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ACM Voices - Winter 2016

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In the Winter 2016 issue of ACM Notes

Collecting the World in London: Exploring Museums and Questioning the Stories They Tell Us

Guest columnist: Andrew Kennedy, Instructor in London for the ACM London & Florence: Arts in Context program

Andrew Kennedy

Andrew Kennedy

During the past four years, Andrew Kennedy could be found in the winter and spring leading groups of ACM students through the streets of London in his London as Visual Text course. As he directed the students’ gaze to architectural details, buildings, and streetscapes, Kennedy connected the city as it is today with its rich history and development through the centuries.

This spring, Kennedy will explore the city’s museums — and dissect the stories they tell — in Collecting the World in London, a course he has created that will expand the London & Florence program’s opportunities for students in the area of museum studies. Following are excerpts from a conversation with Kennedy about Collecting the World and what he has in store for students who take the course.

What would you like to tell students about your new course, Collecting the World in London?

We think that museums are places stuffed full of objects or nice videos, and it’s about telling us how things are, a story about the past, about American history or the history of Britain, or something like that. This course is intended to make us question the stories we’re told.

Visiting the British Museum
Museum studies options in the London & Florence program include courses in both cities and internships in Florence!

Museum narratives don’t just naturally occur, they don’t just arise. They are consciously shaped and created in the framework of social and political agendas. You may notice that when you visit museums in America, but you will notice it more sharply by going to a different country, to Britain, because you will notice how some museums promote a British national story. Then you can use those skills in analyzing and deconstructing the stories that museums tell when you return to the States.

As an example, take the art museum, a key element of the tourist experience. We’re going to look at the relationship between art museums and other forms of popular culture. How do popular culture objects get turned into icons, and on the other hand, how do paintings in galleries get commodified and reproduced on the Internet?

Museums are often presented as purveying knowledge in the form of truth, and at the same time, museums are often entertainment factories. Even theme parks, in a sense, are museums of culture. Sometimes there isn’t so much difference between these so-called elite, high-culture museums and the rest of the entertainment industry.

So overall, we’ll be looking at the interaction between museums, popular culture, and mass media.

The course syllabus lists nearly 20 museums that the class will visit. What will you and the students do on those visits?

Before the actual museum visits, most times, there will be a two-hour discussion and perhaps seminar presentations by students, and I’ll also put readings on Google drive. So the students come into a museum prepared.

I’ll have a variety of different forms of visit structure. Sometimes visits will be more student led and student oriented, and sometimes I’ll want to cover certain points about museum narratives in a more tightly-structured way. There will be a sprinkling of talks by curators — not at every museum visit, but I’m planning to arrange at least one curator talk a week.

What types of assignments can students expect?

I’m always trying to find ways to get students to engage more seriously with the content of the course. I suspect I’m going to encourage more group projects than I have in the London as Visual Text course, and that might take the form of student presentations.

However, I think there is still room for individual written assignments where students can clearly set out their ideas, what they understand about museums in theory, and how they apply that to case studies. There’s going to be a premium in the course on clear thinking and really showing an understanding of how museum narratives structure people’s experience in quite a precise sort of way.

I might assign an essay where students analyze the narrative of a particular museum or how narratives of human beings’ relationship to the world are expressed across different museums. Or I could ask them to analyze a particular gallery and the objects in it in more detail, how those objects are laid out and displayed and labeled, and what expectations are placed on the viewer.

I want to find a balance of both encouraging students to express their excitement about the museums and write about things that interest them, as well as doing good analysis and museology.

What would you say to a student with no museum studies background who feels intimidated by the subject matter of this course?

If you think that museums are elitist, inaccessible, intimidating — well that’s exactly what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to demystify museums for you and explore how they create those narratives which make you feel small. The steps going up to the main museum entrance, the columns which make you feel that you’re entering a temple of culture, and the prescribed behavior — don’t shout, don’t run, don’t juggle the objects.

When we begin, I’m not expecting you to have prior knowledge. We’ll prepare with discussion and reading before visiting museums. This course is going to give you a whole set of tools to help you engage critically with the museum experience, so you’ll bring a lot of knowledge with you when you go into these spaces.

And to students whose majors or minors are not related to museology?

Throughout the course, we’ll be looking at different forms of museum use and analyzing how different forms of meaning are attributed to objects. These are skills that will apply in all academic areas. You’ll develop a set of critical tools to analyze visual culture and to do media studies, which connects to cultural studies, literature, history and art history, anthropology, sociology, religion.

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This column was written for the Winter 2016 issue of the ACM Notes newsletter for faculty and administrators.

Copyright 2016