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! firstname.lastname@example.org
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.