Demystifying the Art Museum: Benefits of Art Education

Skye Maule-O’Brien

Many people are aware that elitist views and practices of museums have slowly started to be broken down in order to include culturally diverse art and voices of feminists and the non-ruling class in Canadian art museums. I believe still a greater amount of change must occur within the walls of museums to bring in a more diverse populace, and to allow a disparate group of voices to be heard so that museums and galleries can work to expand their “interpretive frameworks” [1]. Furthermore, notions of hegemony in the commodification of leisure strongly relate to the history of the art museum, as it is a constructed space of authority that conveys specific values and beliefs. Through pedagogical and andragogical educational approaches that suit the needs of each community, I will propose ways in which museums may adapt to the fluxes of identity in Canadian cities that are rapidly changing with the mergence of people from around the globe.

To better understand the way in which museums contribute to a civic and national identity by supporting specific norms and values, we must look at the museum’s history. The museum, like other institutions, constructs a space to convey a specific message or ideology; this “implies a system of ideas, meanings, and beliefs, developed by, or for the ruling class, which results in a ‘false consciousness’ of subordinated classes” [2]. Evidence of this can easily be seen through what the museum has historically chosen to display—a narrow proportion of art and ideas that the ruling class has deemed worthy. As Michael Baxandall clearly states, “to select and put forward any item for display, as something worth looking at, as interesting, is a statement not only about the object but about the culture it comes from … there is no exhibition without construction…” [3]. This is not only true of the display of Western art, but also of curatorial practices when displaying any type of art.

Over history, much of what museums have displayed and how they have chosen to do so has been unquestioned by the masses. Because the museum holds such a high position of authority in our society, what or how objects have been exhibited has been assumed to be correct, a prime example of a leisure activity containing deep notions of hegemony, which, as Richard Butsche argues:

… entails class domination through the participation of subordinate classes … the pressures and limits of social structures seem to most of us simple experience and common sense … leisure practices acquire structure and meaning from their relationship with other human practices; moreover, they change over time along with other changes in society. [4]

Historically, when museums have shown objects from countries or cultures other than their own, these objects have been misrepresented and removed from their original context. This has resulted in museum visitors receiving mixed messages and incorrect information. This has hindered Westerners’ abilities to properly learn about and gain acceptance of differing cultures because deep-seated stereotypes are simply perpetuated. The artifacts shown in the museum are often then appropriated into the society or culture they are being displayed in, and, by isolating art or artifacts, the meaning of the artifact is transformed.

Though contemporary museum curators are generally much more conscientious of whom, how and what they exhibit than curators have been in the past, there is still much work to be done in order for public museums to consistently promote equality. It is still far too easy to walk into museums in Canada and see gendered exhibits, or displays of the ‘other’. These “out-dated ways” are traps that cause “social values and beliefs [to] be re-circulated, [causing] the museum or gallery to become stale, internally focused and redundant” [5].

Pivotal moves have been made by artists and curators alike to “de-masculinize” and “rescript” museum spaces, but in reality, more must be done to challenge the “entire art world—its art schools, critics, dealers, and especially its summit museums spaces—seemed organized to maintain a universe precisely structured to negate the very existence of all but white males (and a few token ‘exceptions’)” [6]. It will not suffice for women and minority groups to be the only ones demanding equal representation; men and other privileged groups need to participate if this is to become a reality. Only by confronting these hegemonic values, not only behind the walls of the museums and galleries, but also in other areas of our society such as in learning institutions, may we be witness to real changes. When feminist theorists speak of equality for all, it has to be realized that for all to be equal all must participate, also referring to the major institutions that fuel our societal norms and ideologies of inequality. Even the art world, which is often considered to be more sensitive and intellectual than other institutions, has been constructed through male power and domination. Because of this, for there to be a dramatic shift in thinking and action, it is not only the art world that has to change but also the institutional societal structures—politics, religion, education, media, family, economy—that affect the museum, artists, museum employees, and visitors. One institution cannot fundamentally change without the others; they are all intertwined into the fabric of our society.

Presently, changes in museum practices are slowly being reflected in how universities today are teaching art history and museum studies. As argued by Scott Heller, the so-called ‘new art history’ suggests the study of not only specific artists in a canonical manner, but also ideas of social and political theory. Heller argues that, “the explosion of images in the late 20th century—not merely on gallery and museum walls but also in advertising, the media, and popular culture—has affected the way in which people perceive their physical, social and cultural environment” [7]. Social, political and economic realities have impacted not only educational training, but also the ways in which people are demanding the post-museum to conduct its exhibitions. University graduates entering the art field are coming equipped with a more critical eye and are pushing for old fashioned views to change, but the majority of people who have not been educated in the art field still lack confidence when viewing or experiencing art.

Because of the museum’s longstanding association with high or bourgeois society, the museum remains a place for elite activities for the cultured or highly-educated person. The results can be extremely problematic when a museum is meant to promote a collective civic identity. Marketing and education departments of museums need to realize the urgency and begin addressing this situation and attempt to reach a larger portion of the populace. The reality is that many people have no interest in art galleries or museums because they are intimidated by art they may not understand. Another way to look at this fear is by comparing it with other so-called high-cultured leisure activities, such as the attending of the symphony orchestra. Both the symphony and the fine art museum carry a classical image that, to many, can seem exclusive, which causes some people to respond by saying it is boring. Far too often, the decisions and actions museums take perpetuate or fuel this fear in the general public. They continually promote their activities to a certain demographic and seem to forget about the rest.

Important to keep in mind is the fact that, as our younger generations mature into what the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts would call the future ‘friends of the museum,’ the post-museum will be forced to expand and to bring in practices and theories of varying disciplines to meet the demands of a growing technologically-savvy society. The idea of taking the time to contemplate the fine details of a painting or sculpture will become a thing of the past if more challenging art education is not introduced to children soon. But who will introduce it to them if their parents are unaware of the benefits of combining art education (not mainstream media) with their children’s upbringing? For these reasons, it is important for art educational programs to expand outside of the walls of the museums and to penetrate into schools and community centres across the country, using what Eilean Hooper-Greenhill would define as a more “interpersonal method of communication” [8].

Art is created within a culture, and as values and norms change, so, too, will their interpretations and meanings. Art contexts are not static, and nor should the museums be. Museums should strive to learn from their relationships with the artist, the artwork, and the audience while combining multiple strategies and more than just visual sensory reception. David Howes argues that using technology to further aid exhibitions would allow them to reach a greater number of people while making the whole experience more human. Different parts of the brain are stimulated by the senses, helping us to learn and retain information.

Displaying what could be called exhibitions of hybridity (combining different human experiences, in a social and biological sense) would benefit not only the post-museum, but also the artistic community, particularly those within the community working with non-traditional mediums. Additionally, hybrid exhibitions would promote greater creativity in the design of exhibitions and amongst artists if there was an understanding that museums or galleries would be willing to display new combinations of mediums and media. It may also help to reconstruct what Inuit artist Bill Nasogaluak complains about: having to “negotiate his own identity in today’s art world” [9]. Nasogaluak and many other artists may feel that they are unable to fully explore themselves through their art because of restrictive stereotypical ideas and notions that state what their traditional art is supposed to look like. If museums were to show art from varying cultures together instead of as separate, audiences would see the issues being addressed first—before the artist’s cultural background.

Though today we are able to see a growing display of non-Western art in our Canadian museums, the sad reality remains that most of the visitors are still of Western European descent or of the middle to upper classes. To narrow it even further, one could argue that the number of middle-aged and senior visitors make up a higher percentage of museum visitors than do youth. Most of the MMFA’s ‘friends of the museum’ are people who have a higher-than-average disposable income and more time on their hands. As the baby-boomers age and retire, museums will be forced to change their advertising strategies to attract the attention of the up-and-coming generation.

With the Internet and other technological advancements expanding our educational recourses, the post-museum needs to utilize these possibilities and integrate an assortment of learning tools to meet the different needs of visitors. Each person will come to the museum with their own experiences and learning styles, and this must be kept in mind when developing educational programs for both children and adults. Educational theories for children have long been influential in designing activities in museums, but andragogy, theories of adult learning, must also be looked at seriously in order to promote lifelong learning, arguably one of the museum’s key roles.

It is important to point out that exciting new avenues are also being explored in museums, galleries, and especially in artist-run centres. These centres have traditionally been considered to be alternative spaces to the big museums, and have, at times, been marginalized while struggling to keep afloat with dwindling government subsidies. That said, I believe museums would benefit greatly if they collaborated with or borrowed more ideas from artist-run centres, and were more willing to examine contemporary works that deal with a wider range of situations that effect people today. The inclusion of a deeper exploration of gender and sexuality, different views on social and political realities, and other topics could work towards the increase of visitor numbers and the creation of exhibitions that speak to broader audiences.

In Montreal, galleries, museums, and cultural centres are currently trying to expand their visitor body and membership base. The city is famous for the hundreds of art shows and festivals that are held year-round, drawing people in from all over the globe. This vast arts and culture scene makes it even more important for Montreal to continue to expand art education to communities around the city in order to create stronger links and greater cultural understanding and acceptance.
Some examples of excellent programs can be found in Montreal at the MMFA, Frontier College and in such artist-run centres as Skol. The MMFA has recently developed a program, Sharing the Museum, which is a continuation of Bridging Art and the Community, a program developed in 1999 [10]. The program is specifically designed to help give non-profit community organizations free access to the museum. In theory, the program’s goals seem to provide a basis for excellent opportunities; the challenge is that a group must develop a connecting program and approach the MMFA with their idea. The actual outreach done by the museum is minimal and many community organizations are unaware that the program exists.

Skol, on the other hand, has been spreading their knowledge around Montreal by moving their educational programs outside of the gallery walls for over five years. By creating flexible programming that is easily adaptable to the needs of different groups while also making a great effort to include artists, Skol has been geared towards reciprocal learning and nourishing both the visitor and artist. As stated in their mandate, “developing educational programs is a means to increase access to the gallery, and reach out to new audiences [as well] … to demystify new art practices of today” [11].

Frontier College, a non-profit organization, has been involved with both theMMFA and Skol in their community outreach programs. Frontier College is a national pioneer in the adult education field specializing in literacy and has been fueled since the late nineteenth century by committed volunteers. This year they launched a new program in the Montreal area—Art and Literacy—which has worked to connect literacy and ESL (English as a Second Language) students with the local art community. The goal of the project is to encourage self-directed learning by allowing students to use what they have learned in a classroom setting in a different environment while gaining new vocabulary. The unfortunate reality is that because of the conceptual divide that sometimes exists between contemporary art and life, much of the general public is unaware of all the artist resources Montreal has to offer. For Frontier College and Skol, even though they offer free accessibility and educational activities, advertising and finding a wider, more diverse range of participants has been a difficult obstacle to overcome.

One of the museum’s important roles is to encourage and facilitate lifelong learning, and new solutions that allow communities to gain exposure to different types/styles of art around the city, while promoting freedom of artistic expression and fostering learning about critical issues affecting the art world would be extremely beneficial in Canada. By continuing outreach and encompassing similar goals to those of Skol—implementing programs such as those at the MMFA and Frontier College—the post-museum could greatly expand its educational methods by inspiring lively discussion and a stronger sense of community while at the same time creating real links with community and cultural centres.

New educational activities taken on by the post-museum should maintain non-elitist attitudes and strive to give lower-income neighbourhoods opportunities to participate in art education for both children and adults. The objective should be to promote art education in communities city-wide and awareness of art activities in the vicinity of the community, and to reintegrate art back into society. By learning about what has affected artists over time and how artists have influenced and reacted to one another and certain issues, people will be able to grasp social and political arguments that have and are taking place. Through dynamic interaction, participants would also learn to incorporate constructive criticism into their lives and personal artistic practice, and to be able to express themselves more confidently.

A complaint often heard is that much of our art has been removed from society and placed inside museums and galleries to be looked at and not touched, which reinforces the separation between the art and the context in which it was produced. I believe that educational programs that help integrate life and art would also work to break down barriers between so-called ‘high art’ and ‘low art,’ as well as economic barriers that have been created through class segregation. Educational outreach programs would also help to promote cultural diversity and learning while creating larger, stronger, and more exciting arts communities and simultaneously demystifying the art world through practices that provide communities equal access to local museums and galleries.

It is my hope that participants of programs at the post-museum will come away with a new understanding of the art world, as well as a new outlook on the community they live in. As we move further into the twenty-first century, these new post-museum activities will hopefully begin to develop more rapidly across Canada and around the globe. But for Canadian museums to grow in tandem with the views of the nation, they must focus on promoting an ongoing dialogue among all involved participants [12]. My proposed course of action would work to bring a more diverse range of city communities to the museum, which would enable museums to gain greater feedback from a wider demographic. In order to maintain lively cross-cultural interactions between the museums and communities, displays of cultural hybridity and expanding human realities must be shown in greater depth [13]. Carol Duncan aptly summarizes this argument:

My concern … is with the … scenarios of art museums and the way they do and do not address women and other visitors. If I am protesting anything in museums, it is not the presence of [certain pieces] but the exclusion of so much else from the museum space. What I would like to see is a truly revisionist museum, with different, more complex, and possibly even multiple scenarios that could build on a broader range of human experience—sexual, racial, and cultural—than the present pathetically narrow program that structures most modern art museums today … A more open museum culture could illuminate rather that perpetuate the profound and on-going crisis. [14]

Museums will constantly be faced with complex challenges as they continue to expand, bringing in ideas that will better represent the community as a whole. The type of educational programs discussed in this paper would help to connect community groups with local museums, galleries and artist-run centres, while creating a dialogue between participating bodies, and in turn assisting art institutions to incorporate a more reflective civic identity into their display methods. Ultimately, the goal would be to allow art to be accessed equally while eliminating fear and intimidation. As Canadians, we have the international stage incorporated into our very identity—all we have to do is look at cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, where over a hundred different languages are spoken. The post-museum would work to bring the city’s different cultures together and act as a unifier through education—not always looking internationally to find art when it is right here in our own backyard.

1. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill. “Cultural Change in Museums: Professional Issues, Taking the Lead,”University of Leicester Department of Museum Studies: Online Papers. (21 July 2005). [link], 3.
2. Richard Butsch. “Introduction: Leisure and Hegemony in America,” For Fun and Profit: The Transformation of Leisure into Consumption, Ed. Richard Butsch (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), p. 7.
3. Michael Baxandall. “Exhibiting Intention: Some Preconditions of the Visual Display of Culturally Purposeful Objects,” Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Eds. Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), p. 34.
4. Butsch, pp. 8-9.
5. Hooper-Greenhill, pp. 2,4.
6. Carol Duncan. “The Modern Art Museum,” The Visual Culture Reader, Ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 92-3.
7. Scott Heller. “What are They Doing to Art History?” Critical Perspectives on Art History, Eds. John C. McEnroe and Deborah F. Pokinski (New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2002), p. 291.
8. Hooper-Greenhill, pp. 2-3.
9. Norman Vorano. “Creators: Negotiating the Art World for over 50 Years.” Inuit Art Quarterly, Special Issue: Arts Alive. 19 (3/4) (2004), p. 9.
10. Information regarding ‘Sharing the Museums” was found on the MMFA’s website.
11. Centre des arts actuels Skol. “Educational activities at Skol.” 2 Jun. 2005.
12. Susan Ashley. “State Authority and the Public Sphere: Ideas on the Changing Role of the Museum as a Canadian Social Institution.” Museum & Society 3.1 (2005): 5-17. 21 July 2005.
13. I became aware of the notion of culture hybridity in my Art History class—ARTH 396: Art and Culture.
14. Duncan, p. 92.