Being part of the Teaching in the Galleries program this semester has been a rich experience learning about teaching, art interpretation, and museum operations.
We started the semester learning about the Kemper Art Museum’s collection through the book A Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) and looking at different strategies of interpreting art. When we first received GOMA I thought it would be an answer key to all the artworks in the collection, but, while it provided some contextual information and previous interpretations, it often still left things open ended. This approach, and the Museum’s educational philosophy in general, shifts the responsibility for interpretation from a select group of art and museum professionals to each individual viewer. The theories of interpretation we read about and discussed in class stated that any work of art can have many possible interpretations—there is no one right one, but some are better supported than others.
The classroom and teaching strategies we learned encouraged us to create richer museum experiences by engaging with viewers and equipping them to interpret the artwork rather than just relaying information. I personally experienced that in our class demo tours and object presentations—the pieces that leave the deepest impression on my memory are ones that I felt that I as a viewer had uncovered something about. During our tours of other institutions, I saw that when the group was talking and generating ideas about an artwork, it was a better experience than just walking by and seeing artwork on the wall without discussing what might be the deeper meaning or context. Leading my own tour came with its own difficulties, but it was still rewarding, especially in the moments when I saw that people were able to engage with the artwork by themselves and felt more prepared to interpret challenging pieces.
The program has also helped me as an artist. I use some of the teaching strategies we learned in class to help people engage with and understand my artwork during studio visits and critiques. As in the Museum, I find the people tend to like an artwork more when they feel they have uncovered something about it or about themselves through it, as opposed to me just telling them my intentions or interpretation of the work. Asking the questions we use on tours has allowed me to take a step back from the work and look at it more objectively or from another person’s perspective. The public speaking skills we practice in class also helped with presentations.
Being in the museum environment itself was a great educational experience. I went from having zero understanding to having some rough idea of all the work and preparation that goes into putting together exhibitions, loaning artwork, installation, maintenance, programming, etc. Hearing the other Kemper Art Museum employees talk about their work and visiting partner institutions were valuable experiences and made me feel like I knew who I could talk to if I wanted to learn more about a career in the museum field. Seeing behind the scenes and learning about the history of the Museum was also just really cool and gave me a deeper respect for what museums and the staff do.
All in all, this course has been a great experience, and I look forward to giving tours once I return from studying abroad in Florence.
—Sherry Xiao BFA17
Learn how to become a Kemper docent at kemperartmuseum.wustl.edu. The docent program is open to WashU students only.