Today, the public in the United States considers museums as the most reliable source of information (American Alliance of Museums, 2021). This “educational-as-information-based” orientation and institutional status, that is reflected in peoples’ beliefs, stems from museums’ historically consistent interest in education. The top-down transfer of information that sees museum visitors as empty vessels that are passively filled up with information, is what Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire, parent of critical pedagogy, described as the “banking model” (“modelo bancário de educação”). Augusto Boal, Brazilian activist and theater practitioner, parent of the Theater of the Oppressed, building on Freire’s work on critical pedagogy, saw participants as spect-actors, learners who are actively engaged in the process of knowing. Roxana Ng, an activist, scholar and well regarded thinker of decolonial pedagogy argues that the core of a pedagogy that sees the learner holistically, as an embodied entity of emotions, body, spirit and mind calls for an interdisciplinary approach that expands beyond current epistemological and ontological norms and traditions (Ng R., 2018, p.33).
The majority of museum leaders, practitioners, workers, artists, and thinkers, would argue today that Museum Education goes beyond a transmission of information. Yet, when adults visit an art museum today, the opportunities they have to be engaged are based on discursive modes (tours, labels, talks) and the Eurocentric-colonial concept of the body-mind binary, that privileges the intellect (the mind) and places the body in the background of the learning experience. At the same time, adult programming in art museums is mainly situated in the galleries, framed spatially and temporarily. While there are certainly significant exceptions to this norm, Museum Education, or more accurately “education-learning-knowing” in museums and galleries, is based on the pedagogy of disembodiment. An array of decisions, practices and discourses reflect, sometimes implicitly, the agenda of the neoliberal museum, still attached to the Eurocentric-colonial ways of knowing and being.
With the goal to contribute to the decolonial praxis in Museum Education, I propose a pedagogy that is not framed exclusively in the galleries, and acknowledges the whole self of the visitor as a body-mind-spirit entity. A body based pedagogy (BBP) in the galleries, is a pedagogy of encounters, affect and friction that disrupts colonial practices in the museum, supporting authentic encounters in the museum space.
The Niche of Art Museum Education
Museums, as complex spaces of learning, offer to the visitors possibilities of becoming; a plethora of encounters with the artworks, the often imposing architecture, the lighting, the labels and written texts, the surrounding environment and of course, other people (visitors and museum workers).
All the aforementioned entities of these encounters coexist in museum spaces; therefore, the learning is not exclusively situated in a gallery. Rather, it expands spatially and temporally. Therefore, the encounter of the self (as a body-mind-spirit entity), and the artwork is not a closed system; it is an ongoing relationship stretched in space-time, shaped from an array of factors, such as the interactions with personal beliefs of what a museum is or can be, the architecture, collections, visual information and other people. As scholar, educator, and cultural worker in the fields of visual culture, pedagogy and collaborative arts practices, Aida Sánchez de Serdio argues that « […] education may be better understood as a pedagogy of encounter, a space for the emergence critical discourses and practices, for the production of difference, and for an encounter in which politics, aesthetics, knowledge, and affects intertwine in problematic ways» (Sánchez A., 2018, p.155).
The process of learning, as Sánchez described it, is also a state during which the self is «a becoming, an emergence, and continually in the making» with «Mind/ brain/ body meld with objects, spaces, and times» (Ellsworth E., 2015, p. 99). In Places of Learning, scholar Elizabeth Ellsworth adds multiple dimensions in the learning situated in spaces like museums, while stating that these very dimensions and ideas of affect, emotion, body, subjectivity, and the ephemeral – which are fundamental elements of the learning process – have been overlooked for years in the learning process, considered as feminine (2005, p. 2).
While learning in museums is quite complex and multifaceted, typically Museum Education is connected and limited to the artworks and exhibitions in the galleries, defined by the visitors’ presence, that is, during programs that last as long as the visitors’ bodies are present. Besides this temporal and spatial framing of educational practice in museums, there is also a hierarchical one: the educational programing always follows the curatorial vision, coming after any decision related to the exhibition.
The spatial and temporal problematic framing of the educational practice in museums, the obsession on the discursive, and the awkward uncertainty of which of the museum workers gets to have an educational practice – while by contrast, the role and function of curatorial work is straightforward and guarded – are the main pillars of the pedagogy of disembodiment.
This forced situatedness of museum education becomes fuzzier as educational practices today have expanded to non-educators, labeled in many cases as public programming. Janna Graham, Valeria Graziano and Susan Kelly argue that the Educational Turn, in the 90s, blurred in problematic ways the relatively new niche of art museum education, by allowing curators and non-educators to create educational initiatives within the museum, always based on the discursive. This expansion of the museum education practice happened «at the same time as the intense neo-liberalization of higher and museum and gallery-based education across Europe» (Graham, Graziano, Kelly, 2016, p. 29) and added to a pedagogy of disembodiment, «a practice of detachment, the consumption of knowledge and the attribution of its place away from the ‘tending to common affairs’ of democratic agency» (ivi., p. 32). Curatorial talks, panels, forums and discursive-based public programming increased while «museum and gallery education departments, many with important radical democratic and feminist traditions, received funding cuts» (ivi., p. 30). This loan of educational practices, with the exclusion of the educators in their process, is just another manifestation of the neoliberal reality of the museum, the authors say. As a result, educators’ historical practice on social justice, and democratic engagement is diminished – another temporal and spatial restriction of museum education. Public programming based on the discursive and designed by non-educators generates more distance between the élite and the community the museum serves.
The Museum of Disembodiment
In order to better illuminate the complexity of the learning that takes place in a museum, and the practice of disembodiment throughout a museum visit, I share three instances of anecdotal evidence that took place in museums and galleries in Europe and North America. While these stories have some fictional elements, they are based on personal lived experiences that I had as a visitor. The specificities of each anecdotal story are blurred; I have deliberately omitted specific information about each museum as my intent is to illuminate the complexity of learning experience situated in these museums and discuss the embedded act of disembodiment caused by the body-mind binary.
Seeing the museum holistically, as a contact zone and an institutional entity, enables us to better understand and deconstruct the situatedness of museum education (Clover, Darlene et al., 2016).
Just Like the Parthenon! Feeling small, and the Euphoria of Place
I am standing in front of a renowned art museum, waiting for my friends. The stairs leading to the entrance seem to be made of marble. People are sitting, taking photos, resting, while others are just enjoying the sunny day. Even though I have visited the museum numerous times in the past, this time I choose to slow down as I am not alone. It is my friends’ first time and I want to follow their pace. As they arrive, one of my friends points to the huge, imposing and marble-like columns and says: “Wow, these columns are just like the ones we have in the Acropolis!”. I am intrigued by this observation and I ask what this architecture makes them feel in order to bring awareness to the moment. “Well, this all is spectacular, no doubt.” I keep pushing and asking more questions, as I am curious to learn what is underneath this excitement. She finally opens up: “I don’t know much about art, but they do”, she thinks for a moment, and continues: “this is how all museums look like, right?”.
The group of visitors stand in awe in front of the Greek Roman architecture, and while excited, they clearly feel “less” in the context of art, placing the museum people as the ones who bear knowledge. They somehow connect this power dynamic with the imposing architecture that is “no doubt” bold, and positions the visitor as inferior, as the one who knows less. They will enter the museum space with a self that to some extent is intimidated by the imposing architecture and with the underlying agenda of passive participation, while as visitors, they will absorb information from “the ones who know.” Ellsworth writes on the affairs of affect, bodies and architecture: «Likewise, architecture consists not only in the uses and meanings of buildings and spaces. In architectural spaces, bodies have affective somatic responses (Grosz & Eisenman, 2003, p. xiv), and these responses arise out of the assemblage (mind/ brain/ body/ building) that is the time and space of a building’s inhabitation» (p. 4).
This positionality towards one’s ownership on learning is reflected in the public’s idea that museums are the most reliable source of information.
Claire Bishop underlines how the architecture of museums impacts visitors’ experience. Bishop blends art history with performance and participation, recognizing the influence of contemporary museums and their architecture, arguing that these buildings cause an «euphoria of the space» (2013, p. 5), a dominant feeling that penetrates the visitors’ museum and gallery visits. The idea of euphoria caused by a bold architecture (contemporary or classical) plays clearly with the power dynamics in cultural institutions such as museums, placing encounters with the self, others, the art and the community in the background. The visitors step into the museum with a binary attitude of they-us, a dynamic that perpetuates hierarchies in museums and cultural institutions. As my friend spontaneously shared, “they know”, confirming that she will experience the museum as a passive learner as the museum staff are the ones who know, and therefore have a voice.
Creating educational opportunities, without incorporating what the architecture and the surrounding environments communicate to the visitors, produces asymmetrical cases of learning, where the museum educator is included in the projected power of the imposing and dominating. These opportunities of pseudo-participation (Freire, p.27) are consistent with the pedagogy of disembodiment. During a disembodied museum experience, the visitor wanders around the galleries encountering artworks with an engaged mind and a “contemplative body,” embodying norms from the authoritarian museum (Illeris, 2016, p. 156). As Freire and Paul advocated for a committed involvement in educational practices with a co-creation of knowledge that centers the body of the participants, museum education should acknowledge how imposing architecture affects the visitors’ body, mind, and spirit.
It is what it is: Hierarchies and Curatorial Narratives
We are a rather small group. All strangers to each other, we are here for the tour. The guide is an energetic, passionate person who welcomes everyone with a big smile. He informs us that the tour will start shortly, and he kindly asks if we are visiting the city for the first time and if we have been to the museum before.
During the tour, the educator checks in with us often to verify if we are tired from standing and walking. At every stop, he gives us some context about a painting and why the curator decided to incorporate that specific artwork to this exhibition. After repeating a couple of times the phrase “the curator wanted to…”, I am intrigued to ask him whose narrative we are examining. It seems I was not the only one feeling a disconnection, as another visitor takes the lead: “But why is this artwork about immigration? I don’t get it.” The gallery educator pauses and thinks for a second; he responds: “Well, what the curator saw in this painting was…”.
In this anecdote, the tour guide/educator is centering our experience around the artworks and particularly the story the curator had in mind. He repeats at the end: “well, what the curator saw in this painting was…”. The rest of the sentence and the scene are of little importance.
Two things are striking here. First, the domination of the curatorial narrative and the subtle yet powerful hierarchies, also confirmed in the perception of architectural power in the first vignette. In most museums, the educational programing follows the curatorial vision, coming after any decision related to the exhibition (Clover, Darlene et al., 2016, p. VIII). This linear conception of museum education and educational practice perpetuates the power dynamics at play in the museum space where the person who holds knowledge is the curator, the museum educator is the translator, and the museum visitor is the receiver of the information. This environment of asymmetry was also apparent during the first anecdote, where the visitor felt “less” in comparison with the ones who work in the museum. As my friend shared in other words, “they know”.
The second point this vignette is offering for examination, is the discursive focused gallery engagement. During this tour, the museum educator was using language to share information and in some cases was directing our attention to labels – language based information, too. While several museums are offering different engaging opportunities for adults in various formats, the core pedagogical idea is that of dialogue and verbal communication, that follows and accompanies the act of seeing.
In scholarship, “dialogue,” “discussion,” and “inquiry” are terms used to describe language-based programming with a different degree of freedom in terms of the visitors’ active participation (Hubard, 2015; Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). While encounters with art and engagement in the galleries for adults stay within the discursive sphere, engagement that activates the body is described as an “activity” in scholarship, and in most cases makes up only a segment of the tour and the overall experience. The choice of the word “activity” is problematic and in consistency with the acts of disembodiment, as it implies the short life span of the activation of the body placing it as an additional event, something that is not mandatory but an extra. The wording of activity supports the dichotomy of mind-body in museum education.
In the anecdote described above, the body-spirit as a learning capacity exists in the background, with the educator noting sometimes whether we feel comfortable or not. During this pedagogical practice, the body is seen as something important only because it supports the head. We were asked if we got tired, only because the body is the vessel of the mind.
You can’t do that! Behaving in Museums
The gallery is relatively quiet. I am standing in front of a painting with a colleague (who is a dancer and educator). “This is my favorite,” he shares. We stand still, appreciating the moment of sharing and the artwork itself. “You know, since I was a child, every time I see this work, I want to move,” he says. Before I respond, he expands his body in space; his hands are wide open and his legs support his torso beautifully. He takes a spin as he says “I can’t help it, you know?”. I smile as I found this response being equally beautiful as the painting, “I know,” I say. With my peripheral vision I observe the other visitors. They are surprised (as I am), and some profoundly annoyed. The guards are on their toes, but they stay in an observant state as we know that we did not do anything inappropriate. While we walk to the next gallery, I hear a whisper “Yeah, I am pretty sure they are not allowed to do that.”
This anecdote also illuminates the obsession on the intellect, the social norms and the power dynamics in the galleries that create disembodiment. As in the anecdote with the tour guide and his commitment to the curatorial narrative, the act of disembodiment is manifested in many ways. This detachment from the emotional, spiritual and affectional world is stemming from the «Eurocentric epistemologies [that] have long privileged the faculty of sight over all other senses» (Carter J., 2016, p. 8). The effect of dominating architecture on visitors’ learning selves does not stop after visitors enter the museum. This power is enforced by rules posted on signs and labels that read “Do not touch” and “Be quiet”.
In her book Museum Bodies, art historian Helen Rees Leahy presents moments and actions within museums that forced museum visitors to act accordingly and behave. Leahy delves deeper in the embodied norms that museums over the years have instilled in visitors through the control and calibration of looking (2016). She writes: «The eye of the practiced museum spectator is always embodied within a repertoire of actions that reflect and respond to the space of display, the conditions of viewing and the presence of other spectators… Peter de Bolla adds that, ‘a pose, a gesture, an attitude, or posture – somatic embodiments of the viewing position’ could signify the competence of the spectator and affirm their participation within ‘the culture of visibility» (Leahy H., 2016, p.6).
What Leahy describes, is clearly manifested in the you can’t do that anecdote. My colleague responds with movement to a painting, disrupting what is considered as appropriate for a gallery visitor, challenging other viewers’ perceptions on seeing and being in the galleries. He is engaged, he is learning with his whole self, with the artwork, his memories, his body, mind and spirit, with me. My colleague finds the act of seeing as ordered by the colonial museum as not enough, therefore he takes action. He responds to what he sees disrupting the norms of the museum.
Scholars have further studied the act of seeing as an act with limitations and implications on visitors’ experiences. Theater worker and scholar Jill Carter (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi), argues that colonial scopophilia, the act of seeing as a pleasurable experience that stays on the surface, is an extension of extraction and hegemonic violence, situated in the galleries (Carter J., 2020). In order to combat the act of seeing as a passive absorption of information, Carter defends the significance of visitors’ bodies. Being present in the galleries and learning with an active body is a generous act, Carter argues (2020, p.17). An active body for Carter is a body that is witnessing and not just seeing. Seeing is an act equivalent to consumption and passive digestion denying any connection and responsibility.
While Carter specifically addresses exhibitions that portray Indigenous peoples, the act of seeing as a controlled action within the galleries aligns with Leahy’s discussion of how a trained museum visitor is experiencing the museum through the act of passive seeing. Carter defines meaningful museum encounters, those of active visitors, whose body becomes «the vessel on which that history is written and transmitted» (Carter J., 2020, p. 19). These active visitors are engaged through their whole self, with a conscious presence beyond the spectacle.
Body Based Pedagogy
The three previous anecdotes are a strata of an adult’s museum experience; while each one of them offer a plethora of opportunities for a thorough analysis, I analyze them by taking just the first layer that is consistent with the act of disembodiment in art museums.
In this last anecdotal evidence, I share a moment from a workshop I did a couple of years ago. In this instance, I was not just a museum visitor. I personally designed and facilitated the whole experience. The workshop was completely based on visitors’ whole self as a body-mind-spirit, acknowledging encounters with the surroundings, the art and each other. Throughout the workshop, the participants were engaged through and with their bodies, amplifying their capacities to disrupt and unlearn traditional Eurocentric schemes of learning.
Oops, I guess yeah…: Encounters Through and With the Body-Mind-Spirit
All the participants who attend my workshop on embodiment in the galleries, form a circle. Working with Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, I ask the participants to form groups of four or five and improvise by showing us what would happen in this painting if it was to come to life.
Taking turns, all of the groups share their improvisational response while everyone else watches. A group of four (3 identified as female and one as male) present the following scene: in the bar, a guy is having a glass of wine with his female companion, and a barwoman is serving them. I notice the fourth member of the group who is not participating yet; she is wearing a hijab, looking lost. Suddenly, she makes an engine noise, as she pretends to drive a vehicle; she crashes into the glass window, killing everyone, including herself.
All the participants, including myself, are in shock. I instantly look around to see how the full group is responding. I can see some people whispering, some seem upset; a few days before, a terror attack similar to what the team presented was in the news. I jump in quickly and I start asking questions. It will be helpful for everyone to understand, to some extent, how this team worked and what processes they followed. As the team describes the way they worked, the only male of the group dominates the discussion sharing that he himself came up with the scenario and the roles distribution: “Oops, I guess yeah, we did it because I said so”. To this statement, silence follows. Even though there is much room for interpretation for what just happened, I am not rushing to jump to the next team and I choose silence to just be.
While in this anecdote there is more to explore and consider, it is a great opportunity to see how our thoughts, beliefs, ways of knowing and understandings of the world are expressed through and with our body. It is also apparent how movement, drama and theater can inform museum pedagogies – beyond a disciplinary approach – and help participants minimize the distance between their mind and their body, expose the inner self and make it available and tangible.
This specific anecdote demonstrates (among others) how imbalances of power have been internalized in visitors’ personhoods. The artwork becomes the entry point for the encounter of the self (as a body-mind-spirit), the surroundings and the others. Roxana Ng argues that the dynamics of power (like the ones unraveled in the anecdote above) are enacted on both intellectual and body-spiritual level. «Most intellectual encounters entail a confrontation of bodies, which are differently inscribed. Power plays are both enacted and absorbed by people physically, as they assert or challenge authority, and the marks of such confrontations are stored in the body» (Ng R., 2018, p. 34).
The participants in this workshop had the opportunity to exist in the museum space through and with their bodies, while encountering their surroundings, the art, the others and their inner self. The artwork became the entry point for a study of the self, systems of imbalance and oppression, also manifested in the museum space. Wagner, Riyad and Shahjahan argue that «embodied pedagogy further challenges artificial constructions of the mind–body split and has the potential to deconstruct thinking steeped in Eurocentric paradigms and unexamined systems of privilege» (Wagner, Riyad, Shahjahan, 2015, p. 252).
This anecdote offers one more interesting observation. While the workshop was explicitly focusing on the activation of the body, the workshop itself was a flash event, an irregular happening: even though there was an underlying claim of celebrating and manifesting the body, the event itself did not belong in a regular programing embedded in the core pedagogies and mannerisms of the museum. It existed in the periphery of the curriculum, which implies that the museum sees embodied pedagogies as an additional practice, an event that can happen rarely and not on a daily basis.
At the same time, the activation of the body came from a guest (myself), a non-museum worker, an outsider. Someone could argue that here the museum is pedagogically brave, going beyond the traditional educational approaches to museum education in favor of one that is inclusive and experimental. While there is some truth to this statement, the fact that the museum hires someone to facilitate activations of the body sends the signal of perceiving body-based pedagogies as externally handled issues, not worthy to be part of the core pedagogy of the museum, manifested on its daily encounters with the visitors.
A pedagogy that respectfully activates the body in museums, and engages the whole self of the visitors as a body-mind-spirit, is in most cases nonexistent, sporadic, occasional and fragmental, while the obsession and commitment to the discursive is a given. Art museum educator and scholar Olga Hubard, writes: «Discursive language, in both its written and spoken forms, has been the dominant mode in formal education for centuries. In fact, some people have become accustomed to thinking of words as the sole carriers of “true” knowledge. Perhaps for this reason, non-discursive modes of mediation are not always given the seriousness they deserve –at times, this is even true in the art museum» (2015, p. 125).
When the body is activated in museums, the event is seen as an activity, a segment in the experience, a limited action in space and time, or an external affair which also leaves the lingering question of the binary unresolved.
When expanding the hierarchical, temporal and spatial definition of museum education and informing museum pedagogies with non-western ways of knowing, the pedagogy of the encounter becomes one of the body-mind-spirit.
The museum as a radical contact zone that affords and ignites friction, truth-telling and care is a learning space that reinvents disciplines and epistemologies without forgetting its dark past (and in cases present). A museum pedagogy that centers the visitor’s whole self is a pedagogy that creates opportunities for the -body-mind-spirit to exist, disrupting the museums existence as machines of cultural imperialism that hold neoliberal agendas and perpetuate patriarchy, racism, classism and sexism.
As we need to re-examine, unravel, unlearn and dismantle Eurocentric ways of knowing and being, a body based pedagogy seems an urgent praxis – as Mignolo argues, «Pedagogy is more of a verb than a noun» (Mignolo W., 2018, p. 88). What does a body based pedagogy look like? What are the tenets of a BBP and who gets to practice it? As the short anecdote with the Nighthawks by Edward Hopper revealed, drama-informed pedagogies can create a more democratic and relevant museum, a museum that welcomes everybody. Now, it is us, museum educators who need to shape and establish this body of work.
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Filippa Christofalou is an interdisciplinary educator. In her work, Filippa facilitates encounters with art that center the visitor’s body-mind-spirit. Filippa is a doctoral student at Columbia. She holds a Bachelor’s of Science, a Master’s degree in Education, and she has studied Art History, Theater, and Drama in Education. She is the Founder of the Drama Science Lab, a Whitney fellow, and an artist in residence at the Movement Lab. She has collaborated with museums and institutions in London, Chicago, New York, and Athens, among others.