The role of education in museums, arts and heritage venues

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

70_small_1247579160The role of education in museums, arts and heritage venues
ISBN 0903162962
The nature of the education service in museums, arts and heritage venues
ISBN 0903162997
The museum visit: virtual reality and    the gallery
ISBN 0903162946
Learning in museums
ISBN 1904288022
Effective presentation and interpretation in museums
ISBN 1904288057

All edited by Marie Bourke


(National Gallery of Ireland)
The issues of professionalism and standards have long vexed museum curators in Ireland. Until recently it was not possible to receive training and be awarded a recognised qualification in museum or heritage management except by going abroad to England or elsewhere. For decades museum professionals simply had to learn on the job from colleagues or through trial and error. The profession, largely through the Irish Museums Association, addressed this problem by providing its own training and holding conferences and seminars for those who worked in the heritage industry.

This process of training and professional development within museums and cultural venues is an ongoing one, and the National Gallery of Ireland has provided a valuable contribution in its series of symposiums which bring together recognised experts from home and abroad to discuss various topics of relevance to the profession. The underlying themes of all were the issues of what museums, arts and heritage venues ought to be doing and the standards that they should obtain.

The first symposium (1998) addressed the perennial question of the role of education in museums, arts and heritage venues. For decades museums were viewed primarily as educational institutions but rarely got the resources to properly play an educational role, and when it was recognised that these institutions played a key role in tourism they were promoted as such but again never funded appropriately. This symposium took a broad view of education in museums, bringing together people such as Dr Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, Department of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, Nicole Geshé-Koning, chairperson of Immediate Past ICOM-CECA, and John Dennehy, secretary general of the Department of Education and Science.

From the fundamental question of why do we have museums, the speakers went on to address topics such as the target audience for education, funding, an education policy and the different educational activities. The papers may not have given definite answers to all the questions associated with museums and education but they certainly aired the issues and gave food for thought to professionals in Ireland.

The second symposium (1999) explored further the themes raised in the first by addressing the question of what kind of education service these institutions should provide. It brought together our own experts, such as Marie Bourke, head of education at the National Gallery, and Mike Houlihan, director of Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland, and experts from Britain like Nick Winterbotham of the British National Railway Museum and Sue Wilkinson of the British Museums and Galleries Commission. Lectures addressed issues such as ‘Achieving a quality education service on a tight budget’ and ‘Innovative use of new technologies’. These lectures were complemented by four workshops where participants could discuss the issues in depth and exchange views.

It would be invidious to pick out any one paper for mention; they all bear the hallmark of addressing the issues in an intellectual and informed manner. Theory and principle are accompanied by practical examples and the benefit of personal experience. The contributions, and hence the symposium, succeeded in tackling the issues of professionalism and standards and are therefore an important resource for any curator or director of a museum or any cultural venue.

It is a truism that seems ridiculous to state in print, but the visit is essential to any museum or gallery and constitutes one of their major raisons d’être. Yet despite seeming obvious it is often taken for granted by the museum professional and the visitor alike. The third symposium (2000) was a reality check for all involved. This one followed a similar pattern to the first, with speakers from a variety of institutions discussing how best to enhance the visitor experience with particular regard to modern technology. Marie Bourke again represented the National Gallery, giving an enlightening lecture on the educational potential of cultural institutions. Other speakers included Toby Jackson, head of education at London’s Tate Gallery Modern; Paul Murnaghan, artistic director of ARTHOUSE; and Celia Moore, manager of IBM Corporate Community Relations.

While the emphasis was on the use of information technology to create the virtual visit and the value of websites, interactive technology, etc., all the speakers addressed the issue of what exactly a visit to a museum or gallery should consist of and what the visitor should get out of it. After all, the purpose of such technology must be to enhance the visitor experience and bring out the best that an institution has to offer.

After a one-year gap the 2002 symposium revisited the question of education in museums under the heading of ‘Learning’. The tone was set in a keynote address by Declan Kiberd of University College Dublin, who posed some hard questions for the museum people present about the role and function of museums in this field. These questions were ably addressed by the experts, again from here and the UK, who brought professional and personal experience to bear on such topics as taking learning in museums seriously, interactive displays and education for groups. This symposium might have been in danger of being a rerun of the first on education, but by having different speakers and taking a different approach it succeeded in adding a new dimension to the topic.

A return to basics was evident in the 2003 symposium, which directly addressed the issue of standards under the title of Effective presentation and interpretation in museums. This symposium had a special resonance as it marked the Gallery’s 150th anniversary. In some ways this was a ‘hands-on’ event to the extent that the various speakers called on their experiences of specific exhibitions or projects. Charles Falco, an optical scientist at the University of Arizona, gave a fascinating lecture on a project in conjunction with David Hockney on ‘The art of the science of Renaissance painting’. This was matched by the lecture from Margarita Cappock on Francis Bacon’s studio in the Hugh Lane Gallery, while other speakers recounted working on events such as the ‘Art of the Motorcycle’ exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, and the Ulster Museum’s ‘1798’ and ‘Conflict’ exhibitions (the latter reviewed in History Ireland, Spring 2004).

As stated at the outset, the problems posed by lack of formal training and qualification in the heritage profession were successfully tackled by those in that profession through informal training, conferences and seminars. This series of symposiums at the National Gallery takes that one level further in addressing the fundamental issues at the heart of museums and galleries in an intellectual and practical way, and for that the efforts of Marie Bourke must be applauded. While the general public may find these reports of interest, they are essential reading for anyone working in a museum, gallery or heritage centre.
Tony Canavan


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