Alternative understandings of art in contemporary practices of museum education
The concept of critical museology has brought the possibility of a permanent questioning about the discourses of museological institutions. We enter the land of the intangible when we assume that the exhibitions were conceived according to the criteria of people who made choices; that who creates, who selects, who exposes and who mediates is endowed with references and experiences that condition the discourse of the institution.
Critical museology can only be defined within a complex theoretical framework, but essentially it consists in a field of study that examines imaginaries, narratives and discourses, as well as their articulations and integrations within diverse organizational structures that carry out cultural and artistic productions articulated through museums and other cultural institutions (Shelton, 2011). The emergence of critical museology «arises from the constant crisis of the concept of museum as a space for interaction between the public and a collection, and as a consequence of a cultural policy» (Crespo, 2006, p. 232). Museums, heretofore – and often still today – regarded as temples of culture, enclosed places and holders of valuable and unique objects, became susceptible to questioning and to the deconstruction of the authority of their discourse. Critical museology allows us to understand the museum as a socially constructed product that manifests a social, political and economic order, and which is influenced by different types of power that defend certain interpretations of cultural reality, such as political power, institutional power or academic power, among others (Rodríguez, 2011). It means to understand the museum as an institution created according to socially established purposes and functioning according to social conventions that defend particular interests.
Critical museology is also the result of a combination of ideas from disciplines that previously had less contact with the museological phenomena, such as sociology, philosophy and cultural theory or cultural studies (Navarro, 2011). The field of action of critical museology is vast and it analyses in a questioning form: the ways of legitimizing History, which does not exist independently of human perception and cognition, and is socially constructed; the figure of the collector, whose acquisition criteria are legitimized and justified by «psychological predispositions»; the figure of the curator as an institutional authority and of uncritical acceptance; the validity of the relation between signifier and signifieds, since the simple correspondence between objects and meanings, in museum exhibitions, hides a disequivalence that overshadows the wider conditions of how our lives are lived (Shelton, 2011).
If applied to museology, the concepts of poetics and politics arise as part of the communication strategies of museums, crystallized in the exhibitions they present to the public, producing meanings through language. Poetics produces meaning by ordering, conjugating and structuring the elements of the exhibition, while politics represents the role of both exhibition and museum in the production of social knowledge. Museums thus constitute a basis for the processes of inclusion and exclusion (Navarro, 2011).
In critical perspectives, the emphasis is placed on discourses as devices used in close relation to power. According to Foucault, discourse does not describe objects, discourse manufactures objects. It means that discourses, besides generating forms of seeing, also generate forms of not seeing. Critical museology, therefore, has broad social significance, since it goes beyond the communication of objects, allowing the analysis of the historical and interpretative determinations that put them in the place they occupy in the institution (Navarro, 2006).
«(...) discourses are not only referential or representational systems, but rather part of the infrastructure that orders, that organizes the practices of a society, a group. (...) Discourse refers then to a system of language that is based on a certain terminology and that codifies specific forms of knowledge.» (Semedo, 2005, p. 1)
The discourse of the museum is a concerted narrative, born among those who have been called upon to intervene. The processes of negotiation between the various intervening agents – commissioners, institutions, public, critics, etc. – make the discourse emerge as the structuring axis of the museum's interpretation, so, discourse is a set of social, cultural, historical and political meanings implicit in the narratives that are present in those socially constructed processes (Rodriguez, 2011).
Inserted in the postmodern paradigm, critical museology finds echo in the educational practices that allow that artworks in museums can have multiple readings and interpretations. Thus, museum education must be understood as a sphere of discourse production (Padró, 2005). The museums that work in alignment with these perspectives assume that the pedagogical work starts from a situated position and consider that each museum educator is a unique subject, with own identity competences, that constitutes the visitor not as a user but as another agent of construction of the exhibition discourse.
However, even if in the context of postmodernity museum education can align with this paradigm, altering radically the course of an institution can be complex, since cultures do not represent in a natural way the interests of the social collectives, but the interests of those who are building the dominant culture, so, the official structures will support the dominant culture and will eliminate other interests (Padró, 2003). To assume this position leads us to also question how the pedagogy of art history has been built over time, based on narratives about progress. If postmodernity has dismantled the theories of progress, and if this idea is no longer generally accepted, we must ask: «How can textbooks, teaching paths, and even the distribution of art in museums be changed so that individuals can work out alternative understandings of art?» (Efland, Freedman and Stuhr, 2003 , p. 159).
The decadence of macro-narratives is a landmark of postmodernity. In museums that recognize the legitimacy of critical museology, contemporary educational practices allow alternative understandings of art, considering all subjects as bearers of unique testimonies that can cause ruptures with the predictable. Postmodernity breaks the exclusive discourse of art history and makes way to the active participation of museum visitors. However, participation can not be seen as a mere invitation to a situation that is fixed, since, according to Nora Sternfeld (2013), participation, in the specific sense of the word, allows the possibility of transformation.
«Participation is not simply about joining in the game, it is also about having the possibility to question the rules of the game: the conditions under which education, the public realm and representation within institutions happen. (...) Extending an invitation does not result in participation: this is achieved through struggles that transgress and reshape the hitherto existing social logics.» (Sternfeld, 2013, p. 4)
Participation can not therefore only mean that the public, even if voluntarily, is authorized to take part, because that would not be enough. Sternfeld evokes Rancière when he states that participation occurs when publics, in a demand for equality, cause disruption in the political logic of inequality.
From the concept of situated knowledge by Donna Haraway, according to which no knowledge is disconnected from its context or from the subjectivity of the one who emits it, we can ask ourselves: Who speaks? Who and what do they write? When and how? To whom do they write it? How to specify the discourses from which the stories are constructed? How to incorporate the reflexive dimension? (Padró, 2011). Intercepting critical museology with the concept of situated knowledge, Carla Padró explores three suggestions that can be used in museum education: to wonder oneself, to emancipate oneself, and to transform from within.
The first, to wonder oneself, concerns the creation of a distance from the routine of the exercise of education and the ability to look at our own activity as if we were outside, going beyond what is conventional and repeated. Guided tours that explain the facts and concepts in a fixed way, are not connected with the context of those who visit museums. Strangeness permits to look at the world in an interrogative and perplexing way, which will allow us to assume that each educator carries a biography, a body and a story that will be taken to guided tours. Their statements are also constructions about what it means to teach and to learn. «Why not make visible that the visitors also construct their versions of the exhibitions and question themselves about them?» (Padró, 2011, p. 107). In this way, the visitor is configured as another agent of construction of knowledge.
The second, to emancipate oneself, refers to the possibility of performing a collective and collaborative work between educator and visitors, who may not be within the same referents. In order not to fall into a prescriptive and abstract discourse, in addition to questioning who, to what basis and interests, decides the exhibition discourse, we may add:
«Are there other versions besides the exposed? What voices are heard / are in the background? Is it a monotonic story, in which it is not known who the author is, or does it use several ways of narrating? How does all this relate to your experience, not what the museum expects of you but what you see of yourself in the museum?» (Padró, 2011, p. 111)
The question here lies in the authority of the speaker. It means recognizing the privileged place from which the museum speaks so that it can speak of others. It means recognizing from where we see to question our position.
Finally, the third, to transform from within, questions whether museums that recognize legitimacy to critical museology include transformative practices in their institutions. Several museums include in their program exhibitions of artists of critical production and integrate in their exhibit practices the revocation of universalist discourses, privileging the legitimation of micro-narratives and different points of view. However, I wonder if in the routine tasks of these institutions there is room for the same kind of questioning or if museums opt for the traditional acting:
«How many of them [museums] incorporate the speeches they present in their daily lives? How many of them continue with hierarchical or fixed structures, even if they expose critical issues? Or how does it influence internal decision making? Or internal gender relations?» (Padró, 2011, p. 112)
Padró also explains that, within the institutions, transformative practices are connected with the concept of transformative discourse by Carmen Mörsch, according to which museum education assumes the task of expanding the institution, in order to make it, politically, an agent of social change. Through transformative discourse, museums are understood as transformable organizations, in which the imperative is not to introduce certain segments of the public into the context of the museum, but to introduce the museum into its surrounding world. The practices related to this discourse work against the hierarchical differentiation between curatorship and education. Through transformative discourse, museum educators and the public not only work together to uncover the institutional mechanisms, but also to improve and expand them. Projects based on transformative discourse are intended for a variety of interested audiences, and they are conducted independently of exhibit programs or through displays designed specifically by the public or by specific social actors.
Museum education is a recent activity that should be object of reflection and research, to be able to get out of the «blind angle» that perhaps the short time distance has not yet allowed (Juanola, 2011). However, it is important to assume that museum education often becomes part of the institution's discourse production, since the work of the educators is subordinated to the work of curators and often relegated to a lower level, either through job insecurity or through the secondary place where they are placed in, at the chronology of an exhibition, appearing only at the moment of the presentation of the artwork to the public.
«She [the museum educator] comes in after the moment of creation (which we might presume to be situated in 'the studio') and after the moment of engagement, and indeed purchase, between the artist and the curator (as a representative of the institution, again both concretely and generally) as well as after the period of installation, and thus presentation to the public.» (Sheikh, 2010, p. 63)
It means that the educator only appears at the moment of the presentation and contemplation, at the head of the artwork, between the work and the spectators, at a time when the public is constituted as a specific audience. In addition, the educator represents the institution, representing the institution's discourse and involving visitors in the museum's knowledge (Sheik, 2010).
This differentiation of the work between who speaks and who does assumes that managing and practicing educational programs are not functions carried out by the same people (Amengual, 2012). Contrary to what would be desirable, working as a museum educator is spotted by precariousness, through unfair and uncertain contracts adjusted to the needs of the museum, as well as unfair fees for qualified specialization. This situation leads to a lack of recognition and credibility by other museum professionals and contributes to fostering the authority of the jobs connected to the so-called «creation of exhibit contents» (Padró, 2005). Education is also a job markedly feminine, unlike what happens in other professional fields of the museum that deal with tasks considered more intellectualizing, such as curatorship or the artistic process.
According to Martinez (2011), while the work practices of museums are directed towards the legitimation of curatorial discourses, museums are full of images capable of generating transformative experiences, although the work traditionally entrusted to educators is instrumental and, therefore, it results in an artificial and protective pedagogy. Education needs to be thought in accordance with new paradigms and educators can create a drift from these positions, opting for understanding pedagogy as an aesthetic act, rather than teaching the «history of forms», generating new forms of political subjectivity and agency, considering each individual as an agent capable of constructing meaning (Martínez, 2011). When we ask «who speaks?» and «why this way?» we are also assuming a link between criticism and agency, activating reflexivity, as well as post-representative curatorial practices (Sternfeld, 2013a). However, because of the vulnerable status of the working conditions of most museum educators, it is expected that, even if they wish, they are not in a position to think from a perspective uncommitted to the institution for which they work.
In addition to critical thinking, a critical action must be taken. Therefore, I present here some strategies that can allow to generate alternative understandings of art, through the use of critical museology. Far from claiming the creation of a doctrine – even because the doctrine is incompatible with the concept of critical museology, understood as something that never ends, since deconstruction is infinite and critical thinking can not be domesticated (Shelton, 2011) – I'm just revisiting a set of ideas presented by Jesús Pedro Lorente in three of his texts in which he synthesizes several practical examples (Lorente 2012, 2015, 2016). I will mention four suggestions that may serve as a work base.
One of the suggestions is to make the controversy explicit instead of avoiding it. It means that, instead of presenting ideas and objects in a hermetic way in an unquestionable, sometimes even paternalistic tone, museums can launch questions and doubts that arise within each of the different areas of knowledge, making indecisions visible, assuming that what is exposed could have been shown differently (Lorente, 2015). One of the possibilities is the museum presenting controversial themes – like the ones connected to politics, religion, sex or violence, among many others – and showing that the reflections it presents are not closed, opting, therefore, for a critical discourse. One of the examples that Lorente indicates is a set of photographs that is exhibited at the Museu d'Història de Catalunya in Barcelona, where famous and anonymous catalan people appear side by side with the following questions: «Do we enjoy the same rights? Do we have the same opportunities? Are we happier?» (Lorente, 2012 and 2015). Another example is the painting of a vicar playing cards with a group of homeless people in a tavern, which the Royal British Columbia Museum, in Victoria, decided to place at the entrance of the section of Anthropology. The caption that accompanies the work explains that the piece was being displayed in the Parliament, a building in the neighbourhood, and there was no reason for it to occupy that place, ending with the question «What do you think?». This relativizes the opinions and forms of presentation in museums (Lorente, 2015).
Another of the author's suggestions is to relativize the museographic discourse, showing its subjective character. This objective can be achieved, according to Lorente, through a greater plurality of exhibitions, leaving room for both contemporary experimentation and historical montages. Lorente explains that several museums have already chosen to document how they presented their collections in the past, through photographs, for example, allowing visitors to know different perspectives in approaching the collections. However, Lorente also warns that it is important not to use the past to presume progress, but rather to use the past as a documentation of the history of each museum, presenting the changes and the choices, so that the public knows different ways of presenting the collection (Lorente, 2015 and 2016). This suggestion reinforces the assumption that there should be no differentiation between museology and museography; to consider the two disciplines separately is incompatible with the methods of critical museology, since such a distinction «eludes the essential and dependent relations between the two systems of knowledges and obscures their points of articulation, relations of dependency and common epistemological origins and political functions.» (Shelton, 2011, p. 34).
Another suggestion is to make visible the authorship of texts, panels and legends, guaranteeing transparency, avoiding anonymous institutional discourse, assuming that all interpretations are subjective (Lorente, 2015). It is about giving substance to the concept of agency advocated by Nora Sternfeld, according to which, when the museum allows himself to ask «who speaks?», it creates a curatorial space that makes agency possible, dismantling power relations, and even allowing that everything said and thought can be negotiated (Sternfeld, 2013a). In addition to know about the contents of museums, people would also like to get to know the museology actors and the theoretical framework they use, like what happened at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, which dedicated a section of artworks, in the form of a reserve, where visitors could explore the legacy of their best known director, with material that had been eliminated by their successors (Lorente, 2016).
Finally, the suggestion of enabling social participation, through the plurality of discourses, so that museums can function as public spaces. The museum can be open to different voices, different from curators, art critics, university professors, art historians, because these are the ones who already collaborate with the museum (Lorente, 2015). One of the purposes of critical museology is to encourage institutions to adopt more experimental practices, to value openness and transparency, and to support community engagement (Shelton, 2011). As an example, the museum may call visitors to compose or produce alternative texts and legends for the exhibition, such as what happens at the Museum of Vancouver and at the Independence Museum in Bogotá (Lorente, 2015). At Tate Britain, for example, participation appears in the «Listening Points», where it is possible to hear the interpretation of certain artworks produced by other citizens (Lorente, 2012). Recovering an idea by Fernando Hernández (2011), which explains the importance of collaborative experiences in which subjects are not only receptors of culture, but agents of construction of knowledge, placing the tone in «what can we do together» instead of «what are we going to do for you» (Hernández, 2011). I would add, to conclude, that more significant than to think the museum for people is to think the museum with people.
«The museum itself must learn to renounce the monopoly of authority and cultural legitimacy that it holds, and recognize authority and legitimacy in others, however small and far removed from the formal modes they may be. This no man's land, which is now the museum, aspires to become a catalyst for a common territory. This can only be carried out if the museum conceives itself as a space of education, knowing that it does not teach but we can learn there.» (Carrillo, 2012, p. 200)
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^ The quotations of this article originally written in a language other than English were translated by the author.