What if… we embraced the out of context?

I’m an art historian. I love history and anthropology and getting deep into what an object means to a person in a specific place at a specific time. But what if we threw all that out the window?

We already know that every visitor brings to their museum visit an entire day, week, year, lifetime of experiences. From the great parking spot they found to the traffic on the bridge. From Malaysian adventure they’re dreaming of to the horrid field trip they had in 3rd grade. Every visitor sees the collection through their own eyes, in this moment.

Nothing reminded me of this quite as much as watching the #MuseumBowl unfold on Twitter. This week, the Seattle Art Museum wagered a 3 month loan of their Bierstadt for a 3 month loan of the Clark Institute’s Homer…  depending on who’s team loses the Superbowl this weekend. And if that wasn’t enough, they took to Twitter to hurl delightfully sacrilegious insults back and forth, with the MFA Boston jumping in with blows of their own!



And my personal favorite #deflategate reference:


Many folks disapprove of this kind of play. Especially when it involves Photoshopping Pat’s jerseys onto George Washington or a football into Paul Revere’s hand.

I think it’s a valid pedagogy—just well disguised.

The action is no different from the Gardner Museum’s oft-repeated VTS example: a child looks at a painting of the Virgin Mary, examines her expression, her pose and concludes that she has a vibrating cell phone in her pocket. The child is doing everything we ask: looking closely and confidently describing what she sees, with supporting visual information from the painting. The only difference is that her prior knowledge is very different from ours.

When it’s a child, the Virgin Mary, and a cellphone, we get it. But I think the problem is more widespread. Yesterday, I led a looking exercise using Breaking Barriers, a show of Japanese women printmakers post-1950 for a group of teachers. We were constantly checking our context, even in a piece from the 1980s. Is Japanese lithography the same as American? What are the connotations of cinnabar that we don’t know. Or of the title, Antiquity?

Especially as adult learners, these anxieties are exactly what get in the way of visual literacy. We’re too afraid to make a mistake or sound stupid to start thinking, reasoning, and meaning making.

In something like the #MuseumBowl, you don’t need to know the context of Oldenburg’s soft sculptures to get the #deflategate joke. You need a different context altogether: the iconography of the teams, the faces of the players, the inside banter and vocabulary and imagery. Suddenly, you’re empowered. You jump past that anxiety of what it means, or what the artist intended. Your ability to make meaning is validated.

And that’s exactly what we saw that happening on Twitter. Individual, non-museum affiliated users started adding their own burns. This user, Larry, added at least five.


So, beyond the Superbowl, how could this influence our museum teaching?

This activity could happen in a museum. On a tour. Send kids into the galleries and ask them to photograph their school, their favorite sport, their walk home: anything that they could not actually find, then bring them back together and share out in turn. Ask adults to find and Tweet or Instagram their opinions on upcoming elections, their winners of ugly sweater contests, their worst first dates.

The only conditions of a prompt would be (1) something that cannot literally be found and (2) is a context from which at least your target audience can work. For adults in particular, the ask matters too. What made #MuseumBowl so successful, as an educator, was its ability to model. So the ask should be a stream of images which show, and therefore encourage, close looking, out of the box thinking, and the stripping away of original contexts.

Let’s try it. Let’s dig through our local newspapers, let’s listen to what our friends are talking about over beers, watch for the next new Tumblr sensation. Let’s embrace these “out of contexts” contexts!

What do you think?


One thought on “What if… we embraced the out of context?

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