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Arts and the Mind

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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard, Boston

I’m spending the month of June as the educator-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The task I’ve set for myself is to produce some guides for interpretive writing about art, to be published here on Museum-Ed. I started the month by watching Arts and the Mind (2012), a two hour public television production about how the arts contribute to healthy and active minds, from childhood to old age. The lovely thing about having a month to work on a pet project is that I actually have time to watch a two-hour documentary, mining it for connections that might be relevant for interpretive writing about art.

A small sidebar: I also teach a museum programming class in the Museum Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, and one of the things I know about teaching is that students learn better when they reflect on their own learning. Not the stuff they are supposed to learn, but how they learn, how they create meaning from the course materials.

So it occurred to me when I was watching the Arts and the Mind, how often do we ask visitors to reflect on their own learning in the museum? Or to put it a better way, to reflect on their own ways of making meaning from what they see in the art museum?

Let me give you an example. In Arts and the Mind, Lisa Kudrow (the host) explains with the help of scientists that one of the brain’s essential functions is overproduction. As our brains develop (and they never stop developing) they produce way more cells and connections than can possibly survive. As un-needed pathways are discovered, they are discarded, and that’s how we wire our brains for future thinking. Involvement in the arts ensures that imagination and creative pathways always remain present. And who doesn’t want lots of imagination and creative pathways?

What if we shared this information with visitors? What if we told them about the art, and what we know about how engaging with art contributes to a healthy and active mind? Could we encourage visitors to think about their own learning, and thus encourage more meaningful insights and connections?

My impression is that this is something science museums do, because learning is somehow naturally “sciency-y.” But maybe there are art or history museums out there that are also already doing this? If so, tell me!

If not, give it some thought.

And I’ll continue to use this blog throughout my residency to reflect on the meanings made from my course of study: interpretive writing about art.

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