Visual Thinking Strategy in the Art Museum Club

by Mari Viita-aho

This time the Art Museum Club takes place in Kiasma. We have come to see the exhibition Ars Fennica and gathered our chairs in front of a painting. First, we look it in a silence for a while before discussion.

Camilla Vuorenmaa: Chamber, 2017 (detail, photo: Mari Viita-aho)

Me: “So okay, what do you think, what’s going on in this picture?”

Partipant 1: “There are two flamingos in the pond.”

Me: What makes you say they are flamingos?”

P1: “Because they have red or pinkish on their beaks, which is the same colour that flamingos have.”

Me: What else can you find?

P2: There is a pond or a lake and on ashore there are two men dancing. I think they are Finnish adult pop stars Matti and Teppo!

Me: Really? What makes you say that?

P2: It’s because they’re happy and dancing, and also about the same height with each other. They remind me of Matti and Teppo. I think they live in the cottage (…)

Conversation goes on about experiences of music, singers, and Africa, which is presumed by the group to be the settings for this picture. Also, we linger in the idea of the whole room, “The Chamber”, and think about things we know about Egypt, pyramids, graves and death.

In this tour, guides (or instructors) don’t elaborate backgrounds or working styles of the artists. On the contrary, the idea is to concentrate in the viewer, viewer’s knowledge, feelings and associations, and on the issues rising from them. This conversational, participant-centered approach is called Visual Thinking Strategy (VTS) and it’s based on a long-term studies of cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen and museum educator Phillip Yenawine. At the past year, we have been experimenting with the method in the Art museum club.

Visual Thinking Strategy is based on three questions, which are asked when looking at the image. First one of them: “What’s going on in the picture?”, directs the attention of the group to a selected part of the image. Often, we leave things taken for granted unsaid, only assuming, everyone shares a similar insight of them. Many times this is not the case and it’s surprising to hear, how differently people see things.

The second question, “What makes you say that?”, encourages the viewer to think about her own reasoning: what particular thing in the image led into this interpretation? This simple question steers to observe and to discuss about the hidden clues in the image, details which can be bypassed easily. This is the actual learning point on the visual reading. For example, we have been drawn into discussions about how different painting styles can produce sometimes even opposite impressions. Or, what things are instinctively connected to certain colours or shapes.

The third question, “What more can you find?” is about starting the circle again, digging deeper and widening the conversation further.

Conversation with Tuukka Kaila about his art works in the Finnish Museum of Photography (Photo: Mari Viita-aho)

Instructor’s role is to keep the conversation going, make verbal summaries about the discussion and to make sure, everyone can follow it. When explanations are expressed, the instructor paraphrases them back to interpreters, and to the rest of the group. On the one hand, this is to give a chance to correct or specify the interpretation, but also to confirm, the viewers insight is heard and understood.

Paraphrasing of visual interpretations back to the group seems to somehow build distance between the interpretation and the interpreter. This directs the discussion more to consider the possibility of different ways of looking at images, and guides farther from assuming one, appropriate way of looking and interpreting. Thus one benefit of the paraphrasing is, that it empowers the particular visual reading, while at the same time stresses the validity of other explanations as well. This builds curious, investigative, and democratic atmosphere to the conversation.

VTS has been mostly used in schools or other student groups. In addition, some art museums have had tours with it. Art Museum Club’s experiments with the VTS will continue this spring.

Do you have experience with the VTS? If you want to share or discuss about the method, please feel free to contact me!


Some further readings on VTS:

Abery, Nicola. Learning to Live/Looking to Learn: A Visual Thinking Strategies Survey. In Abery, Nicola. The New Museum Community: Audiences, Challenges, Benefits : A Collection of Essays. Edinburgh: MuseumsEtc, 2010.

Yenawine, Philip. Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Discipline. Cambridge: Harvard education press, 2013.

Where Are the Borders? Call for papers

Nordic museums profile themselves in the international museum field through a common vision of museums as institutions that support individual and community identity work; that support reconstruction of active citizenship, and that create space for multicultural discussions. Their task is to transcend the borders.Nordisk museumsförbundFinland (the Nordic Museum Association Finland) and Museum Studies, University of Helsinki welcome you to the conference:


(Conference pages also available in Swedish)

Nordic countries are considered to be prime examples of good cooperation and neighbourly relations. However there are, and have been, many different kinds of borders as well. Historically, we have fought for national borders and self-determination. Today we have cultural borders, different ethnic groups, and language barriers. Emigration has been a major phenomenon and migration within and between the Nordic countries continues. Immigration, marginalization and polarization are major social issues in all Nordic countries. Social class and gender can also create borders.
Museums can be a facilitator and forum for crossing borders. What do the historical and cultural borders and neighboring relations mean for Nordic museum operations and collections? Are there also museological borders? Where are the borders for the individual employee? What about power and ethics?
• Are there borders also within and between museums?
• How are borders defined in an art museum or in a cultural history museum, for example?
• Which border phenomena have visibility?
• How do these borders affect the collections? What new borders arise during the musealization process?
• Where are the borders between knowledge and entertainment? Is there room for scientific work?
• Can museums decide their borders for themselves? To what extent are the borders determined by the public and different interest groups?
• What challenges do the Nordic vision encounter in the 2020s?

We welcome presentations from both theoretical and practical viewpoints. Students and early carrier scholars are also encouraged to participate. Our aim is to create dialogue between today’s and future museology and its practitioners.


Curator Áile Aikio, Siida the National museum of the Finnish Sámi, Inari, Finland
Museum Director, PhD, Sanne Houby-Nielsen, The Nordic Museum, Stockholm, Sweden
Professor Simon Knell, Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK

Presentations can take the form of a PowerPoint presentation, a panel debate or a poster. We also welcome suggestions for other forms of presentation. Please state in your abstract the type of presentation you are aiming for. The length of a PowerPoint presentation is 15 minutes, and panel debate 40 minutes. A panel should consist of a moderator and max 3 other discussants from at least 2 different countries.

Submitting paper proposals

The length of the abstract proposal is max 400 words, and should contain the presentation title and 3–10 key words. Please submit paper proposals by February 2nd, 2018 using the EasyChair Submission page. The submission page opened December 4th, 2017, and closes February 2nd, 2018. There is also help available in submitting your text using EasyChair. Approved abstracts will be publicized on the conference webpage and programme. Any questions should be sent to the conference email-adress:

Important dates

Deadline for abstract submission: February 2nd, 2018
Accepted proposals will be notified by March 31st, 2018.
Registration starts by April 4th, 2018
Early bird registration deadline: June, 3rd, 2018