The Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein. Picture: SUPPLIED
The Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein. Picture: SUPPLIED

Art and other museums are often challenged to reflect on their roles in society and the relevance of their collections and programming. In this context, it is worth reflecting on why museum learning still matters.

Pedagogical research has repeatedly demonstrated that art museums can be places in which rich learning, discovery and cognitive development happens, through direct engagement with original works of art in an immersive, participatory environment.

Indeed, art education involves far more than simply exposing young people to art and visual culture, or boosting art appreciation. Learning in the art museum can leverage learning outside of the museum, equipping young people with a host of transferable skills that they can apply in other areas of school, work and future life. These include visual literacy and critical and conceptual thinking, among many others.

At Wits Art Museum (WAM), which is a free-entrance museum, we have welcomed more than 125,000 visitors in the past five years with nearly 25,000 of these being schoolchildren and tertiary learners. For the majority of school learners, visiting WAM is their first-ever experience of a museum. For many it is also their first field trip and exposure to a university.

Our approach towards teaching views learners as active agents who construct their knowledge through making sense of their experiences in the world in and beyond the classroom. WAM is a perfect space for immersing learners in a context that provides new experiences and opportunities for reflection; where they can encounter real artworks “in the flesh” from across the African continent — a very different experience from viewing a reproduction in a textbook, and one which results in infinitely more complex interpretations.

Learning is enhanced through collective experiences, in other words, people often learn better in groups. Reflecting on one’s personal experiences and sharing them with others not only enriches understanding but is essential for cognitive development. When we share our ideas, others help us think in novel ways, thereby helping us clarify our own ideas.

Studies in museum education show that group dialogues about art, when well facilitated, can help promote observation; description; association with prior knowledge or experience; interpretation; hypothesis; comparison; evidentiary reasoning; extended focus; deliberation; and openness to different perspectives and possibilities. As students share perceptions and knowledge with others, a class trip to a museum can boost peer-to-peer learning, and nurture social skills in an increasingly connected, participatory world.

In particular, learning and applying “close observation” skills in a museum environment has been shown to impact positively on student learning. This set of skills involves taking time to slowly and carefully observe an object (such as a beaded object, a painting or sculpture) in a self-conscious and critical manner.

Contemplative learning

At WAM, children are often encouraged to look closely at artworks, then respond to them in multiple modes, such as drawing, writing and participating in group discussions. In an age where our lives are constantly being “sped up” by technology, and where information is retrievable at ever-increasing speeds, it is important to not to forget the contemplative and reflective thinking that is critical to learning and cognitive development.

We know that original art can fascinate, anger, challenge and confuse. Art can also be harnessed to improve student learning and to develop transferable skills that can be applied to non-art tasks. Key among these are critical thinking, including evaluation; engagement; and the ability to draw informed conclusions and think conceptually.

A recent, large-scale study demonstrated that students can develop critical thinking skills even within a single museum visit. If, as educators of our nation’s youth, one of our key concerns is learners’ success in life beyond just their formal schooling, then more attention needs to be given to the value that art museums and visual literacy can contribute to SA education.

• Cohen is curator of strategy and development at Wits Art Museum.