People interested in museum pedagogy often ask if museum teachers have a say in the design of exhibitions of contemporary art, and if they can cooperate with the curators and exhibitors. The answer is no. In the case of an exhibition of contemporary art, the museum teacher’s job is not to think along with the designer and the artists or interfere with the plan or arrangement of the exhibition. Museum teachers do not intervene about the information or message they pass on and interpret – they adapt in every way. They adjust to the exhibition, the visitors, and the institution. If paintings are hung high up on the wall, they pick up the children, if the explanations and descriptions are written in tiny font they take a magnifying glass to class, and if the lights are turned off for a video they give flashlights to the youngsters. Every decision about the exhibition is made by the artist and the curator, the museum teacher has no say in the design. Except in one institution in the country, the Gallery of Miskolc.
The Big Deal Educational Museum of Contemporary Art at the Gallery of Miskolc was created based on gallery director András Bán’s proposal in 2009. The material for the educational exhibitions, just like for other curated exhibitions, is put together based on a theme or concept by István Éliás, the museum teacher of the gallery. The topic of choice and the exhibited pieces match the children’s needs. They are adapted to children’s interests and school material as well. It is an enviable idea. However, it can also be said of most contemporary exhibitions, as the contemporary artists around us are concerned about the same economic, political, social, philosophical and personal problems as we are. The themes of exhibitions and museum programs are not composition or brush handling, but rather current problems that artists reflect on – the world around us, artists, audience, adults and children.
Still, there is not exhibition in the country similar to the Big Deal. It is true that the children can see the same contemporary works here as in any other museum or gallery, but the environment and the design are not the same at all. István Éliás keeps principles of pedagogy in mind not only when choosing works to exhibit, but also when these works are arranged and installed. The exhibition hall is full of objects, accessories and tools. In addition, the exhibition is not really complete for the opening ceremony but rather for the closing one, as the artwork the children produce during the programs are also exhibited on the walls and in the hall right next to the works of the artists, indicating that the children were thinking, talking and forming opinions about what they saw. They “used” the works and the space while they enjoyed their time at the exhibition, the creative process and discussions about the works.
The Big Deal is unique and exemplary. It is an unrivalled place, space and opportunity for the public to enjoy the works, and it is a wonderful example of how to help children come to love contemporary art.
When Zoltán Szegedi-Maszák first arrived at the Deal exhibition hall for the preparations of the 10th Deal, he was surprised to see that the walls were not prepared at all; they were striped green, lilac, yellow and pink. As we had not met before, I had no idea who he was.
“Ehm ….” I said embarrassed “this is the wall that will have the works on it. “
“But it will ruin the contrast effect.” He said, and rightly so, as he had brought paintings and a monitor decoding their signals, whose operation might have been compromised by the patterned wall.
“No problem” I apologized. We could paint the section of the wall he needed white. It wasn’t “set in stone” that it had to be colored. (In fact, the wall design was the result of a long and deliberate process even though it seemed a bit tawdry at first sight.)
Luckily, we had plenty of time later to discuss why:
GREEN – because it is free
The Gallery of Miskolc has been offering classes of museum pedagogy since 2001, but the real daring experiment, the “Big Deal” started in 2008. We wanted to know how we could meet the requirements of a museum audience to the fullest and still stay within the limits of the museum’s professional goals.
From the aspect of museum pedagogy, we wanted to find out what kind of tools built in the exhibition could complement the special methodology of learning at the museum. Museum pedagogy helps to use exhibitions, collections, museum libraries, laboratories, workshops, excavations, etc. and other elements of museology. It can also guide the visitor in how to approach objects, how to understand the scientific contents of museums and the information at exhibitions; it shows us how to apply the past to events in the present. The topic (archeology, ethnology, science, art) does not matter, as it is about the methodology of learning at the museum. As museum teachers, our job is to create various opportunities to learn how to study, and thus to introduce diverse ways of learning, and to provide situations for learning based on experience, self-motivation and areas of interest.
The pedagogy of a contemporary art museum has to focus on providing information on the expressions of visual art, thus developing an open-minded, critical and creative way of thinking. Art education is the most wide-ranging area of education, in any case. It is an integrating force at the crossroads of various disciplines, one which is about the world, our relationship to it, the interpretation of this relationship, and about the shaping of the world. This is why we do not attend to the qualities of herbs in a certain painting or to modeling astronomical phenomena.
The works of art are not visual aids, nor settings, but they are used for teaching about content conveyed by the artists, keeping in mind that works of art do not answer life’s great questions but instead raise questions. Therefore, they can be understood in a number of ways. Works of art do not have fixed interpretations, which means that they mean something different for everyone at any given age.
The director of the Gallery of Miskolc, András Bán (who named the Deal) gave the program almost complete freedom for fundamentally changing the way an exhibition is organized. According to common practice, the curator of the exhibition creates the exhibition, then the teachers construct programs and classes for the finished material. It is still quite rare that these two disciplines work together, so that pedagogical aspects are built into the exhibition from the beginning.
For a better effect, we changed the old order in the Deal.
LILAC – because it is impressive
We focused on inspiration through art education instead of the tasks of an art curator. We gathered topics related to school material that would inspire students and we created each exhibition for them. In fact, these were more presentations than exhibitions, picking works by the latest contemporary artists. The program titles (Ego on the Wall; Meeting David Bowie; Entirely Small Landscapes; Spelled Out; “From Rembrandt to Picasso”; MeNŐK (Cool Women); Jungle; Rock, Paper, Scissors; Cake; Home, Sweet Home) reflect that contemporary art can find common ground with all disciplines, so they are useful not just for students interested in art.
We have touched on a great number of topics with works of contemporary art, such as social issues, human relationships, life situations, historical events, films, stars, advertising, … almost all everyday actualities, and, of course, contemporary artists, creative processes, new techniques, etc.
We introduced a new topic every six months based on artists’ and students’ ideas. In this system, the museum teacher takes on a more complicated job. He creates pedagogical plans and he chooses methods of interpretation. In some cases, we asked the artists themselves to think about how they could create open situations that would provide opportunities for open discussions with their audience as partners (Deal 7 – HangON (sOuNd).
The topics, however, only provide a frame, that has to be adjusted to a given age group and the composition of each group. Thus, each class is different. In some cases, such as the weekend classes for children or special art classes, the pedagogical plan is set aside and the class focuses on just a few works.
Among all art genres, the popularity of contemporary art needs boosting the most because of the features of the genre. For the youngest children, its presence is evident. This is probably not a coincidence, as they are the least influenced by the pigeonholes of social conventions. Teenagers also show interest in contemporary art, although they like to reflect on the reasons behind the works, especially when they see or experience something incomprehensible or strange. It is best not to answer their questions straight away, but to let them work out the answers themselves, even if they are not open to such a process. We need to guide them by helping them recognize the methods and approaches of visual communication. The Deal uses various installation tricks for this. For example, in order to guide their attention, we cover otherwise non-vulgar contents with age-rating symbols and emphasize other contents with red light; we imitate a cordoned-off crime scene of art theft; we place a minute painting in a large golden frame; we intensify scents by the scent of vanilla; a jungle atmosphere was evoked with indoor plants, jungle noises and a scrim; or a security system of “textile-laser” warns visitors to be careful, etc.
YELLOW – because it’s a ray
Besides content, the Deal focuses on the method of approach, as well. The idea of complex personal development is not yet generally accepted in education but it is becoming more and more popular to develop learning and information processing skills instead of just providing information, since we understand, retain and apply information better if it is the result of intrinsic motivation and experience. Instead of readily available information, the Deal builds on active cognitive participation to find the way to information.
In our classes, motivation is also supported through surprising situations that are unusual in a museum environment – climbing up a rope and experiencing the exhibition from the height of 6 meters; using markers to write on a glass surface covering the piece of art; taking photos of their tattoos and other idiosyncratic features (make-up, accessories, scars) and integrating them into the fabric of the exhibition; exhibiting a urinal as a work of art at the entrance.
The classes are related to the content, form, and technique of the exhibited pieces as well as to the theme of the whole exhibition. When designing the classes, it is important to find those keywords that best express the work, the artist’s intentions and the visual idea. The participants can immerse themselves in each theme through diverse tasks that require creativity or even by interacting with the artists. Their works are gradually added to and integrated in the exhibition. This is also a feature of the Deal, as the students also participate in setting up the exhibition, which becomes complete only at the end, before it is taken apart. The participants write and stamp on the walls; they place their drawings and photos by the works as an answer or a further thought; they solve a puzzle created by a previous group, and they make one for the subsequent groups; they create videos, which are played on monitors, etc.
The Deal poses playful and adventurous problems that require exploration and investigation to solve, while the process of solving them results in the interpretation of the works without any conscious effort. On the other hand, completing the tasks assigned to each work is the result of a thought process rather than a creative one, as the high-school generation is mainly interested in art only in general terms (the number of students in art education is quite low). Therefore, it is not the product we focus on, but the process that leads students to recognize and express their opinions.
Thus, the tasks are designed by assigning activities to the keywords of a particular piece, which also defines the materials and tools used during the task. The environment also supports this process through special scenes (such as a furnished dormitory room), props, materials, and tools. The participants can physically be put into the world the pieces represent; they can express their thoughts with shadow shows, writing poetry unconsciously, building models, taking photos, performing dramatic plays, leaving various messages, painting with soft drinks … and in a great number of other ways, while integrating the students ideas as well.
During the classes, large groups are divided into smaller ones, as working with just a few people provides more opportunities for personal development and allows everyone to be heard. Working in small groups builds on individual opinions, constructive discussion, cooperation, and individual creative and improvisational skills.
Each group presents their results working on the tasks. It is very important that each group supports their ideas with arguments. This will help them discuss the works, form their opinions about them, think their ideas through, while they relate the discussed works to their own worlds and their own experiences. It is essential that each statement come from the participants themselves, without any influences. In this educational environment, the teacher’s job is not to provide information and to teach but to provide guidance, pique and maintain interest and to work with the students as a partner in constructing knowledge.
PINK – because it’s a celebration
In museum pedagogy, it is especially important to provide opportunities for free individual opinions and solutions. We accept that in a system based on freedom, the outcomes will not be uniform; we consider students sovereign individuals, whose ideas and opinions matter to us.
A good class poses a problem with thousands of appropriate solutions. We do not limit the children’s creativity, and we do not give them ways or examples to solve the problems. We also appreciate that which does not conform to our own ideas. We value everything that the children create at their own developmental level on their own. It is a cause for celebration if our role is merely to motivate deep thinking and involvement. We do not try to substitute the museum for school, but we complement the knowledge available at school with a practical way of learning that is based on experience and analysis.
It happens quite often during the Deal that students who regularly visit our classes and are familiar with the diverse approaches to a piece of art try out their creativity in order to emphasize involvement – which they are not conscious of, of course. They are not even aware of the fact that by this behavior they fulfill the museum teacher’s goals, not to mention that they also enrich the material used in the tasks with new ideas.
The 10th Deal entitled Cake was an anniversary exhibition. We celebrated the previous 5 years, a 100 Hungarian contemporary artists, 200 exhibited works, 500 classes and 10 000 participants.
The stripes stayed; we did not have to paint them white. Everything worked on them.
EGO ON THE WALL (2008)
Contemporary artists in their own works.
MEETING DAVID BOWIE (2009)
The main theme of the program is encounters. Actual encounters with the works and methods of contemporary artists. Symbolic meetings with real and imaginary people, situations and times.
ENTIRELY SMALL LANDSCAPES (2009)
The program reflects on the sensitivity of contemporary art about small, occasionally closed, or subcultural worlds, finding in them the atmosphere of local as well as universal human stories.
SPELLED OUT (2010)
Letters, words and texts within works of art are ornamental elements as well as components that carry meaning, as the difference between the visual appearance of a word and its meaning provides opportunities for different interpretations. The program includes works that take advantage of the elastic line between fine arts and typography to point out some visual and mental features of our time.
“FROM REMBRANDT TO PICASSO” (2010)
References to art history in works of contemporary artists.
The program includes works of contemporary art that parallel certain periods of art history in their style of portrayal or content. This collection provides examples of baroque, classicism, romanticism, realism, and other isms all the way to Picasso’s pink period.
meNŐK (Cool Women) (2011)
Every culture colors the biological differences between men and women through numerous customs, beliefs, and rigid norms. The 6th Deal relies on the sensitive observations of contemporary artists to highlight some features of women’s (and therefore men’s) gender roles, the social expectations about them, and the needs of the affected parties.
The 7th Deal was an unusual one. In this program, we changed the traditional way of exhibiting works as well as the applied methods of museum pedagogy. Instead of selecting works of art based on a didactic aspect, we asked the artists participating in the 10th Miskolc Art Workshop to create works about sound and the related installations that would take pedagogical aspects in consideration as well.
Survival adventure in the unknown – where the picture is at stake.
It’s a game of autonomous and sovereign visual worlds with images and emotions. It’s personal stories of ordinary existence through private myths, silhouettes and various kinds of vegetation.
ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS (2012)
The 9th Deal represented the utilization of objects by contemporary artists through works that included or depicted objects.
The program approached the culture of objects in a complex way, incorporating an exhibition of the Museum of Ethnography called Objective Case à Subjective Ethnography and a play with objects by Csodamalom Puppet Theater.
The main theme of the 10th Big Deal was celebration, including our customs of gift giving and congratulating. However, as the title indicates, the program also touches on gastronomy and our eating culture. The exhibited works also incorporate the role and situation of contemporary art, as well as its relationship with the audience.
HOME, SWEET HOME (2013)
The program treats the concept of home not only as a synonym for house or flat but in a broader context as an inseparable feature of our personality, a place where our identity and personal accomplishment are forged. The program includes works by young contemporary artists in which home is not only a place but also a bond; where the feeling of comfort in our minds is inseparable from those with whom we share this sense, and strengthen the experience of belonging to each other and to the place.
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