Background: Museum Education and the Art of Observation

Susan Dodge-Peters Daiss, MA, MDIV

When the UR’s Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) and its School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD) began their conversations in 2002-2003, the growing needs of the medical field and related challenges for the education of physicians had just begun to propel medical educators to seek expertise beyond their own ranks. Although medical and museum education might seem an unlikely pairing of disciplines, by 2018 nearly half of the medical schools had adopted museum and art-based programs, suggesting an intrinsic connection between these fields that is worth attention. What about our two disciplines, we wondered, made for such fruitful partnerships? While we cannot speak for our disciplines as a whole, we traced the recent histories of our separate professions for clues.

From their founding, museums in the United States have embraced their educational role. Beyond their mission to collect and preserve their collections, museums have been charged to communicate the historical and cultural significance of the objects preserved. To deliver these messages to the public, museum education departments emerged in the early to mid-decades of the 20th century, paralleling educational approaches in the broader field of education. The Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) reflects this national trend with the creation of an education department in the 1920s, the establishment of a docent program to welcome expanding numbers of school children on field trips in the 1960s, and over the decades partnering with both educational and human service organizations to develop programs.

All MAG’s successful partnerships have been initiated by partners who approached the museum, whether it was an elementary school that was interested in exploring parallels between language-based and visual literacy, enhancing the quality of life for individuals with dementia, or developing skills of observation for medical students. The constant in these partnerships has been MAG’s commitment to adapting its pedagogical approach to the mission of its partners.

By the 1990s, MAG’s pedagogical approach to in-gallery teaching had evolved from an authoritative presentation on art history to a learner-centered, inquiry-based practice. Audience research in museums in the last decades of the 20th century shifted the field’s awareness from the experts’ to the novice visitors’ experience. By the early 2000s, MAG had developed a protocol using the acronym, S.L.O.W.: Stop; Linger; Open; Wonder. This approach, which featured both slowing down (Stop and Linger) and personal reflection (Open and Wonder), was designed to give novice visitors the tools to look independently at works of art and to trust their personal responses. The approach did not devalue the role of information in the appreciation of the work of art, but shifted the emphasis to start with the visitor’s experience.

MAG’s development of S.L.O.W. coincided with similar movements in the field of museum education. With the late 20th century’s revival of interest in progressive education came renewed interest in Constructivism: “Constructivism is basically a theory—based on observation and scientific study—about how people learn. It says that people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know.”1 The best known of the museum education practices in the 1990s to reflect the influence of Constructivism is Philip Yenawine and Abigail Housen’s Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), “that suggested a way to translate the complexities of constructivism into a practical curriculum. VTS prescribed three simple questions designed to help teachers facilitate discussions that empowered students themselves, encouraging them to develop their own interpretations of artworks.”2

A team from MAG was trained in VTS in 2001 at the National Gallery of Art. While VTS’s signature three question protocol3 informed MAG’s inquiry-based experience, the process did not include a place to add information about the artwork. While discussing factual information was not the first-line of engagement in our process, our experience suggested the participants’ frustration with the limits of just looking. As requests for information emerged, we urged participants to frame their requests as questions, articulating how they believed the information would inform their interpretation. Information was not given in our protocol, but earned through active engagement with the inquiry-based process.

When MAG was approached by the Medical School in 2002-2003, it had already developed a teaching strategy that was well suited for its primary teaching missions with K-12 as well as adult audiences. Adapting this to teaching medical students, however, added a new level of urgency to the task. Partnering with the high stakes world of medical education engaged MAG pedagogically far beyond teaching basic skills of visual literacy. The self-awareness needed for physicians in training was equally important as the development of observational skills. Engendering a habit of mind to gather both external and internal information became the critical focus of the partnership. From the entwining of two distinct traditions, the 5QP now has a dynamic history of its own.

1. (accessed 9-6-17)
2. Kai-Kee, E. (2011), “A Brief History of Teaching in the Art Museum,” in Rika Burnham and Elliott Kai-Kee, Teaching in the Museum: Interpretation as Experience (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum) p. 47. Burnham and Kai-Kee’s history of museum teaching in the 20-21st centuries offers a comprehensive introduction to the field.
3. The three questions introduced in the 2001 training at the National Gallery of Art were: “What’s going on in this picture?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” “What else can we find?” Cited in: (Accessed 9-24-17)