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19 Jul 2018 / by Stella Fong

How M+ Is a Lab for Learning

Two mannequin heads stand on a wooden floor. The right one is with a clean face while the left one is filled with doodles. Plants are growing out of both mannequin heads, resembling hair. There is a group of secondary school students sitting in the background.

Works by artist Rainbow Leung in M+ Rover 2017. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Stella Fong shares how the M+ Learning and Interpretation team experiments with alternatives for museum education.

‘A museum is a laboratory.’ It’s made for experimentation. This was the point of view brought forward in the 1920s by Alexander Dorner, the Director of the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover, Germany. He argued that being experimental was a key feature of museums. Now, in the twenty-first century, museums are transforming at an unstoppable pace. How should museums position themselves in our rapidly changing world? And, as a new museum of visual culture, how is M+ approaching learning and education?

'Education' vs 'Learning'

The main functions of museums are collection, conservation, research, exhibition, and education. According to the code drawn up by the International Council of Museums, ‘Museums have an important duty to develop their educational role and attract wider audiences from the community, locality, or group they serve. Interaction with the constituent community and promotion of their heritage is an integral part of the educational role of the museum.’[1] In view of this, the educational mission of museums is crucial, and the interaction with audiences is especially important.

M+ replaced the word ‘education’ with ‘learning’ early on. 'Education' points to knowledge coming from above, while 'learning' positions the teacher and the learner as equals; not to mention, acquiring knowledge is a lifelong necessity. Museums today should learn with the audience, and the mode of learning should evolve accordingly. M+ regards itself as an open learning platform that does more than just provide information to visitors; we embrace the exchange of ideas among curators, creators, and audiences irrespective of identity, aiming for mutual reinforcement between teaching and learning.

A group of secondary school students visit an exhibition. One of them walks into a space with glass walls, ceiling, and floor, looking up to the ceiling.

A guided tour for secondary school students led by M+ volunteer docents during the Canton Express exhibition. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

The 'Educational Turn' in Curating and Contemporary Art Practices

Contemporary art has grown increasingly diverse in recent decades. Curators, artists, and educators have introduced new ideas and questions around practices in the art world, from exhibition formats to methods of art-making. Below are some of the ideas that have inspired us in our search for new modes of learning at M+.

By the early 1970s, the concept of integrating curation, education, and art had emerged. 'To be a teacher is my greatest work of art,’ claimed Joseph Beuys, the renowned German artist who taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf between 1961 and 1972.

In the belief that ‘everyone is an artist’, Beuys offered learning opportunities to all, without restrictions. In 1973, he established the Free International University for Creativity and Interdisciplinary Research. It was an organisation outside the conventional system, providing free education that was non-competitive, interdisciplinary, and open to all. And its curriculum encompassed culture, sociology, economics, and other subjects. Beuys believed that art originated from life experience and observation, and that interdisciplinary knowledge was beneficial not only to art-making but also to personal development.

Beuys retained the identity of an artist while being an educator. To him, teaching was an art project in itself. In 1977, he was invited to present at the art exhibition Documenta 6 by organising 100 Days of the Free International University, an extension of the 1973 project. Once again, he used educational events as a medium for art creation, designing talks and workshops on thirteen different subjects.

A group of people walking one by one, each holding a white umbrella decorated with ticker-tape-like-strips, as if in a parade.

Participants of a workshop led by artist Hanison Lau for M+ Summer Camp 2016 create their own ‘secret spaces’ with umbrellas. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Around the turn of the new millennium, inspired by the rise of neoliberalism and the trend of ‘relational aesthetics’ in the 1990s, various artists began to launch projects with educational elements. One of the pioneers was Anton Vidokle, an artist who was also the chief editor of e-flux journal in New York. In 2006, Vidokle was invited to join the curatorial team of Manifesta 6. Their goal was to transform the exhibition into a temporary art school. Focusing on conversation, participation, and openness, the project aimed to eliminate the perception that art exhibitions were only meant to be appreciated.

Although the project was ultimately cancelled for political reasons, Vidokle didn’t give up on this idea. The following year, he initiated the project Unitednationsplaza, an exhibition-as-school in Berlin in close collaboration with his peers. This year-long project comprised a series of free, unconventional, and unofficial programmes. In 2008, he further developed this mode of art making by launching a year-long Night School project at the New Museum in New York, during which he organised talks, workshops, and film screenings to foster critical thinking among the public, learning together with the participants.

The rapid growth of art events of this kind enhanced the social dimension of art education, prompting reflection on the role that museum education can play in society. This phenomenon is known as the ‘educational turn’ in art. The 2010 book Curating and the Educational Turn by Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson[2] shows that by making use of lessons, seminars, workshops, libraries, archives, reading rooms, and conversations, these new art forms broke out of traditional frameworks, exploring new ways of communicating with audiences, in addition to exhibitions. In her 2008 article 'Turning'[3], Irit Rogoff, professor at Goldsmiths, University of London, argues that rather than simply creating ‘emulations of an aesthetics of pedagogy’, the 'educational turn' is concerned with engaging audiences in a shift in attitude, by enabling them to participate in an open platform for dialogue.

A person holds a mirror and makes a sketching on it with a black ink pen. The mirror, with a few portraits on it, reflects a bespectacled person’s face with his eyes closed and his tongue sticking out.

A participant at a workshop led by artist Stephen Wong Chun Hei for M+ Summer Camp 2016 sketches one of his fellow participants on a mirror. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

The integration of curating, art making, and education has blurred the roles of museums, curators, artists, educators, and audiences. In the context of museums, education is no longer tied only to events. In addition to presenting and delivering knowledge, museums are dedicated to creating knowledge together with different people and narrowing the gap with the audiences. Museums have transformed from mere exhibition venues to lively spaces for interaction. Alex Farquharson, the Director of Tate Britain, once expressed this thought-provoking view: ‘If white-walled rooms are the site for exhibitions one week, a recording studio or political workshop the next, then it is no longer the container that defines the contents as art, but the contents that determine the identity of the container’.[4] Meanwhile Claire Bishop, art critic and professor at the City University of New York, argues that both art and education require imagination and bold innovation. In the education process, participants are not passive receivers but co-producers of knowledge. She states that with the shifting and disappearance of boundaries between the identities of artists and participants, ‘indeed, in its strictest sense, participation forecloses the traditional idea of spectatorship and suggests a new understanding of art without audiences, one in which everyone is a producer’.[5]

Exploring Alternatives for Museum Education

This blurring of boundaries provides museum practitioners with an opportunity to encourage their peers to embrace experimentation and critical thinking. Teaching models are not all alike, nor are the methods of art creation.

As a museum established in the twenty-first century, M+ believes that learning is not an add-on to our work, but something that exists at the museum’s core. People educated in Hong Kong might get used to a passive mode of learning, which stifles their initiative in proactively creating knowledge. By means of our educational endeavours, we attempt to provide artists, makers, and audiences with a learning-through-practice experience of creation, with knowledge acquired together through participation, collaboration, and dialogue. An example of this is the M+ Rover.

M+ Rover is an experimental school and community outreach programme. It emphasises participatory art practice and collaboration between audiences and artists, promoting interpersonal interactions and dialogue while exploring new possibilities of art-making. During the creative process, artists and visitors collaborate to develop and realise the artworks. The exhibitions are the result of an accumulation of collective ideas.

Experiments are, by nature, full of challenges and chances. As Sharon MacDonald, professor at the University of Manchester, observes, ‘Experimentalism is not just a matter of style or novel forms of presentation. Rather, it is a risky process of assembling people and things with the intention of producing differences that make a difference. In their production of something new, experiments seek to unsettle accepted knowledge or the status quo.’[6]

M+ Rover is like an organism that constantly learns and accumulates experience. We naturally encounter all kinds of challenges and uncertainties while planning and executing our projects. But we have enjoyed starting a journey of adventure with the audiences, and exploring the unconventional modes of museum educational practices as inspired by our project title ‘Rover’.

A group of people, including artist Ng Ka Chun and kids holding different objects in their hands, stand on wooden floorboards. Behind them is a grey metal trailer with the words M+ Rover on the side.

Public workshop led by artist Ng Ka Chun for the M+ Rover 2018. Photo: M+, Hong Kong

Dorner’s concept of the museum as a laboratory reminds us of the necessity of being inquisitive, imaginative, and innovative in our work towards better museum education, especially as there is no one-size-fits-all answer. As we continue in this project, I hope that curators, creators, educators, and audiences can remain curious, because curiosity is vital to lifelong learning, in this ever-changing world.

This article was adapted from a public talk entitled ‘Experiments in Museum Learning’ delivered by Stella Fong (Lead Curator, Learning and Interpretation). Special thanks to Ruby Ho (Curatorial Assistant, Learning and Interpretation) for text coordination. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

  1. 1.

    International Council of Museums, ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums, 2006.

  2. 2.

    Paul O'Neill and Mick Wilson, eds., Curating and the Educational Turn (London: Open Editions and de Appel, 2010).

  3. 3.

    Irit Rogoff, ‘Turning’, e-flux Journal 00 (November 2008).

  4. 4.

    Alex Farquharson, 'Bureaux de change,' Frieze 101 (September 2006).

  5. 5.

    Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London: Verso, 2012).

  6. 6.

    Paul Basu and Sharon McDonald, eds., Exhibition Experiments (London: Blackwell, 2007).

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