Kaija Kaitavuori, Head of education in the Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, Finland




Contemporary art and museum education – experiences from Kiasma

Kaija Kaitavuori


Certain questions have been asked repeatedly in the history of art and answered from various points of view at various times. Some questions, on the other hand, are bound to a particular time. The word 'contemporary' in Contemporary Art signifies that the art is created now, in the present time. It is about the present, about things that are important at this moment. You do not have to agree with the claims Contemporary Art makes or even like it, but what often makes it interesting is the simple fact that the issues and topics it deals with are relevant to our time. The same issues are tackled on countless other forums than just art.


The 'timeless' motifs, of which our own times present their own reading, include our relationship with nature and our corporality. Yet, the particular way in which Contemporary Art deals with nature – Environmental Art – was born out of a totally different idea of nature (and art, for that matter) than the painted landscapes of last century. Performance, which is another form of Contemporary Art, places people and their bodies centre stage – not only the performers but also the viewers. Performance Art offers an opportunity to see how the concept of the human being has changed over time.


In art, artists relate or even express opinions of what the world is like and what it is like to live in it. Art can also be seen as a debate in which viewers can take part. Art can be an opportunity to learn new things through objects created by others, or to look inward, within ourselves. And art can be a way to express ourselves.


Participating and learning

Contemporary Art offers an excellent environment for learning. It puts teacher and student in an equal position where they need to learn together because in Contemporary Art, no one has the right answer and everyone is on an. The genres and themes of Contemporary Art are so varied that they provide material to tackle almost any topic from countless points of view, be it in a school context or self-learning. However, it does demand considerable openness and readiness from the teacher to reconsider old ideas about learning and to deal with topics with students in which the teacher is not an expert.


To learn is to renew and change. Contemporary Art is an excellent opportunity for change because by default it questions, looks at the world differently, upsets established ideas and makes viewers question their own beliefs – it puts us off balance. In a way, art always causes disruption, both physical – especially the making of art – and psychological; it puts things in the 'wrong order' and in the 'wrong places', makes the familiar look strange and the strange look familiar, and disrupts categories and hierarchies.


A state or situation where one does not have sure footing is a creative state. Something new emerges and one gets rid of deep-seated models of thinking and doing. We are in a position to observe our reactions and wonder why we react the way we do. Imbalance obviously has its limits and if equilibrium is shaken too much, there is no improvement but a change for the worse. Art provides a means to retain balance -- it can help us see things differently. In psychotherapy, a similar placing of things within a new framework is known as reframing. The theory was first developed in the 1960s and is applied especially in family and short therapy. Reframing is based on the observation that being able to see things from different points of view is crucial to therapeutic processes and, in general, to cope with the chaos life sometimes offers.


In psychotherapy, this observation has led to the development of a technique that is used to help people to see their situation in new light to solve their problems.


Reframing means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or standpoint of a situation and to place the experience of a situation in a different framework that will alter the meaning of the situation. A kind of a conscious transfer of the issue from one category to another takes place. When the same thing is viewed in a new category, new aspects come to light and gain importance, which alters the way we see reality and react to the situation.


Contemporary Art often comes about through an unexpected and fresh contextualization of an issue. The reception of art can also be seen as a reframing process: we view a work from a different perspective, with different needs, knowledge and experiences. The knowledge and experiences draw attention to particular aspects and make the viewer aware of particular things; interpretations of a work of art from different perspectives emerge and activate different aspects of it. Sharing these viewing experiences with others may give rise to even more ideas and draw attention to further new aspects.



So what does museum education have to do with Contemporary Art? At Kiasma, it focuses more on learning than educating. It provides opportunities and a fruitful ground to discover, experience, understand and learn something new about oneself and the world, via art.


Our various activities are based on two approaches. On the one hand, it is good to know something about Contemporary Art, the basics and background. On the other hand, it is all right to use Contemporary Art for one's own ends, to interpret it and become affected by it without preconceived, 'orthodox' conceptions. This duality is based on the notion that art is both a world of its own with its own traditions and practices and that Contemporary Art is a part of our everyday life of which we all obviously know something. This is why we both offer information on Contemporary Art and tools for personal interpretation.


Obviously, activities cannot be simply divided into information and encouragement to interpret. It is more a question of emphasis and the combination of the two. For instance, at Kiasma we have 'discussion guides' who do not give tours but are available in the exhibition galleries for visitors to approach and ask questions. This is certainly more about encouraging people to view art from their own point of view than conventional guided tours are. The guided tour where a person talks and others listen is so strongly reminiscent of teaching or lecturing – the guide has the knowledge and is willing to pass it on to the visitors – that it is nearly impossible to not cater to expectations and to disrupt the conventional roles. In such circumstances, to activate the audience to interpret independently and share their interpretations is rarely successful and demands hard work. In contrast, a tête-à-tête with a discussion guide is much more equal from the outset, comparable to any discussion between individuals. A discussion guide can actively help visitors to make use of their own experiences and knowledge.


Articles and other texts available in the galleries are a means to provide information on art and artists. Of course, information on an artists and his or her work can also help form a personal relationship with the artwork. In autumn 2000, we conducted a story-crafting project that offered a new dimension of texts available in the galleries. In the project, stories told by children and their interpretations of the artist Olli Lyytikäinen’s paintings were placed in the galleries for visitors to read. Story crafting is a method developed in day-care centres where hierarchy is reversed – children tell their own stories and adults listen. It was adapted to the museum for the same reason; we wanted a reversal, to hear the children’s voice. A similar trick would be useful for adults, too, to make them ‘tell stories’ and be creative about art. Giving an opportunity for different voices to be heard in the context of art exhibitions could of course meet opposition because it challenges the status of museum authorities.


Programme for schools

Kiasma's programme directed at schools has sought a reframing effect by offering art works for use in teaching, where the same work is viewed in different categories and through different classroom subjects. We have encouraged schools to make use of the museum in the curricula of several subjects. We have planned individual events in conjunction with specific exhibitions and created a system whereby schools can form a more long-term relationship with the museum. For example, the Finnish artist Antero Kare came to talk about his exhibition that comprised of mildew to a group of biology students, and students from a philosophy class investigated the problems of writing history in front of a painting by Rafael Rheinsberg that depicts a war-scene and has multiple chronological layers.


To support long-term collaboration with schools, Kiasma has developed a system of school guides. The school guide is picked from Kiasma’s guides for a specific school to make it easier to plan long-term programmes that combine different subjects based on the museum and its offerings. This is a form of cooperation where the guide provides expertise on art and the museum’s programme and the teachers in their own field and students. The purpose is to encourage teachers to work in art museums and use art in their teaching. We have also sought to combine the viewing of art with tasks and more active participation. Kiasma’s workshop is an excellent facility for such activities.


Because Contemporary Art so often provides a platform for addressing the topics of different classroom subjects in a creative and inspiring way, it can offer schools an opportunity to integrate subjects and areas of knowledge that have been needlessly separated. Contemporary Art facilitates a new kind of learning that encourages students (or learners) to improve themselves and take an active role in shaping knowledge.


The museum and its limits

In addition to providing information (guided tours, texts and articles in galleries) and activating visitors to make their own interpretations (discussion guides, story crafting), museum education is public relations work. It focuses attention to the way Contemporary Art is offered to the public and how different audiences can access it. The overall motive is to make all viewers feel more comfortable in the museum and to make sure that all kinds of people get the feeling that the museum is just for them.


Especially concentrating on a particular audience group takes the needs of different audiences into consideration and makes the museum accessible to all members of society. This is why different theme events sometimes attract families with children, and at other times disabled people or perhaps immigrants – people who are not so to speak predestined to come to an art museum which is an institution whose operations are still today often based on the values of a narrow section of Western, well-educated and well-off people. In fact, it is a fairly recent development that children, no matter how 'good' their families, have been welcomed to museums. All programme that takes place outside the museum building itself – virtually or factually –also enlarges the visitor base and at the same time expands the museum concept.


Of course, taking different audiences into consideration requires much more than a special event every now and then. It is hard, long-term work to develop new modes of operation. Our purpose is to enlarge audience inclusion and reinforce their sense of ownership of the museum. Sometimes when working with young people we have made the entire building and the technology it offers available to them for projects that are based on their needs and ideas. At the very least, programmes are drawn up in collaboration. Kiasma’s programme policy is rather permissive in regard to the definition of art, including within it design, techno culture, computer games and graffiti. Opening our doors to youth culture or various subcultures and empowering them sometimes places the museum and its usual audience face to face with very interesting challenges; Kiasma for example has had to take a stand on the legality of graffiti. An audience accustomed to more conventional art has had to learn the new types of visuality of say techno music genres and the related publicity fliers. Sometimes it is the professionals of the artworld and the artists that feel threatened, fearing that amateurs or nerds will take over. All these mini conflicts – and bigger ones, too – have given rise to interesting debates and often revealed unspoken assumptions about Contemporary Art and museums.


Projects made with immigrants whose own culture may not have a museum institution or even art in the sense we understand them have also been inspiring. The way a person coming from a non-Western culture sees an exhibition and understands the overall concept of a museum may be completely at odds with what the person in charge of the exhibition might have expected. This can even lead to a minor conflict.


A recent project with Somali children dealt with two topics where the Islamic and Western views of the world differ. One is the core content of the museum – art and images – and the other is nudity, neither of which could be entirely avoided on visits to Kiasma. Although the concepts of art and image involve prohibitions in Islam, they proved easier to deal with than nudity in the end.


Rejecting nudity is not of course unique to Islam. Nudity is an awkward issue and a taboo even to many Westerners and Christians, in the past and still today. Moreover, criticism of the great number of nude women displayed in art museums has been voiced from within the Western artworld itself! Outside the museum, I myself am not so sure I want to see all those headless Kappahl models advertising g-strings on every metro station.


The museum institution may also be foreign to many immigrants. This is why many of its functions that we take for granted can raise questions. Immigrants' circumstances, possibly worldview and relationship with dominant culture and society differ from those of 'ordinary' museumgoers. Correspondingly, what the museum assumes is its audience does not really consist of people with for instance a Somali background. As new audiences come to the museum, it has to rethink its practices: the roles the museum assigns to its visitors and the clarity of its message about what it wants the visitors to do – beginning with the cloakroom and ticket desk. Clarifying often unwritten rules in a subtle manner can mean a lot to a self-conscious visitor. Sometimes it is necessary to convey a special encouraging message about how welcome the visitor is.


Analysing and 'resolving' such situations, learning to know a new culture and building trust demand a lot of work, time and study. Improving practices requires a systematic effort and eventually a debate about principles that concern the entire museum. We could be confronted with the question "who will give way when beliefs and values are in conflict?" How far should a museum reach out to people – should nudes be hidden away or should people just learn to accept them, should the museum revise its practices or should people be left on their own to activate themselves as culture consumers?


The interface between the museum and its visitors is constantly negotiated. Unfortunately, groups do not always have equal positions in these negotiations; minorities have of course the lower hand – the dominant culture sets the conditions and would prefer newcomers to toe the line or hold their tongues. An unyielding stance, however, can destroy contact and make a museum lose a potential group of visitors. But it is also important that we uphold the principle that art does not serve political or economic ends. This freedom is something special and unique and allows art to function as a forum for different values and views. Unrelenting testing of boundaries and constant self-reflection are in my opinion vital to a museum of Contemporary Art. Museum education offers a handy tool to do this, if we are willing to use it.


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