Thursday, 15 January 2015

Study rooms

I am looking at a problem: my final-year seminar this term is scheduled to run from 4.00-6.00pm on Tuesday afternoon. In many ways this is a good slot since students don't have to rush off to another class, and as a result the atmosphere is relaxed. I work in London and we're not short of places to visit: within half an hour we have seven - no, eight - world-class permanent collections featuring work from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, not to mention sites such as the Banqueting House, and private galleries such as Lowell Libson. Almost all of the public galleries close at 6.00 so visiting them as a class is not a problem. So why am I unhappy?

The Strang Print Room, University College London.
The two places I really want to take my students - our University art collection, and the Prints and Drawings Room at the British Museum, are both unavailable. The Prints and Drawings room at the British Museum closes its doors to visitors at 4.00pm, meaning that we have to change the class time if we want to visit, and this is hard to do at the best of times. The University art museum is undergoing refurbishment and access is very restricted (the collections are partly open thanks to heroic efforts from staff, but it's unavailable for a class in-situ). Other study rooms such as Tate's prints and drawings room also close much earlier than the galleries - to allow time to clear up, I should think.

Colleagues in Aberdeen or Australia (or indeed anywhere else) may be less than sympathetic to my plight! But I will be persistent: my students are being deprived of the chance to look closely at prints and drawings from the period.

In fact it's this 'look closely' thing that I'm most bothered about. The most exciting time I had with artworks as a student was looking at Hogarth's prints in the British Museum, and I know that some of the most memorable experiences my own students have had have been in similar situations. But why should the time I spent in a prints and drawings room as a student have been more memorable than time I spent in galleries?

A report on study center learning published by Harvard's Project Zero offers one part of the answer. Having spoken to a lot of visitors, read a lot of literature and looked closely at two study rooms at Harvard Museums, the authors suggested that the reason the study rooms were exciting places was that in the study room the rare and beautiful becomes complex and engaging.

Complex knowledge doesn’t inhere to objects, it is a quality of mind, and one way study centers encourage it is by evoking in visitors a set of cognitive expectations—expectations that profoundly shape the way they look and think about the objects in front of them. [1]

There are three expectations that the authors said were particularly important:
  • visitors expect to spend more time in the study room than in the galleries to which the study room is attached. 
  • visitors expect to attend closely to the objects, by being able to look carefully, handle them, ask questions, use reference works on hand, all sitting down and in their own time.
  • visitors expect to learn from their experience.
The contrast with painting or sculpture galleries is stark! As a rule you can't touch, ask, look up, or sit down in a gallery. There are no tables to think at and work on. Interpretation panels and grand settings tend to reinforce the message that meaning is to be sought from the experts rather than our own experience: as Carol Duncan might say, rituals are there to reinforce, not to transform.

Now you might think that a class visit to a study room would undermine these expectations and make the experience more like that of visiting a gallery. In a class you have less time, you're less free to pursue your own agenda, and you expect to learn from the teacher rather than yourself. All this is true. The kind of complex knowledge that the Harvard study talks about is the result of personal engagement, and this can be hard to foster in a large - or even a small - group.

But I think the real value of a class visit to a study room is that it introduces the students to the space, inducts them in the ways of working there, and invites them to come back. A first (class) visit to our University art collection or a gallery study room will probably include a short explanation of the rules from the curator (bags over there, wash your hands, pencils only, etc). This might seem forbidding but it gives them some autonomy since they know what to do if they come on their own. A bit of self-study time in a class session, for example twenty minutes to look at an object, ask questions from the curator, and look something up, means students will get a sense of what's possible in a study room and may prompt them to come again. A visit early on in the course, and some thought from the lecturer about how students may use the collections in their coursework, could prompt some students to come back and have a really rich and memorable experience.

So this is my problem! I'll try and think of solutions, and post in another blog.

[1] From a summary of the report:, p.8.

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