Intersections of Art and Science in the Museum: a toolkit for engagement and evaluation

By Giannella Ysasi Tavano

In 2017, the Art Institute of Chicago received a multi-year grant from the National Science Foundation that allowed the institution to explore the ways in which art conservation and scientific research can help create new, exciting, and relevant experiences in the museum. The grant aided the department of Learning and Public Engagement, in particular, in expanding our audience research efforts. This has led to a better understanding of the types of expanded interpretive narratives that foster engagement and build connections for diverse audiences.

We recently published Intersections in an Art Museum: Where Art Meets Science, a toolkit designed to share our findings with the broader field of museum education. It contains reflections, case studies, recommendations, and evaluation tools and resources that informed and resulted from our journey. The case studies include the voices of experts and visitors whose insights have informed the ongoing efforts of this initiative.

Key Questions & Takeaways

Key questions that have driven our work include:

  • Is there something unique about visitor engagement strategies that combine art and science?
  • Does foregrounding the intersections of art and science enhance the art museum experience?
  • How can this approach be used to support interdisciplinary study and the plurality of voices in the museum?

To investigate these questions, we conducted audience research into stories related to the conservation of objects and scientific research into materials. We developed new interpretive tools that presented these stories to our visitors and then used various audience research methods to assess their efficacy and the unexpected outcomes of the overall project. We designed tools, resources, and methods which brought to light the ways visitors interacted with various modes of engagement from digital interactives to public programs, school tours, and professional development workshops. Our research has demonstrated the importance of working cross-departmentally within the museum to create sustainable practices for our work in interpretation.

Visitors who engaged with our new interpretive tools responded to a card sort activity tracking changes in their engagement.

After engaging with our new tools, visitors reported an increased understanding of art through the lenses of materials, techniques and processes. We also found that visitors were curious about both the work conservators and scientists do in the museum and the ways preservation can influence how we see and understand art today. Labels and other interpretive devices that focused on materials, techniques, and processes encouraged visitors to stop and to look closely and mindfully. We were excited to discover that foregrounding an artist’s process sparked empathy and prompted visitors to put themselves in the artists’ shoes.

An example of an interpretive tool we created for this initiative was a touchscreen interactive in the 2018 summer exhibition John Singer Sargent and Chicago’s Gilded Age. The interactive delved into Sargent’s process and materials in making the watercolor Tarragona Terrace and Garden (c. 1908). We found that 98 percent of the visitors who used the interactive then looked back at the object. Additionally, 50 percent of visitors who used the interactive were more likely to talk about or model empathy, make connections to their own lives, and discuss how using the digital interactive brought Sargent and his process of painting to life.

A still from the interactive feature exploring a John Singer Sargent watercolor

The study also brought to light areas where we have work to do. For example, we discovered that the majority of the scientific research undertaken at the museum has been conducted on historical European paintings. Moving forward, we need to ensure that the museum’s scientific tools are used to inform diverse stories related to art and objects of all mediums and from all cultures and time periods.

We also discovered that it is important to visitors that we surface the human decision-making process behind the preservation of art objects. Can insights into an artist’s intent influence the way we see an object? What about the research behind a conservator’s decision-making process and their treatment?

Finally, we found that the connection between art and science should not be explored only as a way to understand objects, but also as a way to think about how we can better scaffold scientific information to communicate complex scientific and artistic concepts.

The Toolkit

We hope the materials in the toolkit enhance the work that you and/or your organization are already undertaking and provide new ways of thinking about interdisciplinarity in museum experiences that respond to the needs and curiosities of twenty-first-century audiences. We are still reflecting upon these findings and exploring additional ways to bring them into our work, especially now, when finding common ground and connections between artistic practice and science is more relevant and urgent than ever.

You can find the toolkit on the Art Institute of Chicago’s website in the initiatives menu, under “Intersections of Art and Science Initiative.”

About the Author: Giannella Ysasi Tavano is the former Women’s Board Fellow in the Department of Learning and Public Engagement at the Art Institute of Chicago

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