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  • The Art of Teaching in the Museum
  • Rika Burnham (bio) and Elliott Kai-Kee (bio)

A class is studying a small painting by Rembrandt in the galleries of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The museum educator has been inviting the assembled visitors to look ever more closely, guiding the class toward an understanding both of the painting itselfand of our reasons for studying it. The class has been anything but passive—indeed, it has been lively. The painting is The Abduction of Europa (1632), a picture that depicts in delicate detail a story from Greek mythology, the kidnapping of the Phoenician princess Europa by Zeus in the guise of a white bull. The visitors have shared their observations, speculations, ideas. As the class concludes, the museum educator asks the participants to speculate on the painting's larger meaning, to say what they think this work is, finally, about, as revealed by their long discussion. The group's experience has clearly moved beyond the telling of a single story. One participant suggests that Rembrandt's work is about the fearlessness of traveling into the unknown. Another says that it concerns the story of the soul's leaving the earthly for the heavenly realm. When the class comes to an end, people move closer to the painting and continue their discussions.

In the same museum, another museum educator is also conducting a group of students through the galleries. He begins with a Roman statue of Venus, followed by an eighteenth-century French terra-cotta bust of Madame Récamier by Joseph Chinard. For each sculpture, he asks the students to focus on only one detail, the hands. The students are encouraged to observe and take note of the sculpted figures' gestures, much as if they were studying a person. Time seems to slow as perception sharpens. The educator listens patiently as the students begin to "read" the sculptures as a whole through the expressiveness of the hands. The group moves on to a mysterious portrait by Millet in which the students discuss the nature of love, and [End Page 65] then to a painting of a Russian princess by Winterhalter, in which the artifice of all the details is suddenly theatrical, dazzling, and delightful. At the end, no one wants to leave.

As museum educators we teach in many kinds of programs, and teach in many ways. Every museum educator brings unique gifts to the art of teaching through works of art. The two classes described above might seem at first glance quite different. The first museum educator stays with a single work of art for the entire session, constructs her class around the observations and ideas of the students, and trusts that through their collective experience, a larger meaning will emerge. The second educator inspires his students with a feeling of confidence by guiding their observations of a single feature common to several works, and then allows a main idea to emerge. The two classes, however, are also alike in certain essential ways. In both cases, the students and the instructor are animated, concentrated, focused, and active. Their investigation is tightly focused on the works under discussion, and the group together reaches for a sense of the artworks as a whole. At the end, when the participants cluster around the works of art, still wanting to continue the experience of discovery, the instructors know that theirstudents have understood that engagement with a work of art is a beginning, not an end.

The opportunities museum educators have to teach and learn are granted to us by the collections of objects in the care of the institutions in which we work, and by the students and visitors we invite to consider these objects. These artworks also impose upon us a great obligation, to bring them alive for those we lead through the galleries. For ultimately, it is our devoted attention that keeps artworks alive generation after generation.

This essay is the result of our work as museum educators. It began with a casual discussion about what constitutes good teaching, and what we can do to guide ourselves and our docent colleagues toward consistent and principled teaching in our museums. We...


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