In a recent post on Iris, the Getty’s blog, George Hein reflects on the role of the gallery as an educational space. Hein, currently a guest scholar at the Getty is a leading scholar in the field of museum education. As a professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences at Lesley University, Hein published two books on learning in the museum. Earlier this month, Hein was asked his thoughts on museums as educational spaces and his outlook on their future roles.
Hein mentions in this interview, particularly in response to his thoughts on museums as progressive organizations, the work of John Dewey. Dewey’s views on educational reform were adopted by museum professionals and integrated into the new programming that was being developed to reshape museums. Dewey also wrote a book ‘Art as Experience’ exploring the role and usefulness of aesthetic experiences. He calls for a renewal of art stating, “A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience.” He believed fundamentally that art should not be separated or cut off from our everyday existence but should retain relevance on the most basic level.
Hein explores in this interview the complex and sometimes warring constituencies of museums. I trace this institutional confusion in part to the history of these institutions. Museums coalesced into their modern form at the turn of the 20th century. They evolved out of private collectionism which had thrived in Europe for centuries and which had intertwined early on with scientific methods being shaped in the Enlightenment. The first collections of amateur collectors like Lord Hamilton were rooted in a belief that the systematic collection of objects in these Cabinets of Curiosities could inform their understanding of the natural world. The modern museum emerged during the 19th century with the surge of nationalism which would culminate in the world wars of the 20th century. As new nation states were formed internationally (Italy, Argentina, Greece etc.) nationalism flared and museums were reconceived as cultural centers which would unify and educate an increasingly industrial working class.
Museums still carry the roots of these different societal functions which, as Hein aptly points out, often lead to schizophrenic attitudes towards their visitors. Museums can address their goals and constituencies through an exploration and understanding of their past and the historical origins of their diverse roles. It is through reflection on the past that we truly understand the present and can plan for the future.