- When Little Girls Become Junior Connoisseurs:A Cautionary Tale of Art Museum Education in the Hyperreal
Introducing the Tale
A young girl about eleven years old appeared on the TV screen. She stood in an art museum expounding upon the painting hanging behind her. She talked about the artist and what the image portrayed. With an air of elitist prissiness that suited the museum environment, the girl delivered her presentation to a group of schoolmates. As I and the other art museum educators assembled in the conference room where the video was shown learned, the girl had participated in a program at a prominent art museum in which students from her school came to the museum many times during the school year. This repeat-visit program culminated with these youngsters demonstrating what they learned about art by giving a talk on a single artwork to friends, family, or other classmates. The girl's recitation of art historically correct information was impressive. She sounded just like a junior art historian. Yet, something was missing. The little girl appeared to copy the style of art historical talk more than its content. I turned to the colleague sitting next to me and wondered, "Did that girl learn how to make meaning or how to talk like a curator?"
Despite the several years that have passed since the conference, the image of that little girl lingers in my mind. A repeat-visit school program is what an art museum educator working with school tours desires.1 All an art museum educator can hope to impart on a one-shot tour is a simple exposure to art and the museum. Hopefully, that one encounter will result in a lifelong appreciation of art and art museums, but that is a tall order for one field trip. Repeat-visit programs, by contrast, allow knowledge and skills related to art to be presented in the school and museum and reinforced in subsequent sessions. Students can learn to meaningfully interpret the content [End Page 48] of works of art as well as make personal connections with them.The girl in the video, however, did not appear to be engaged in meaning-making. No hint that the painting had metaphorically come off of the museum wall and moved into her life experience appeared in the girl's presentation. Instead, she successfully imitated the manner of an art historian.
In the essay "The Precession of Simulacra," the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard theorizes that reality or meaning no longer exist.2 Like the Moebus strip, which when split generates a duplicate of itself, what we experience as reality in this increasingly mediated age in which we live is no more than the repeated circulation of models or simulacra. Rather than models emerging out of real phenomena or originals, they beget themselves—models precede models. Any notion of reality implodes in the circulation of these simulations. Reality becomes what Baudrillard calls the hyperreal—simulation generating simulation. What does this imply for visual art? Interpretation of meaning in artworks would not reveal some represented truth of human experience; instead it would be the repetition of interpretive forms masking that there is no reality to represent. The talk by the little girl in the video indicated that art museum education, at least in that program, had become the perpetuation of a model of inquiry. Rather than making meaning, the girl reproduced the aesthetics of art history interpretation. Even under the ideal circumstances of a repeat-visit school program, the girl became the perfect model of a petite connoisseur.
Although the video depicts one little girl in one art museum program, is there not a cautionary tale here for the field of art museum education?3 When visitors to art museums, including children on school field trips, participate in educational programs, are they engaging in meaning-making or an experience in the hyperreal? In theory art museum educators espouse facilitating meaning-making as their mission; however, in practice are they falling into a vortex of recycling the models of art historical interpretation they assimilated during their own education? Do they replicate the form of the model rather than the substance of interpretation...