Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Ponies, Food and Colour


Mini detective, Jetseschool, 10 January 2012 © Foam

When I was in primary school I was obsessed with ponies. I read all the books on horses from my village library I could lay my hands on. I devoured every piece of information I could find on the subject. In magazines and newspapers any image with ponies on them could count on my undivided attention. In museums any painting or sculpture featuring ponies were immediately studied and questioned in great detail. I confess, I was a pony-girl.


I am glad to say that later in life my visual interests broadened, but until this day I have a weak spot for any image with ponies or horses on them.  My eye is simply drawn to them and I have to give that image or object a closer look.

The other day I walked through the museum and overheard a discussion between a group of 6 year olds visiting our current Joel Sternfeld  exhibition. With their museum teachers they looked and discussed the work and tried to make sense of the images they encountered. It was a pleasure to see how even these six year olds saw very different things in the same images. Their observations were spontaneous and very personal.

Researchers Falk and Dierking made a basic point in their influential book, Learning from Museums. It is the notion that conversation is a primary mechanism for the construction of knowledge and personal meaning. These 6 year olds were doing nothing else. Later on the group was asked to choose their favourite work from the exhibition, a work so special they would like to hang it above their beds. One boy explained his choice to his classmates. "This photograph if my favourite because there is al lot of food on it and I am very hungry right now". Another girl said, "I chose this photograph as my favourite because the girl on it is wearing the same beautiful pink colour as I am". Several other wonderful preferences, personal obsessions and interests came to light.

Another notion Falk and Dierking describe is so basic that its value is often overlooked. It is the idea that visitors to museums do not come to the museum as a blank slate.  They come with a wealth of previously acquired knowledge, interests, skills, beliefs, attitudes and experiences. All of which combine to affect not only how they interact with the photographs but also what meaning they make of such experiences.

These personal ingredients make sure the same image can have a thousand different meanings for  museum visitors.  In conversation with others your own meanings can merge with the meaning of others and become richer and more in-depth. Ponies can combine with food or beautiful colours. Celebrating the diversity of personal obsessions, prior knowledge and interests in discussions about photography helps visitors to engage with art in a meaningful way.

Renske de Groot

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