The Science of Art Appreciation

Harvard University researchers have set out to help schools--and students--discover the magic of museums.

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Harvard University researcher Jessica Davis learned an important lesson from her children--a lesson that continues to shape her work today.

As they were growing up, Davis remembers, each of her sons had a different reaction to his first visit to the art museum.

When her son Benjamin was 8 or 9, he spotted an exhibition catalogue in the car when she picked him up from school one day. "I can't believe you went to the Fairfield Porter opening without me!" exclaimed the budding art enthusiast.

Alexander was another story. The first time Davis brought him and her third son, Joshua, to the Fogg Art museum here, 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: It is precisely these questions that Davis and her colleagues are investigating at Harvard University's Project MUSE. For the past two years, the researchers have been trying to engage museum and school educators in a national dialogue about how people learn in art museums and how to make their experiences more compelling and effective.

At the heart of Project MUSE--or museums Uniting with Schools and Education--is an effort to develop "learning tools" that teach students how to look at artwork, ask questions about it, and make connections between art and other disciplines from science to writing.

Traditional art museum tours have typically meant fact-driven lectures saturated with names, titles, and dates. Even though this approach is no doubt rich in information and history, it may leave novice museumgoers like Alexander either bored or overwhelmed.

"With inexperienced visitors, you see them reading the material on the wall and the printed material," agrees Kerry Zack, the education director at the University of Kentucky Art museum. "What we really haven't done is helped them learn how to look."

Two years ago, Project MUSE researchers began working with museum educators to craft a more dynamic, inquiry-based approach. They defined five "entry points," or windows through which learners could approach a work of art.

Through the "esthetic" window, the visitor would learn to appreciate the artwork's formal and sensory components, such as color, line, expression, and composition. The "narrative" approach would introduce the learner to the characters and story behind the subject, while the "logical-quantitative" view would "invite deductive reasoning or numerical consideration," such as how the dimensions of an automobile were calculated. The "foundational" window would help the pensive museumgoer raise such philosophical questions as "What makes an object art?" and "Why is it important?" And finally, the "experiential" entry point would encourage a hands-on response to a work of art, 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 will go see Renaissance art. "We're making connections around using art museums to learn about yourself as a learner," she continues, "in a way that might have implications for your learning in any context."

Project MUSE is one of more than a dozen projects that make up Project Zero, a research program founded in 1967 by philosopher Nelson Goodman at the Harvard University graduate school of education.

The MUSE learning tools under development draw directly on the work of Howard Gardner, the Harvard psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner, the co-director of Project Zero, has identified at least seven types of intelligence--linguistic, logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, musical, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. He argues that schools often emphasize the first two at the expense of the others.

Davis, herself an artist and former public school art teacher, describes Project MUSE as a "pen-pal collaboration." She and her research assistants invited 500 members of the American Federation of the Arts to take part in a survey. In the questionnaire, the researchers asked why people visit art museums, how they feel when they get there, and what they learn from their visit.

Hoping for at least 50 responses, the scholars were elated to receive 247. Similar invitations to about 1,800 K-12 educators generated responses from 234 teachers and 131 principals across the country.

With these responses in hand, the MUSE team set out to develop its learning tools--and then get more feedback. The researchers sent several tools to museum and K-12 educators across the country, asking them to try them out and send back a written evaluation.

One of the exercises, known as the "generic game," poses a series of questions about art that move from the simple to the complex. First, players decide whether they like a particular work of art. Then, they examine the painting or sculpture's external details. "What colors do you see in it?" the game booklet reads. "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 any connections between the artwork and things in their own life, and how it may relate to other works in the museum.

One morning last month, the Harvard researchers visited a 4th-grade class at a Dorchester, Mass., elementary school that has been using another MUSE learning tool for the past year. Davis and her three research assistants arrived at the Sarah Greenwood Elementary School 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 work painted by the African-American artist Jacob Lawrence in 1942. All Davis told them about the painting was the name of the artist and that the original work hangs in a New York City museum.

"I see a lot of balls," observed Roselyne Bodkin as she used 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.

Her 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, Stephanie Green was viewing impressionist 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, a group of young boys was contemplating Carol Crivelli's 15th-century painting "St. George and the Dragon." For the foundational window, Jamaal Warner decided the painting is important "because it is a matter of life and death--the prince could die and that would be the last of him." His classmate Donald Cue disagreed. "This picture is not important because it doesn't have anything to do with today," he wrote.

Their teacher, Ileana Williams, first learned about the entry-point approach while she was a graduate student at Harvard. She has also used the approach in science by asking her students to write down their observations about natural objects like plants and insects.

"They love it," she says. "It's great for their writing skills. It gives them something to focus on instead of just saying 'write about this.'"

Going to the Museum

Museum educators taking part in Project MUSE say the 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 new visitors of all ages.

"What attracted me to the project was how compatible their ideas and the goals of the project were with Kentucky education reform," says Zack from the University of Kentucky museum. In particular, she points to how the exercises' interdisciplinary nature and emphasis on writing reinforce objectives in the state's comprehensive education-reform act.

Mobi Warren Phillips, the 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 suggests teachers use it in class before the students visit.

Unfortunately, Phillips adds, most San Antonio schools only have enough funding for one 50-minute field trip each year, and that makes it hard to fully implement some of the MUSE ideas. "It would be best if you could work with them over time and have the students come here a few times," she says.

Davis admits that a few educators participating in Project MUSE have leveled one major criticism: They say the approach is too open-ended and doesn't have enough right or wrong answers.

Over the next few months, the MUSE researchers will continue to collect--and respond--to feedback from project participants. The team looks to wrap up data collection in June and publish findings by the end of the year. Davis hopes the end product, a "working handbook," will synthesize the responses in a readable form. The team is also thinking about producing a video to demonstrate how students have used the learning tools.

"We consider these things that they're experimenting with very useful tools," Zack says. "This is not just for 4th graders. These are things that they feel are helpful for people of all ages, and I would agree with that."

Vol. 14, Issue 27, Pages 31-32

Published in Print: March 29, 1995, as The Science of Art Appreciation
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