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Art Appreciation

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Alexander was another story. The first time Davis brought him and her third son Joshua to the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Mass., he threw himself on the floor and cried, "You can make me come, but you can't make me look.''

Joshua, meanwhile, spotted a painting that interested him. "Mmm. I believe this is a real Picasso,'' he pondered aloud. "I wonder what something like this would cost.''

Different children. Different learning styles. Different responses to art. This, in a nutshell, is what Davis and her colleagues are investigating through Harvard University's Project MUSE (short for Museums Uniting with Schools and Education). For the past two years, the researchers have been engaging curators and educators in a national dialogue about how people learn in art museums and how to make their experiences there more compelling and effective.

The ultimate goal is to develop a variety of learning tools that teach students with ranging interests how to look at artwork, ask questions about it, and make connections between art and other disciplines, such as science and writing.

Most tours of art museums are fact-driven lectures saturated with names, titles, and dates. Even though this traditional approach can be rich in

information and history, it tends to leave novice museumgoers overwhelmed or bored. "What we really haven't done is helped them learn how to look,'' says Kerry Zack, education director at the University of Kentucky Art Museum.

Two years ago, researchers affiliated with Project MUSE began working with museums to craft a more dynamic, inquiry-based approach. They came up with five "entry points,'' or windows, through which different learners might approach a work of art:

  • The "aesthetic'' window helps the visitor appreciate a work's formal and sensory components, such as color, line, expression, and composition.
  • The "narrative'' approach introduces the characters and stories behind the subjects.
  • The "logical-quantitative'' view invites deductive reasoning or numerical consideration, such as how the dimensions of an automobile were calculated by the artist.
  • The "foundational'' window urges the pensive viewer to raise philosophical questions, such as, "What makes an object 'art'?'' or "Why is it important?''
  • Finally, the "experiential'' entry point encourages a hands-on response to a particular work, such as writing a story or singing a song.

"Often connections between museums and schools are made around the content stuff,'' Davis says. If a class is studying the Renaissance, for example, they go to see Renaissance art. "We're making connections around using art museums to learn about yourself as a learner,'' Davis explains, "in a way that might have implications for your learning in any context.''

MUSE is one of more than a dozen programs that fall under the umbrella of Project Zero, an initiative founded in 1967 by philosopher Nelson Goodman at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The learning tools the MUSE team is developing draw directly on the work of Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner, a co-director of Project Zero, has identified some seven types of intelligence and argues that most schools emphasize two at the expense of the others.

Davis, who is herself an artist and former teacher, describes MUSE as a "pen-pal collaboration.'' She and her research assistants invited several hundred members of the American Federation of the Arts to participate in their study. They wanted to get a sense of why people visit art museums, how they feel when they get there, and what they learn from their visits.

Hoping for a typical return rate of 50 responses, the team was elated to receive 247. Similar questionnaires sent to schools generated responses from 234 teachers and 131 principals.

With these responses in hand, the team began creating the learning tools. Once they came up with several ideas, they sent them out to museums and schools, asking educators to try them out and to send back a written evaluation.

One of the exercises, known as the "generic game,'' poses a series of questions about art that start off simple and become more complex. First, players decide whether they like a particular work of art. Then, they examine the painting or sculpture. "What colors do you see in it?'' the game booklet asks. "Take turns listing the objects that you see. What is going on in the painting?'' Next, the questions shift from the artwork itself to the ideas it represents. Viewers are asked whether they see connections between the artwork and things in their own lives or other works in the museum.

One morning this past February, the Harvard team visited a 4th grade class at the Sarah Greenwood Elementary School in Dorchester, Mass., which had been using another MUSE learning tool for the past year. Davis and her three research assistants arrived armed with mounted art reproductions spanning a variety of subjects, styles, and periods. Each sat down with a small group of students and passed out a set of five construction-paper windows listing questions or activities related to a particular entry point.

One group gazed intently at "Pool Parlor,'' a 1942 painting by Jacob Lawrence. All Davis told them about the picture was the name of the artist and that the original work hangs in a New York City museum.

"I see a lot of balls,'' student Roselyne Bodkin said, using the "aesthetic'' window. "I see cigarettes--bad for you. Men; no women.'' She paused a moment while she wrote that down. "How do you spell cigarettes?'' she asked Davis.

While this conversation was going on, Roselyne's classmate Terrence Young was writing a story about the painting for the "experiential'' window. "Once upon a time, a bunch of men gathered together to go to the bar,'' he wrote. "All the men got together in the bar and played pool. All of them became friends, and they were friends forever. The men always met each other on a Saturday night.''

Across the room, student Stephanie Green was viewing Henri Matisse's "Interior With an Etruscan Vase'' through the "logical-quantitative'' window. "Why does the lady have so many plants?'' she wrote. "Does she eat a lot of oranges? Is she going to sell orange juice? Is the lady from Japan?''

Nearby, several boys were contemplating Carlo Crivelli's 15th-century painting "St. George and the Dragon,'' using the "foundational'' window. After a moment, Jamaal Warner deemed the painting important "because it is a matter of life and death; the prince could die and that would be the last of him.'' But classmate Donald Cue disagreed. "This picture is not important,'' he wrote, "because it doesn't have anything to do with today.''

Ileana Williams, the teacher of this 4th grade class, first learned about the entry-point approach while she was a graduate student at Harvard. "They love it,'' Williams says of her students. "It's great for their writing skills. It gives them something to focus on instead of me just saying 'write about this.' ''

Museum curators and directors taking part in MUSE say the project's learning tools have helped them rethink how to structure school visits and train docents. What's more, they say, the tools have helped them reach out to visitors of all ages. "What attracted me to the proj-ect was how compatible their ideas and the goals of the project were with Kentucky's education reform,'' says Zack of the University of Kentucky Art Museum. She points, for example, to the interdisciplinary nature of the exercises and their emphasis on writing.

Mobi Warren Phillips, education associate at the San Antonio Museum of Art, now includes the generic game and several slides or prints in the curricular packets the museum offers, and she suggests that teachers use it in class before the students visit. Unfortunately, Phillips says, most San Antonio schools can only afford one 50-minute field trip each year, and that makes it hard to fully implement some of the Project MUSE ideas. "It would be best,'' she explains, "if you could work with them over time and have the students come here a few times.''

Over the next few months, the Harvard team will continue to collect and respond to the feedback it is receiving from project participants. Davis admits that the response so far has not been entirely positive. Some educators have complained that the approach is too open-ended, that it doesn't have enough right and wrong answers.

Davis' goal is to turn out, by the end of the year, a "working handbook'' that synthesizes the responses in a readable form. The team is also thinking about producing a video that demonstrates how teachers have successfully used the MUSE ideas.

"We consider these very useful tools,'' says Zack of Kentucky. "This is not just for 4th graders. These things are helpful for people of all ages.''

--Meg Sommerfeld

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