Your iPod, Your Art Museum

This program uses technology to help working-class and women students feel at home with art.
By Jean Mills

Listen to podcasts by English professor Pat Licklider of John Jay College. These tours cover address the Iliad and the Odyssey using artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Museums, like libraries, can be intimidating. In her haunted novel Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf writes of the experience of the “unworldly,” nondescript, and doomed future soldier Jacob Flanders, who in one scene mechanically copies poetry from a book in the British Museum while sitting alongside the “unfortunate” Miss Julia Hedge, “the feminist.” In her portrayal of Hedge, Woolf captures the challenges and disparities faced by women newly allowed access to education. Seated beneath a dome rung round with the names of so many “great men” that there is no room left upon the circle for “an Eliot or a Brontë,” Julia Hedge anxiously awaits the arrival of her books and tries to work out her sorry little research project. When Miss Hedge’s books finally do arrive, Woolf writes, “she applied herself to her gigantic labours, but perceived through one of the nerves of her exasperated sensibility how composedly, unconcernedly, and with every consideration the male readers applied themselves to theirs.”

To this day, I cringe at Woolf’s portrayal of the forlorn feminist trying to focus inside the reading room of the British Museum, for it speaks to my own experience more than fifty years later as a working-class financial-aid student. In 1981, I was given the chance through Mount Holyoke College to study T. S. Eliot and eighteenth-century British writers at Trinity College, Oxford. It was an opportunity to work under the private tutelage of “dons,” a word I had to look up, along with the correct pronunciation of “Yeats,” which, a year earlier, seated next to many recent debutantes at Mount Holyoke, I painfully discovered did not rhyme with “Keats.” I spent most of my time at Oxford paralyzed by gratitude and a profound sense of unbelonging.

I sat one afternoon beneath a dome in the Bodleian’s Radcliffe Camera, pretending to study while other students, most of them male and more familiar with navigating the space, ordered their  books. Unlike the “unfortunate Miss Hedge,” I didn’t even have a sorry little research project. I just stared at the dome and the curve of the walls, wondering whether they should really be called “walls” if they’re curved like that or whether some other more suitable word exists for the what and how of their construction. I admired its beauty, but I also experienced the camera’s power and solidity as a threat, like a noose that hovered above and around me. As a nineteen-year-old woman and as a member and daughter of the working class, I felt the curve of those other British walls encircle and choke. As the walls themselves seemed to vibrate with proclamations of the realities from which they were fostered and built—force, dominance, and massive wealth—I felt myself disassemble and disappear, and, in some very real sense, it was as if I were never there.

The Politics of Display

But that was long ago and in another country. Now I appear; I speak and I have learned to assess critically my surroundings, my experiences, and my life—skills I have endeavored to pass on to my students since I began teaching in the City University of New York system eight years ago.

More recently, I became involved in a project called “Making Objects Speak: Portable Audio Guides for Teaching with Visual Culture in the Humanities.” Faculty members from different disciplines formulated the idea for the project, which aims to make museums more accessible to students at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities in spring 2008. Work and family commitments often make museum visits difficult for many of our students. I was invited to design the podcast tour of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) for introductory students, linking the art to literature that the students encountered in class. As a tour creator, I sought to use the technology to empower my students to make their own choices regarding art and to show them that they belong in the museum, that the museum belongs to them.

Many of my students come to class in uniform, are aspiring members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or of counterterrorism task forces, are law-school bound, or are on their way to or coming back from tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. By and large, my students are working class and either are immigrants or the children of immigrants— people who understand th e experience of Woolf’s “unfortunate feminist” but rarely have names like “Miss Julia Hedge.” In a way, especially teaching at John Jay, I feel that my students need iPods and other technology to compete with their access to weaponry. As Virginia Woolf once wrote in her essay “Thoughts on Peace during an Air Raid,” “We must compensate the man for his gun.” In other words, these students need the tools of other trades to reform their own.

As I researched what to include in the podcast tour, I began to realize how little I knew about museums or the politics of their existence. Museums, I discovered, were meant to be, and in many respects continue to be, conceptually or architecturally built on premises of shock and awe, cutting across and interlocking along class, race, and gender lines. Art historian Carol Duncan once called museums “prestigious and powerful engines of ideology,” and political scientist Timothy Luke in his book Museum Politics identifies museums as “sites for moralizing memorials, highly politicized polemics, and ritualized reflection.” Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, feminist scholarship exposed many of the inherent gender biases in art history’s standards of value, biases I found to be alive and well when I began to prepare a description of the objects and texts I wanted to use in the podcast.

Touring MOMA, I faced a relentless series of representations of women and parts of women by men but very few works, whether paintings, sculptures, or photographs, by women. There was the small Frida Kahlo self-portrait The Haircut and a Dorothea Lange photograph, but I was hard-pressed to find more pieces by women. Although MOMA and other institutions have recently attempted to address the underrepresentation of women artists in museums through special exhibits and symposia, most of these events have not focused on the period (roughly from the 1870s through the 1920s) to which my project was tied.

MOMA’s ambivalence toward women was confirmed in Documenting a Feminist Past: Art World Critique, a 2007 exhibit of brochures and other protest artwork from MOMA’s library archives that challenged the museum’s understanding and presentation of the history of modern art. Such exhibits demonstrate a sensitivity to and an awareness of the need to include women in MOMA’s narrative of modernism, but inequities in terms of representation persist. The continued underrepresentation of women artists (and black and Hispanic artists) and the predominance of the male artistic vision at MOMA forced me to rethink both the angle and the content of the podcast tour as I sought to introduce students to some of the major preoccupations of international modernism—war, an obsession with machinery, the influence of mythology, and how to “make it new” and make it fast.

The Role of the Museum

According to Timothy Luke, during the 1990s, more than seven thousand museums were open and operating in North America, with one or two new museums opening each week. The success and vitality of museums are tied to the success and vitality of other businesses, such as tourism, real estate, advertising, entertainment, and concessions. A museum’s ability to shape and manage collective cultural understanding and social values is predicated on its prestige and ability to fund both its personnel and its exhibitions.

In addition to courting private investors, corporate sponsors, and governmental agencies, museums have historically had to redefine and navigate the tensions between populism and elitism—in other words, class. Public education has been a foundational goal of American museums, one that written public statements often emphasize, but very few museums have put that mission first.

Although libraries often have different missions from museums, this class divide and the museum’s ambivalence about public outreach became apparent to me again, nearly seventeen years after my “disappearance” at the Bodleian’s Radcliffe Camera, when I began teaching as an adjunct and bringing my students to exhibits that were directly related to their readings. After performing the ritual of the bag and coat check, the museum personnel and staff were perfectly congenial and welcoming. On two occasions, I was fortunate enough to have a curator friend arrange a special viewing of William Blake’s manuscripts after students read Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in class, and at another time my friend arranged a personal tour of a Victorian bestsellers exhibit.

On nearly every occasion, however, my students’ sense of gratitude, while rewarding and greatly appreciated by me, seemed out of proportion to what had been offered, as if I were bringing them into an exclusive club. They demonstrated time and again their lack of a sense of entitlement to the experience. I came to realize that the majority of the students had never been inside a museum. Their reactions and explanations suggested to me that in the course of their elementary and high school education, either they missed the field trip to the museum because of family or work responsibilities or they were never offered the opportunity.

The Making Objects Speak project offers a chance to remedy, or at least alleviate, my students’ discomfort and sense of not belonging in the museum’s spaces and a way of allowing students to gain access to the conversations about art that museums have the ability to initiate and that students so clearly want to have. The use of technology was an enticement but also a challenge for me and for the students, who had varying degrees of technological skill and purchasing power. Many of my students own iPods or other MP3 players, and the project is setting up a system for lending the players to students who do not have them or are unfamiliar with how to use them.

Although I did not own an iPod when I began researching and designing my podcast tour, I was determined to use the technology to empower my students, to give them the skills to find the art objects on the tour, to help them make connections between the art and the literature they were reading, and to help them navigate the space inside the museum itself. Technology and students’ access to technology play crucial roles in the success and vision of the Making Objects Speak project. Using iPods to introduce students to museums allows them access to the art itself and provides them with the opportunity to engage in effective critical thinking through a process called “slow looking.” The use of iPods also provides an alternative to the views of those on extreme ends of the debate about the educational usefulness of technology: the project combines education and technology while continuing to question and acknowledge challenges. These challenges include both practical problems, such as how to create a tour based on objects that are frequently moving both between and within exhibitions, and pedagogical ones, such as how to select the literary texts that best support the objects in the tour.

We are developing strategies, tool kits, and instructions for both using and creating tours to ensure that students experience the technology in a way that allows the objects to “speak” and, in the case of my tour audience, that students’ experiences of the art “compensate the man for his gun.” A series of workshops has been set up to help tour creators process ideas, revise tour scripts, and become familiar with the technology we are both using and passing on to our students.

The Making Objects Speak project provides an opportunity to bridge the gaps between and among technology, gender, and class, and we are hoping that it will operate as a template or model for other podcast tours in any town or city that has a museum or historical site nearby. In my own experience, creating the tour has revealed feminist pedagogy to be effective in helping students to gain access to art, to reject monolithic thinking in understanding art production, and to introduce their voices into the conversation about art. The prospect of facilitating access and providing a virtual comfort zone by being able to “accompany” students through a museum’s collections audibly has demonstrated to students that art is not dead, static, or dull, and that this art (or history) belongs to them.

Jean Mills is assistant professor of twentieth-century British literature at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is currently at work on a book on Virginia Woolf and Woolf’s intellectual mentor, the great Cambridge classicist Jane Ellen Harrison.

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