Writing the Book on Art Appreciation
The world-renowned Worcester Art Museum is located just two miles from Assumption College. Students, employees, and alumni seldom pay a visit to this cultural Mecca as they journey to and from campus. Barbara A. Beall-Fofana, Ph.D., associate professor of Art History, hopes to change that by demystifying the art museum experience and protocol, and engendering a spirit for cultural appreciation. Her recently authored one-of-a-kind guide titled, Understanding the Art Museum, is specifically written to open the world of art for those who seek a fuller, richer life. It’s based on the concept that art appreciation is an interactive experience, and offers practical tools for exploring the thousands of museums across the world and getting the most out of your visit.
Beall-Fofana, who is on sabbatical for the 2006–07 year, was interviewed to discuss the origins of her book.
Q: What inspired you to write on this topic?
A: I actually think the inspiration was my students, quite frankly. The way this all began was when I started at Assumption College seven years ago, I taught a course called History of Western Art I, which was one of the required courses. My students really enjoyed the trips we took to the Worcester Art Museum [WAM]. It was a much different experience to view the actual work of art than to look at two-dimensional images in class. The experience was always very positive for the class—I felt the students got so much more out of it and they certainly expressed that as well. As I began to increase the number of trips, I eventually applied for and received a faculty development grant to create a different course, called Museum Based Survey I. Approximately 10 of the classes are held at the WAM, so I use the collection there as much as possible as a teaching collection. The WAM has been only gracious in their accommodations of my students and me. They opened curatorial files to me, for one summer. I dug around the different object files and spent a lot of time looking at their collections. I send WAM my syllabus and the times I need for visits and they make sure the galleries are reserved for me. It is a wonderful working relationship.
Q: How did the book come about?
A: As I developed the museum-based survey class,
I prepared information sheets that my students must fill out when they are viewing an object at the museum—it helps them to better understand the artwork they are studying. Coincidentally, it just so happened one of the editors (Helen Ronan) from Prentice Hall Higher Education came to visit me. She said, “I’m new (at Prentice Hall), tell me what you are doing in your survey class?” So I told her what I was doing and I gave her some of the information that I had prepared for the course. She called me two weeks later and said, “We are really interested in this. Will you write a book for us?” That is how it happened—it was entirely serendipitous!
Q: One of the things you talk about in the beginning of the book is trying to make people feel more comfortable when visiting museums, in essence make the museums more “user-friendly.” Why do you think museum buildings tend to be considered cold, unapproachable structures for most Americans?
A: Well, that is interesting—the museums of the United States, in particular, developed somewhat differently than the museums in Europe. European museums really came out of aristocratic collections and collections in church and cathedral treasuries. In the United States, museums really grew during the 19th century with the goal to educate the people. Education was really the reason why museums started in the U. S.
When they were being built, particularly in the late nineteenth century, it was very popular to look back to the classical revivalist period, especially for buildings of importance like our governmental buildings, post offices, libraries, etc. because the buildings look like classical temples, they were also thought of as temples to art, where you talked very quietly and walked very carefully. Quite frankly, I think that people now often have found nineteenth century practices to be intimidating and, to some extent, even boring with objects arranged chronologically, with no real understanding of the importance of what one is viewing.
However, I think museums have made a huge effort in the last 25 years to make their collections, in terms of how they exhibit them, the information they provide, and the events they offer, more accessible to the public. Most museums offer concerts, films, and lectures. If you want to go on a docent tour, you can do it, and they can deliver it in several different languages. There is so much more museums offer today; the actual purpose that it serves has really changed. Not only do they want the American people to be educated, they want them to feel connected to the art.
The museums are also reaching a new population, school children. They are seeking a broader connection with schools. I even see kids as young as nursery school in the museum now. I think it is wonderful that this change has occurred.
Q: Why is it so important for people to experience an art museum? Not only to visit it, but to understand what they are seeing.
A: Well, I think because I value art so much, I see it as one of the most inspirational aspects of our lives. It relates to the kinds of things that we all feel, regardless of the age of the object. When we are looking at pieces from two thousand years ago, many of these human emotions and experiences are still with us. I think it really taps into something in all of us. I think with a few important tools and some basic understanding of museums in general, it really opens up the collections to a much more exciting experience. These collections are not just some dead artifacts hanging on the wall, but they are part of a living history.
Q: What do you hope the reader will take from this book, other than be inspired enough to go to a museum and use some of the practical tools you offer?
A: I hope that not only will they like to visit the museum and look at the art, but perhaps investigate it further—take a course, perhaps create art, perhaps think about it in a different way. I think so much of what we see in the past is also present and with us in the present. So it really helps us relate to the past, and make the past very much come alive.