved in what makes the work exciting, or meaningful or upsetting. They encourage their guides to skip over the key works in the museum, and instead to find their personal favourites and build a tour on this.
In each case, interactions with art are individually meaningful, self-directed to some degree and most likely different for each person. This supports my own ideas in education and learning that finding the ideas and experiences that are significant to each learner have much more impact than learning a predetermined set of details that someone else found important. In my opinion, facilitators would do well to remember what got them excited in the first place and to help their audiences find their own passions too.