- Looking to Learn: Museum Educators and Aesthetic Education
Museum education. Aesthetic education. How are they similar? How do they differ? How do they relate to each other? What are their goals? As museum educators working with classroom and art teachers, we are often asked these questions, and we ask them ourselves. “What do you DO?” is probably the most frequently asked question of all, and the answer is complex. Even more complex is how these questions relate to the Rembrandt Project. Given that looking at original works of art is such a priority for museums and museum educators, how do we address the project’s reliance on technology? And how do these questions relate to the social studies and visual arts standards, [End Page 83] another major component of the project? How does the project relate to the work we do in our own museums? Writing collaboratively implies that we have certain areas of commonality; but we also have differences, which will be apparent in individual sections of this article: Jean Henning and Nancy Richner discuss the Nassau County Museum of Art, Nancy Blume writes about Asia Society, and Amy Herman explores the Frick Collection. Our focus will be the domain of museum education as that is what we know best, but there are inevitably areas where it overlaps and complements the domains of art education, aesthetic education, and social studies.
Art Museum Education History
The history of art museum education begins with the founding of museums in the United States during the commercial and industrial expansion that took place after the Civil War, between 1870 and 1929. The principles guiding American museums have always mirrored the values of American society. From the beginning of this country’s history, the fine arts have been viewed as elitist and thus of no value to the larger society. “To America,” Ben Franklin wrote in the late 1700s, “one school master is worth a dozen poets, and the invention of a machine or the improvement of an implement is of more importance than a masterpiece of Raphael.”1 Given such longstanding and deep-seated suspicion of art among Americans, it is not surprising that both the champions and the staff of art museums insisted on the practical educational benefits museums provided to the public.
By the late nineteenth century, at the height of immigration and the emergence of a strong working class and labor movement, a social dimension was added to the mission of museum education. Art museums, like public libraries, were seen as venues for achieving social balance. By the early twentieth century an aesthetic agenda was finally joined to these social and pragmatic ones.2
While museums have responded to the needs created by cyclical changes in social, economic, political, and intellectual life, today’s art museum educators still deal with the tension among the museum’s aesthetic, educational, and social missions; only the context and delivery modes of museum education have changed. Yet despite the shifting directions and priorities in museum education, there are certain basic and commonly accepted premises that museum educators have shared since the late nineteenth century. The 1984 Museums Commission on Museums for a New Century stated what has been the continuing premise of museum education since the late nineteenth century: learning in museums is based on objects and involves not only developing the ability to synthesize ideas and form opinions but also shaping an aesthetic and cultural sensibility.3 Another fundamental [End Page 84] assumption is that museums are institutions of visual instruction. Although each of the museum educators writing here represents a unique institution with unique approaches to looking at and finding meaning in art, we all agree on the importance of the original work of art as the basis for our work. It is the complexity of original artworks that enables them to play a dual role. One role is pragmatic, which requires meeting standards set by state and national governments for teaching critical thinking skills and improving literacy. The second role is aesthetic—namely, ways of helping students develop habits for aesthetic encounters that are an integral part...