The relationship between museum education and art history has long been deeply fraught; in an intellectual economy that favors specialization, educators have been accused of lacking the cultural capital that curators demand. Conversely, educators have often argued that academically elite curatorial work is antithetical to a museum’s mission to serve the public. These debates have, thus, often been characterized as a battle between public engagement and scholarly erudition, such that the status of the collection itself is fundamentally torn between the museum’s dual goals of research and access.
This paper argues for a deep and profound homology between the methodologies of the dialogue model of museum education developed and written about by Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee and a certain strain of art history that focuses on viewer response and flexible temporalities rather than original temporal horizons. Looking to thinkers as diverse as George Didi-Huberman, Meike Bal, and Alexander Nagel, the paper begins by revealing the interest in the work of Hans-Georg Gadamar shared by museum educators and art historians. It then explores how the rejection of Panofskian historical distance links the dialogue model to art historians working from the 1980s to today. I argue that by re-examining the theoretical and methodological relationship between art history and museum education, both disciplines can enrich their understanding of how the museum’s collection engages with and opens itself up to the public.