On May 18, 2013, the day prior to the American Alliance of Museum’s annual conference in Baltimore, a group of museum educators met to discuss work that has been slowly gaining ground in art museums—that of interpretation. Since that first meeting, this group has met annually before the AAM annual meeting: Seattle, 2014; Atlanta, 2015; Washington, D.C., 2016; St. Louis, 2017.
When we launched our website in early 2018 we have grown to a mailing list of over 100 educators who specialize in interpretation and have an attendance at our daylong annual meeting of approximately 60 practitioners of art museum interpretation.
Origins of Interpretation
Interpretation is not limited to art museums, and in fact has its origins in science, natural history, and the national park service. Dating back as early as the 1950s, museums, cultural heritage organizations, and historic sites practiced interpretive strategies in their educational initiatives and in the 1980s began formalizing their efforts under the National Association of Interpretation. In the 1990s, some art museums began integrating interpretation into education and institutional practice. Over the next two decades more interpretation positions began to be established as art museum education professionals explored and implemented interpretive practices. As interpretation evolved within the art museum sector, it became clear that art museum interpretation was a specific subset of interpretation with its own issues and values. It was with this in mind that the Association of Art Museum Interpretation was founded.
Why is interpretation becoming important in art museums now?
- Increasing sensitivity to visitor expectations. The museum field as a whole is becoming more sophisticated about what visitors want, and art museums are following that trend.
- Diversifying demographics. Our country is becoming increasing diverse. Current minority groups, which collectively will soon become the majority, often do not have museum-going as part of their culture. It is critical for museums to understanding how to build a sense of welcome and accessibility for broad audiences, from the choice of exhibition theme and message, to the options we present to visitors for engaging with our objects and ideas.
- Dramatic shifts in what society expects from education. As we move to a more democratic, learner-based era in which individuals can access information anywhere, museums must create a broader array of products for learners to choose from, allowing them to be the leaders in their own learning.
- A growing sense that art can be a source of cross-cultural understanding. This encourages museums to develop opportunities to inspire civic dialogue.
- Changing expectations of authority. Audiences are less interested in the anonymous voice of the museum, and increasingly interested in multiple perspectives of both experts and their peers.
- Changing attitudes about the importance of creativity as a vital “21st century skill.” Suddenly, art museums have a strong argument for relevancy: art museums are great places to demonstrate, invite, and promote creative thinking and creative problem solving.
- The increasing role of technology in the museum experience. The integration of technology into our everyday lives, and hence into visitor’s engagement with the museum, forces us to rethink both the delivery of information and the opportunities for new relationships with information.
- Deconstruction of the dominant narrative. Art museums are finally acknowledging their collection and installation choices create a narrative, one that is perceived as unobtrusive but tailored by and to members of the dominant culture. Becoming more democratic involves being comfortable with integrating community input into exhibition development decisions, an advocacy role which is often taken on by interpretive planners.
In response to these changes, art museum educators with expertise in free-choice learning, visitor motivation, cultural attitudes, physical and cognitive accessibility and modes of response and participation are taking a leadership role in the shaping of visitor experiences in gallery spaces.
Jennifer Foley, The Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Julia Forbes, High Museum of Art
Emily Fry, The Art Institute of Chicago
Alison Jean, Detroit Institute of Arts
Rosie May, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago
Nina Pelaez, Williams College Museum of Art
Margaret Sternbergh, Independent Interpretation Specialist