Authority versus Co-Creation: Where to Draw the Line

Like many other people these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about facts and the role that they play in (museum/cultural/arts) education.

This is—as made apparent by the Day of Facts—an important topics for museums. Although I was excited that museums were fighting against the ‘post-truth’ attitude of the Trump administration (and others…), I also found the Day of Facts to be a little ironic in light of the recent trends in museum education, which have focused much more on co-creation and co-construction of knowledge, placing much of the stress on the visitor rather than on the museum itself.

In this way, it seems somewhat like a dichotomy: Is the museum in the position of authority, the one that holds all of the knowledge? Or is the visitor the one who has the power to interpret paintings and art objects as she chooses?

During Wim Pijbes’ tenure at the Rijksmuseum, he made all of the greatest works of the museum freely available and downloadable from the Rijksmuseum website. This, according to Pijbes, is more of a marketing technique than anything else—‘the more imagery of the Rijksmuseum is spread all over the world, sooner or later, people will come to Amsterdam to see the original’—, but this also has significant effects on the learning process. How do people learn from these objects when they are taken out of the context of the museum? And what is essential for people to take away from these images anyway (i.e. should they just appreciate the beauty of them or is it essential that they learn some historical facts as well?)?

Museums are basically storage spaces of knowledge: each of the objects in a collection indicates several stories or facts, but they are often associated with myths as well. Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, for example, was believed to be the final painting of his career for a long time, due to its associations with his death and its somber undertones. In this way, museums play an important role in the interpretation of objects; visitors cannot be trusted to have all of the relevant and accurate knowledge when looking at each of the objects in the museum’s collection.

However, there is something to be said for visitors’ preexisting knowledge, the framework within which they acquire new knowledge in the museum setting. Preexisting knowledge, opinions, and preconceptions truly shape the way that people perceive new information.

In the 1970s, psychological research produced this observation: ‘“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”’ Through this research and several other psychological studies, researchers formed the theory of confirmation bias, the idea that people are much more likely to believe something that confirms their preexisting beliefs. If someone who thinks that abstract art is ridiculous visits a contemporary art museum, it would be difficult for them to alter their preexisting judgments enough to appreciate any of the abstract paintings in the collection, for example (which is unfortunate, in this case, since white-box contemporary art museums tend to rely on visitors’ judgments rather than on contextual information).

However, once someone tries to explain their views or the reasoning behind their views, this is often when people fall into the trap of cognitive dissonance — people believe that they know how a toilet works until they’re required to write out the actual processes by which a toilet functions.

In this way, although relying on people’s preconceptions wholly could be dangerous and unreliable in the museum setting, stimulation of self-reflection can spark transformative learning.

By encountering disorienting situations, one that confront and perhaps contradicts or reframes one’s preexisting knowledge, museum visitors — through a conscious process of self-reflection — can integrate new information or perspectives into their previous framework of knowledge.

Tapping into preconceived notions and preexisting knowledge can be very powerful.

In what ways can museums ensure that their co-constructive and co-creative learning experiences are effective ones, ones that stimulate critical self-reflection, rather than dismissal of new information, knowledge, or opinions that contradict visitors’ preexisting conceptions?

My suggestions include: encouragement of social interaction across visitor groups (see, of course, Nina Simon) and provision of context, especially contextual information to which visitors can relate. For example, if visitors are not open to abstract paintings, display the earlier more figurative work of an artist to show the development of the artist’s work, or include information about the radical exhibitions held by these artists and their rebellion against artistic institutions of their time.

We should — I think — ensure that our social practices continue to be anchored in the goal of a shared learning experience. The learning experience by no means has to be a one-way educational system, but transference of knowledge should also be supported by concrete sources or experiences.

This post first appeared on the Tangible Education blog.

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