The Classroom in the White Box

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Children during a museum lesson at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in 1960.

Museums should help us to realize that history and culture are not static, and is informed by a multitude of people, places, and events. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and the museum’s job is to present an open-ended vision of human ingenuity, that inspires us to ask big questions and keep coming back for more. At their best, museums represent a multicultural world that is synonymous with our daily lives, by incorporating knowledge and information in a contextualized way so that viewers can make significant connections to everyday experiences.

A Museum is a School (2011–), is a site-specific installation by Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer that displays the statement: “The Museum is a school. The artist learns to communicate. The public learns to make connections” on the facade of museums throughout the world. When on view (such as at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, or Museo Jumex, Mexico City, Mexico) the work publicizes a succinct message that museums act as a collaborative learning environment for the community at large.

Museums enable us to view the work and sometimes the process of artists, makers, and innovators (which is diverse depending on the museum’s disciplinary focus), while prompting us to develop our own experiential connections and relationships with their work. When done well, museum exhibitions have long lasting personal relevance and leave the viewer inspired to pursue and engage in further discoveries, insights, and lifelong learning.

The idea of a museum as a communal classroom is a large reason why many museums have created innovative educational programs, where visitors can actively engage with aesthetic and informational content in unique ways. Museum educational programs exist for a wide range of groups and individuals, and museum educators have done a nice job scaffolding instruction and programming to ensure diversity and democratic access to the arts, science (STEAM), history, and culture at large.

If the museum or gallery space is a classroom, then the role of a University and college art museum or gallery is especially important. That is the crux and thesis of The Aesthetics of Learning, an exhibition featuring the work of artists Joseph Beuys & Henning Christiansen, Juan Downey, and Catherine Wagner, on view (through March 1, 2019) at the The Mishkin Gallery at Baruch College. In their careers, Beuys, Christiansen, and Downey, each taught at the University level. Wagner, works in California and teaches art at Mills College in Oakland.

 

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The exhibition’s curator, Alaina Claire Feldman, selected works of art from within Baruch College’s art collection that relate to pedagogical systems of learning, as well as physical educational settings. Feldman, who is also the director of the Mishkin gallery, wants us to make deeper connections between how we spend our time viewing, analyzing, and relating art to our personal and collective development and understanding. The show’s curatorial statement asks us to consider “what does learning look like? What does learning sound like? How are aesthetics a conduit for rethinking the ways in which knowledge and power are formed?”

A performance by Joseph Beuys and Henning Christiansen, four photographs by Catherine Wagner, and seven etchings by Juan Downey, convey principles of seeing, listening, and action/participation, within an interrelated aesthetic and pedagogical framework. Each of these facets are important for both experiencing art and learning, because we make associations and acquire knowledge through a combination of social, cognitive, and emotional reactions. Seeing, of course, is represented in each of the art works on view.

Wagner’s black and white photographs of educational settings, sans students or teachers, treat the classroom as a skeleton/foundation for learning. The four photographs on view are part of a series titled American Classroom, which presents a wide variety of objects and architectural elements related to educational spaces, in order to focus on the psychical and instructional scaffolding that stimulates and builds knowledge and learning environments.

We employ our sense of hearing and listening while experiencing a digital recording of Schottische Symphonie / Requiem of Art, a 1970’s performance by Beuys and Christiansen, which features the two artists tuning a piano. Beuys and Christiansen were both renowned for their experimental and empirical style of making art, as well as teaching. In their performance, which took place on August 21, 1970 at the Edinburgh College of Art, the experiential process signified the moment where both art and learning coexist. This reflects a pivotal pedagogical ideology, which is that we learn through making. While we can reflect upon the final product (as evidenced through critiques), the real significant eureka effect happens during the creative process.

Lastly, we utilize our sensation for action and participation via Juan Downey’s Do It Yourself series of etchings. In this body of work, Downey presents us with schematics and diagrams, which represent a collaborative transformation of knowledge, expertise, and innovative activity. Downey prompts us to consider the real-life implications of assembling machines, which seek to solve common issues, and enhance our means of sustainability. The viewer can assess these sketches for potential sculptures, and perhaps build upon the information in a tangible manner. Overall, Downey invites us to be active respondents and participators in the communication and application of knowledge.

The Aesthetics of Learning signifies the role museums and galleries embody, in order to inspire experiential learning and the creation of knowledge. Museums and galleries become a profound educational environment when they engage visitors to utilize their sensory perception, prior experience, and newly formed knowledge, in direct response to works of art (or whatever else is on view). The museum should not be a static collection of artifacts, but rather, an active vessel for incubating innovation, progressive discourse, and awareness for ourselves and the world around us.

A published report from the American Alliance of Museums (formerly the American Association of Museums), titled Excellence and Equity, states that “the public dimensions of museums leads them to perform the public service of education—a term that in its broadest sense includes exploration, study, observation, critical thinking, contemplation and dialogue” (American Association of Museums, 1992). This statement falls in line with the aforementioned themes and work in The Aesthetics of Learning, as well as the ongoing programming within a large variety of museums throughout the world.

The museum is the school and the community.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

American Association of Museums. 1992. Excellence and Equity. http://ww2.aam-us.org/docs/default-source/resource-library/excellence-and-equity.pdf?sfvrsn=0

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