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  • Museum Education and the Project of Interpretation in the Twenty-First Century
  • Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee

This is what we shall look for as we move: freedom developed by human beings who have acted to make a space for themselves in the presence of others, human beings become "challengers" ready for alternatives, alternatives that include caring and community. And we shall seek, as we go, implications for emancipatory education conducted by and for those willing to take responsibility for themselves and for each other. We want to discover how to open spaces for persons in their plurality, spaces where they can become different, where they can grow.

—Maxine Greene, The Dialectic of Freedom, 56

In the art museum of the future, we walk into a gallery in which the hum of conversation fills the space. A small group of visitors clusters around a single work of art, exchanging their observations, led quietly in their conversation by a museum educator. The group has gathered for a program in which visitors are invited into a dialogue with the educator, with each other, and above all, with the artwork. As this group's conversation concludes, other groups will take their place, attending to different works of art, unfolding them in different ways.

We share with David Carrier a vision of the future museum rooted in the Enlightenment dream of a sphere of conversation accessible to all citizens, a public museum space "devoted to a genuinely democratic talk about visual art." In such a museum the galleries are not primarily considered places where art historical information is transferred. They are instead redefined as places where conversation takes place around works of art and where the project of interpretation is constantly enacted.

The educators who are responsible for these conversations have a central place in the future museum. Once charged with translating curatorial interpretations to the public, educators are now charged with including everyone [End Page 11] in the translation of the artworks. Knowledgeable in the collections and experienced with audiences, they bring people and works of art together for appreciation and exploration. Engaged in the exchange of thoughts and observations about artworks, carried into the back-and-forth flow of discussion about the artworks, visitors translate impressions into conjectures, and, ideally, understanding and interpretation.

Visitors come to the museum to learn about art through gallery conversations during which they actively take part in a form of interpretive play that animates, and in a sense performs, works of art as visitors look at them and talk about them. When the play is successful, it is full of energy and passion. The museum galleries become active places where ideas are freely exchanged, where hermeneutic improvisation and experimentation are encouraged and valued.

The constantly recurring play of art makes the museum a place of interpretive freedom, open to many viewpoints and the possibility of multiple interpretations. Educator and visitor both realize that understandings of works of art are never complete. They know that every conversation opens the artworks to the possibility of new meanings and new interpretations.

In the museum of the future, the mission of offering visitors such special experiences is not distinct from the museum's traditional charge of caring for the objects in its collections. For it is only when visitors attend to the works of art, and interpret them, that the artworks come alive. As John Dewey said almost a century ago, the work of art comes alive in the viewer's experience. Visitors, educators, and curators share in the endeavor of making sense of works of art, each taking their own part in the process of bringing them to life with their scrutiny, and keeping them alive as they interpret and reinterpret them.

The deepest and most affecting experiences visitors have in art museums are those in which they share in the unfolding, unraveling, and translation of the meaning of artworks. In the museum of the future, everyone is invited into such conversations. Everyone understands that they are important participants in the lives of the objects displayed there, as they take part in the play of interpretation that dances around them.

Museums are first and foremost for people; they are...


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pp. 11-13
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