Approaches to Public Art History in Museums and Academia

This session interrogates the contributions of art historians in museums and academia to the practice of public art history. This field is not formally defined, but is generally understood as art-historical content produced for general audiences and/or applied to real-world issues. The topic is of special interest to staff members of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which is an educational site disguised as a museum. Its founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, strove to realize the progressive educational philosophy of his friend John Dewey through an experience-based approach to art, which he believed would help people of all demographics to lead examined and fulfilling lives. The AAH’s fiftieth anniversary—which intersects with the Barnes’s centennial—is a salient occasion to discuss critically what public art history is, and could be.  

To uphold the collaborative spirit of public art history, we seek perspectives from colleagues representing museum and academic departments. Participants will address the following questions: How does your institution define public art history? In what ways are your contributions to the field transforming traditional art history, and vice versa? What methods are you using to advance public art history—e.g., written materials, exhibitions, theory, teaching, and technology? In what ways do these methods engage with your institution’s history and identity, and how do you ensure that content is relevant for diverse audiences?

Session Convenors:

Amy Gillette, The Barnes Foundation

Corrinne Chong, The Barnes Foundation

Alison Boyd, The Barnes Foundation


Larisa Grollemond, J. Paul Getty Museum 

Medieval Now: Contemporary Art, Pop Culture, and Manuscripts at the Getty Museum

Public museums are often seen as benign, educational spaces, welcoming visitors with a variety of experiences, identities, and levels of prior knowledge into an inclusive learning environment. Yet, art museums are frequently prescriptive, drawing clear distinctions between past and present, highbrow and lowbrow taste, fine art and the realm of the everyday. Nowhere have the challenges of reaching an increasingly diverse public audience been made clearer in recent years than in the exhibitions programs of collections of historical art. In the Manuscripts Department at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the project of diversifying presentations of the collection of predominantly European, Christian material has taken new forms. Exhibitions projects in recent years, including The Fantasy of the Middle Ages (2022) and Blood: Medieval/Modern (2024), among others, have utilized both contemporary art objects and objects known from popular culture alongside medieval works both in gallery presentations and on digital platforms from Instagram to Google Arts & Culture. Not simply aiming to make an argument for the “relevance” of medieval art and history in the twenty-first century, strategies like these allow for an increased range of (re)interpretations and (re)presentations of historical art for a wider variety of audiences. These displays, though, are not without their own pitfalls and trade-offs. Using Fantasy and Blood as case studies, this paper will explore the potential roles of social media, popular culture, and contemporary art as tools of public art history and the range of possibilities and challenges of the medieval in the modern museum. 

Helen Cobby, Bath Spa University 

Navigating Public Art Histories with University Museums and Collections: Student and Whole-Person Centred Approaches 

This paper explores student and ‘whole-person’ centred approaches to the evolution of public art histories. I draw on my curatorial background at University museums (The Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham), and my current position as Curator and Lecturer: Collections & Material Culture at Bath Spa University (BSU). This is a new role for me (from September 2023) and the University, which creates opportunities for experimentation and fresh approaches to the challenges of teaching, exhibiting and developing public art histories in a rapidly changing landscape. 

BSU is a practice-led University, which grew out of multiple organisations, including teacher training institutions and the Bath School of Art (founded after the Great Exhibition, in 1852), later the Bath Academy of Art at Corsham Court (1946-86). The University has an unusual history of female-focused education; my paper explores how this can inform the teaching of public art histories today partly by using the case study of Newton Park Teacher Training College (now the site of the main campus) and its first Principle, Mary Dawson (principalship 1945-68). Dawson was disillusioned with current teaching styles and strove to effect change using child-centred educational theory. 

This paper also argues that empowering students is key for current and future successes of public art history. It focuses on wellbeing as both a tool for teaching and advancing such histories, and a way in which the subject matter can be applied to real-world issues and opened up to more diverse audiences. 

Louise Siddons, University of Southampton 

Reaching Through History: Countering Queer Erasure in Histories of Navajo Modernism 

In their 2011 mural, Bik’eh Hozho,dilbaa artist Bean Yazzie depicted hands reaching through a partially completed weaving. Uncanny, it serves as a visual metaphor for the invention of Diné modernism and the corresponding erasure of woman-identified queer Diné as makers. That erasure began with museum-based modernist collectors who artificially raised Navajo textile design above other Diné cultural practices/products. 

From their first encounters with Navajo people, anthropologists focussed on nádleehí (people with male physiology who have feminine social roles) over their study of dilbaa (people with female physiological traits who have masculine social roles). This gendered bias was reinforced by the collector-driven perception that nadleehe weavers were engaged in more culturally significant work than dilbaa who avoided this feminine activity. 

As a result, Hosteen Klah (Diné, 1867-1937) is one of the most famous Diné weavers of the early 20th century. Physiologically male at birth, Klah adopted feminine social roles including weaving and thus identified their gender as nádleehí. Klah was patronized by Santa Fean museologist Mary Wheelwright. In 2022, non-binary weaver Tyrrell Tapaha (Diné, he/they) won the Brandford/Elliott award from the Textile Society of America.  

Although this White-institutional celebration of queer weavers is usually framed as progressive, it perpetuates a century-long erasure of female-bodied people’s work. In this paper, I share an ongoing collaboration between Yazzie and myself to create a traveling exhibition and public programme that we hope will begin to redress this historiographical and colonial failure and expand its implications and methodologies to multiply-marginalised queer communities in the UK as well as the US. 

Senah Tuma, University of Cambridge

The Racialised Sphere of Public Museums

Public art history is characterised by coloniality and racialisation. By all means, public visual art education is white property. This paper will outline the means in which visual art education and public spaces are characterised by whiteness, and the difficulties this poses for all educational sites—specifically museums. In so doing, it will confront the means in which John Dewey’s hopes towards embodiment of art are not possible without decolonization, a practise directly aligned with alternative forms of knowledge production, affect and embodiment. An interdisciplinary approach embracing the fields of architecture, cultural geography and philosophy are key to a full understanding of the role of racialisation and its limiting factors on visitors to museums. This is a concern of all public institutions and spaces.

Lin Zhang (Cathy), University of Exeter

Investigating Museum-based Blended Learning Programmes to Support Family Visitors Learning

Internationally, family learning in museums was considered by researchers for over 40 years at various museums since the mid to late 1970s. In China, museum research centred on family learning has been lasting about 20 years since the beginning of 2000. Many researchers have shared their works, and the findings convey museums have made and continue to make enormous contributions in supporting family visitors on-site informal learning. Very little has been written about blended virtual (online) learning and physical (on-site) activities to support family sustainable learning. Meanwhile, many published papers indicate that a number of museums have been created and provided family learning programmes for their audiences. Some museums offer holiday programmes while some museums offer weekends programmes for families. But there is little empirical research to investigate how museum facilitators use digital resources to support and improve practices with regard to family learning programmes in Chinese art and history museums. It is also not clear how to design, deliver and evaluate family programmes. In this study, I seek to address these gaps by creating a new virtual-and-physical integrated family learning programme based on the collections and exhibitions in a Chinese art and history museum in Beijing. However, this project attempts to construct an interdisciplinary programme for family group visitors, expecting to find a new path to raise the value-based museum education and a new perspective to enrich family museum learning.

Approaches to Public Art History: A Roundtable Discussion

Amy Gillette, Corrinne Chong, Alison Boyd (The Barnes Foundation), with audience participation

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