The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
The ever-valuable museum consultant Beverly Serrell, who wrote the book on museum labels, recently pointed me to the early 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I’m glad she did, because his ideas about the stages of learning help organize something I’ve long believed about classical concerts, museum exhibitions, and other cultural experiences.
In the old days — say, mid 20th century — the rap on museums and the performing arts was that they were set up for people who already knew something about the content. You had to bring your own knowledge in order to make sense of the Latin-filled labels in a natural history museum or the formalist program notes in a concert hall. And not just the written interpretive texts, but the objects or performance itself: you needed cultural “training” in order to find meaning and enjoyment in the conventions of exhibition or performance.
No wonder left-leaning sociologists tried to “out” those cultural institutions as markets for the accumulation and affirmation of class status, “cultural capital.”
Times have changed, of course. The sector has made big strides toward democratic accessibility. You no longer need a PhD or a dictionary to understand the annotator’s comments in your program book or the introductory panel at an art exhibition. At natural history museums, those cases of inscrutable specimens were long ago surrounded (or supplanted) by explanatory graphics and texts geared to middle-school students.
But if arts and culture institutions are no longer catering narrowly to the cognoscenti, there’s still a sense in which they’re catering to the converted. You may not have to bring your own knowledge, but you do usually have to bring your own interest in the subject. The conventions of presentation still, by and large, presume that if you’ve shown up, you’re already interested in this content. They proceed (again, implicitly and unconsciously) from the notion that you’re there—in your seat or at the exhibition—because you care about this stuff, and the institution can get on with the business of giving it to you.
What about the newcomers? What about people in the categories we culture professionals dub “experience seekers” or “cultural tourists,” who have come just to check out the symphony or the history exhibit, perhaps with a friend or on a lark? Shouldn’t the experience be designed for them, too? Isn’t that the only way to broaden the audience over time? (Megachurches, by the way, get this. They play to the newcomers and fence-sitters every bit as much as to the devout, all within a single experience.)
To do that, cultural organizations would have to stop taking for granted that what they offer is a priori, automatically valuable, and start taking responsibility for sparking a love of that content in people who may never have given it much time or thought. Here’s where Whitehead comes in handy. ...
Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) was a mathematician and philosopher who turned to education theory late in life. His essays on education remind me of John Dewey, but where Dewey has been deeply influential, at least in museum education circles, Whitehead isn’t read nearly enough. What Beverly pointed me to was Whitehead’s idea, from The Aims of Education, that learning naturally proceeds in three stages: “romance,” “precision,” and finally “generalization.”
Romance is the period in which initial interest in a subject is kindled. Newcomers find “the vividness of novelty” in the content, along with the excitement of conceptual messiness, mysteries, and half-glimpsed possibilities, all of which lures them on to further exploration and discovery. In this stage, Whitehead insists, the subject matter is disorganized, undisciplined, and “not dominated by systematic procedure.” It’s just (my word, not his) cool. In this stage, what counts most is feeling.
Precision, the next stage, is when the systematizing happens: when all those facts and possibilities are “classified and placed within conceptual frameworks” and the messiness gives way to “exact formulation and careful analysis” (these quotes are from a William Garland essay about Whitehead). The excitement shifts in character, and the enjoyment becomes a kind of work.
Generalization is the synthesis of the first two stages, a return to the passionate engagement of the first phase but this time with the benefit of directed, disciplined tools for abstracting, connecting, and building onto the knowledge.
There’s more to this than my summary suggests, but you can guess where I’m going. Whitehead noted that precision is the stage that educators are most familiar with and that they’ve all but ignored the romance stage. Can’t the same thing be said for most museum and arts professionals? When we close our eyes and picture a ballet performance, a museum exhibition, or a symphony concert, the words that best describe the scene are organization, discipline, categories, frameworks — not the messiness and pre-coherence of the romance phase. Cultural institutions tend to skip the romance and head straight for precision and generalization.
Yet that romance phase is where the newcomers can get on the bus. It’s where the inspiration and transformation that we talk about so often is likely to occur. If cultural organizations are offering experiences (and interpretive materials) based on those second and third phases, then they’re inadvertently making it harder for themselves to broaden their audiences and bring new “believers” into the fold.
It’s easy to see how this could be. The curators, conductors, choreographers, and others who set the shape of those cultural experiences are obviously in the generalization stage, themselves. The trick is to get them to remember what brought them into these fields in the first place — their own romance stages — and share it with their audiences, messiness and passion and all.
Not easy in those highly competitive, professionalized fields, I realize. But necessary if we’re to reach beyond the familiar audiences and conventions that constitute the box we’re in.
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