The Core Beliefs section of the Strategic Framework (pdf) for the American Association of Museums states:
“The museum experience is characterized by the encounter with the real object and/or the primary experience, in a positive place, supported by scholarship and knowledge.”
I recently had the opportunity and privilege to participate in and also carefully observe such an encounter with the real on the part of university students in Dr. Laurel Wilson’s Textile and Apparel Management 2500 course Social Appearance in Time and Space. Dr. Wilson contacted me in early summer 2007 to discuss organizing a special presentation of pre-Columbian textiles for her lesson on “Cloth and Its Function in the Inca State”. After our initial discussion about her teaching objectives, we then spent several hours with Museum Registrar Jeff Wilcox identifying potential artifacts for the presentation and then narrowing the selections to a workable number within the limited space of the Cast Gallery. Setting up the actual displays then took several more hours. In retrospect, I concluded that Dr. Wilson’s scholarship about her teaching as well as the textiles, combined with Jeff Wilcox’s encyclopedic knowledge about the background and condition of each incredibly fragile textile fragment, perfectly illustrated the Core Belief about the crucial role of “scholarship and knowledge” in a successful museum experience. The textile presentation represented teaching and museum education of a very high order indeed.
As Academic Coordinator for the Museum, however, I am especially concerned about the learning that quite literally takes place here, or whether learning even occurs at all during the museum experience. That’s because many citizens and public policy-makers such as the federal Spellings Commission are increasingly raising some very serious questions about what’s higher in higher education, questions that we must prepare to answer intelligently and effectively. Dr. Wilson’s class offered an excellent opportunity to explore that very question about student learning and the museum experience first-hand and in depth. The data to answer that question came not from multiple-choice tests but from the minds and pens of the students themselves. Dr. Wilson graciously added a question to her study guide asking students to explain how directly observing the actual textiles created by pre-Columbian people contributed (or not!) to their understanding of class concepts and materials. Their fascinating responses, both collectively and individually, make a very compelling case for the higher educational value of the first-hand museum experience.
All but one student agreed that observing these priceless textiles first-hand significantly contributed to their learning. However, what fascinated me most about their responses were the specific qualities they assigned to that form of learning. First of all, the museum experience addresses the increasingly important issue of different student learning styles. One student pointed out that as a visual learner the special presentation greatly enhanced her understanding of the key class concepts, while another noted that the objects in the presentation clearly focused his reading. The museum presentation also caused students to reflect thoughtfully on the complex issue of human creations and creativity. One student commented upon how “unique and detailed” the textiles were compared to the general concepts of the article; another cited the “different weaves, the patterns and dyeing designs, the addition of feathers and tassels”; another cited “the exact detail and complexity of each piece” in the museum presentation; yet another noted that you can’t understand the “beauty of the textiles” until you see them yourself. At an even deeper level called the affective domain of feeling and values, students in their responses demonstrated considerable empathy with people far across time and space as the ancient textiles mirrored their values. One student talked about how the brightness of the colors reminded her of how hard the artisans must have worked to create these precious garments, while another spoke of her new “respect” for the textiles and their makers. One student even related that the presentation inspired her to “take better care” of her textile collection in order to preserve the possibility of future generations observing her own artifacts. These student responses to the textile presentation demonstrated considerable depth of understanding and feeling; some important learning changes had taken place.
The University Statement of Values concludes that our core values of respect, responsibility, discovery, and excellence remain mere words until we integrate them as values in our individual lives and reflect them in our institutional policies and practices. To that extent, the pre-Columbian textile presentation at the Museum of Art & Archaeology allowed Dr. Wilson’s students to Get Real.