Encountering the Real

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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.”

Textiles class with pre-Columbian textilesI 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.

3 Responses to “Encountering the Real”

  1. There is a thought-provoking blog in Smithsonian’s Eye Level entitled “Seeing Things” (http://eyelevel.si.edu/2008/01/seeing-things-1.html) that I strongly recommend for your consideration. It addresses many of the above issues but also offers an interesting window into the meanings of the new information technologies for the upcoming generation that I think we need to seriously keep in mind.

  2. In addition to the experience of Dr. Wilson’s class, two other Museum audiences talked with me about the value on encountering the real object in a positive place supported by thoughtful scholarship. Dr. Karen Onofrio brought her Artistic Anatomy course from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute to the Museum for their final class. Dr. Onofrio is both a registered nurse and a distinguished artist, so she brought a fascinating perspective to the works in our collection that helped all of us “see” them in new ways. One student commented that “I’m seeing things I never saw before” such as the very light perspective grid embedded in some Renaissance paintings as well as the play of light on some of our plaster casts and other sculptures. Others commented on the benefits of being able to walk around three-dimensional works and see “anatomical cues” missing from text photos.
    Members of the Fortnightly Club also shared their thoughts with me about what makes a museum experience so unique and valuable. For many of them, it was the ability to view works in a gallery context and see additional dimensions such as a richly gilded frame for a Baroque painting or experiencing three-dimensional sculptural works, along with the ability to ask questions of Curator of European and American Art Dr. Mary Pixley, that significantly deepened their appreciation for the Museum’s work of collecting, curating, and communicating. While information technology receives widespread acclaim for making us more ‘interactive’, these museum-goers suggested that Encountering the Real is the most interactive thing we can possibly do.

  3. Ann Mehr says:

    Allowed them to get real AND get real SMART!

    Excellent artlcle. I would encourage professors and teachers within a half mile of MUMAA to walk on over and include the study of actual art and artifacts in their courses of study. When viewing an actual artifact we experience TRUTH and the intellectual interaction with time, space, materials and culture. It is IMMEDIATE personal response. Not mediated by scholarship, words, point of view, or lens of another.

    My nephew (student at KU) sent me this.

    About the information age:
    I read a synopsis of this book called Immortal Game: A History of
    Chess that said,

    “We face in our modern, splintered world not only a crisis in
    education, but more pointedly a crisis of understanding– of thought
    and of willingness to engage in thought. We live in an age where the
    intellectual challenges are unprecedented; just to be an effective
    consumer one has to be able to navigate a hundred half-truths and
    advertising tricks every day. Ironically, in our information age,
    truth is harder to come by because it is so surrounded by facts, slick
    presentations, and tools of distraction.

    One common response to our splintered, postmodern, slippery-truth age
    is not to think but to instead fall back on a fixed set of beliefs, a
    strict ideology. In consequence, we have–inside the United States and
    worldwide– a growing schism between enlightened, skeptical, thinking
    individuals and close-minded, fundamentalist ideologues. We are also
    literally in a war that is rooted in these differences.

    …We must also address the underlying schism. The single greatest
    danger to ourselves and future generations is to stop thinking, and it
    behooves us to do anything we can to encourage spinning, skeptical
    minds. To do this, we will need powerful thought tools like chess that
    help our minds expand, grow comfortable with abstraction, and learn to
    navigate complex systems.”

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