“When contemplating a work of art one of the key questions ought to be: `What is this to me?’ This is asked not in the sceptical tone it sometimes takes, implying `And I think it’s pretty irrelevant to me really,’ but rather in the tone of genuine inquiry, implying that one might come to discover how the object does matter in a personal sense.” (Armstrong, 5)
A couple years ago, I led a series of public gallery talks that began with the quote above, pulled from John Armstrong’s book Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art. I had become so invested in bringing the personal dimension of learning into the gallery experience that I decided to experiment with these public talks, inviting [perhaps somewhat unwilling] participants to explore an exhibition of contemporary photography through the lens of their own perceptions and lived experiences. Since this is unfortunately something that museum visitors are rarely asked to do during a gallery talk or public program, it began with some awkwardness as I explained our task. Two core questions, also coming straight from Armstong’s 2000 book, faced each of us as we examined the series of photographs by artist Bruce Yonemoto:
- What do I have to do—beyond just staring—to get the most out of looking at these artworks?
- What is the importance of any particular work to me?
Rather surprised by this line of inquiry, the group took my lead and embarked on this process of personal discovery. To begin, we examined a large photograph that was re-staging a well-known Caravaggio painting, and spent some time sharing our observations and creating what meaning we could by just looking. This loosened them up for the next step, which was going out on their own, finding a photograph they felt connected to, and spending some time with the work exploring personal connections — keeping in mind John Armstrong’s charge ( what is this to me? what does this remind you of? what do you wonder about this image?).
“Being preoccupied with when something was made or who the designer or artist was can be a way of avoiding a more personal relationship with the object. External considerations can be so absorbing that they draw our attention away from the very thing which they are supposed to serve—we end up knowing about the picture, but not knowing it.” (Armstrong, 14)
After about 20 minutes of self-exploration and ‘seeing for ourselves,’ we gathered back as a group to share the discoveries that everyone was able to make. I am always amazed at how quickly people are willing to begin sharing personal connections, and the conversation began to build. It has been almost 2 years, but I distinctly recall one woman who had lived in Indonesia much of her life, and she told us several intimate stories about experiencing the strife and conflict in her home country and how that related to one of the photographs she chose (an American Civil War portrait that Yonemoto had re-staged with Southeast Asian men instead playing the roles of the soldiers). Others made connections to their own experiences during the Vietnam War, a period which Yonemoto’s images specifically recall for Americans who lived through that era.
“If we go to a painting demanding that something special happen, we end up in the condition of the insomniac who can’t sleep precisely because he keeps retelling himself, with mounting panic, that he must fall asleep.” (Armstrong, 63)
No doubt, the conversation was significantly more meaningful than if we had simply discussed the “facts” surrounding these works and the artist himself. Like a mantra I often borrow from Rika Burnham, we ‘opened ourselves to the work’ and allowed for a slow, fluid process of perception. We did come to some complex meanings that aligned with the curator’s perspective, but we also made these images our own — allowed them to “matter in a personal sense,” as Armstrong would say. “What good we get from art depends upon the quality of our visual engagement with particular works. We need to ‘learn to look,'” Armstrong writes (60). While I have not led a gallery talk quite like this since then (mostly because the Museum would quickly ask me to stop giving gallery talks, I imagine), I have continued to build a strong element of ‘creating personal meaning’ in the learning experiences I facilitate in the galleries — and the programs I manage for students, teachers, and docents.
While there are many examples of museum educators writing about the power of ‘seeing for ourselves’ and the value of personal discovery (including some great stuff in Rika Burnham & Elliott Kai-Kee’s recent book and the article by Ray Williams published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Museum Education), I always return to the words of John Armstrong from Move Closer. Perhaps because my role in working with docents requires me to constantly be tackling issues related to the appeal of information & knowledge versus experience & the multiple dimensions of meaning-making. For many years now, Armstrong’s book has armed me with a clear sense to counter the over-emphasis of information in my work as a museum educator — but also to enhance my own response to art, and get beyond just staring.