Sharing Critical Authority in a User-Generated World

I’m currently reading a terrific book, Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski.  Although this book is about history museums, a number of articles, especially ones by Nina Simon, “Participatory Design and the Future of Museums,” and Kathy McLean, “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?” made me think about a wonderful recent experience of shared authority in an art museum. So I’ve slightly adapted the title for this post. 
In September, I had a chance to see the newly opened Musee Bonnard  in Le Cannet, a town north of Cannes.  I wrote a review of the museum and its opening exhibition Bonnard et Le Cannet dans la Lumière de la Mediterranee (Bonnard and Le Cannet in the Mediterranean Light) on Exhibit Files but here I would like to focus on the approach to adult learning I found there.

Un Autre Regard Sur Bonnard

A friend (full disclosure), Mary Lynn Riley-Durand, invited me to attend an adult workshop she was giving at the Museum ­on the art and skill of looking: Un Autre Regard Sur Bonnard.  I had never seen Mary Lynn in her professional element, but I fully expected an engaging and informative tour of the exhibition. Instead the 17 participants and I were treated to an activity that called on our insights and experience in a dialogue with our facilitator. In the bright education space on the ground floor of the museum Mary Lynn spent about 20 minutes introducing us to Bonnard’s life, his evolution as a painter, the key characteristics of his style, and important influences on his work.  In addition to the Impressionists, an important influence was Japanese printmaking, and Mary Lynn showed us  examples of these prints with the flat blocks of color and their strong horizontal and vertical orientations.  She then took us upstairs to a gallery where several paintings – a scene of the port in St. Tropez, and a landscape – illustrated these influences. (I wish I could share some of these fabulous works but photography was not permitted; you can find at least some examples on the museum website.)  She had us examine and discuss these paintings briefly, using what we had just learned. Then she divided us into groups of three and four, gave each group a clipboard and paper for note-taking, and assigned a painting for each group to explore on its own.                                                       
Our group of four was assigned “The View from Le Cannet,” a large painting that filled the end wall of one of the galleries. The top of the canvas has an unusual curved form, making the work look almost like an arch through which one is viewing a plaza and the colorful countryside around it in the distance.  We talked together about the painting for about 20 minutes, using the information Mary Lynn had given us, plus our own insights, to make observations about the use of color to define space, the vegetation in the foreground, the appearance of people in the distance, the horizontal and vertical lines of the buildings, the contrast of dull and brilliant coloring, and the appearance of a small archway in the center that echoed the shape of the painting.  In the final half hour or so of the workshop, we came together around each of the paintings we had been assigned. Members of each group provided a commentary on the painting, with our facilitator adding comments, questions, and providing connections to what we had learned in the introductory discussion.  The insights of each group about “their” painting were fascinating, and several times, as with the archway in the middle of “The View from Le Cannet,” the participants had noticed something that Mary Lynn admitted she had never seen before. One of the groups talked about how their painting seemed to question the viewer, creating a dialog between the visitor and the work itself.  I could see heads nodding assent all around.


Sharing Critical Authority and Respecting Adult Experience 
In thinking about how the workshop became an occasion for shared expertise rather than a one-way delivery of information from expert to novices, I came up with these elements.  The facilitator:
  • Put us all on an equal footing in the introductory discussion–providing us with common tools (art terms, design vocabulary, historical context) to assess the works on our own;
  • Provided us the opportunity to practice critical looking and conversation with two works at the beginning;
  • Gave us the time and space to use our art critiquing tools with a specific work;
  • Provided us with encouragement and connections – we use the term “scaffolding” when talking about children’s learning – in this case it helped those of us with less knowledge about Bonnard and art history to get some command of the language of art criticism;   
  • Provided an opportunity for the life experience and knowledge of adults to become part of the critique;
  • Respected the connections, observations, and new insights of the participants;
  • Affirmed the value of both common knowledge and individual experience in looking at art;
  • Had the courage to leave out most of the exhibition, focusing on just a few works but nurturing in us the ability to look more critically and skillfully at this and future artwork on our own.
Having slogged through a lifetime of museum tours (either by a guide or with an audio device) where no fact, date, or detail is left unmentioned, this 90 minute experience was a true breath of fresh air.  I think it could easily be replicated in the shorter time period of a usual museum tour if  guides were willing to share their expertise and take the risk of letting go of the compulsion to cover everything, instead encouraging observation, criticism, and conversation, all of which are elements of true understanding.

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