How do Visitors to the Museum Decide on Artifact Authorship?

Here is a research – education initiative I am trying to pull off independently. If you are a museum staff and can put me in touch with your organization, please do so! Email: nilofar.ansh@gmail.com

1. The title and definition of the project

Authorship through the Eyes of a Child: How do visitors to the museum make sense of the identity of the artifact maker?

Definition and Scope:

The project aims to gauge the attitude of children (who visit a museum) in a specific area: Primarily, the question of “identity” behind the artifacts on display. Do children think about “the who?” of an object, besides the “what, where and how”? Are they able to visualize the communities, artists or artisan responsible for creating the objects they view? This would largely depend on the level of communication and interaction planned by a curator through labels and captions, signage or obvious displays.

Within this issue, the project also aims to understand if the museum is a “gendered” space. Do the kind of objects on display and the manner, in which, they are displayed convey any sense of gender or a lack of it?

Please note: My project doesn’t include a study of whether a museum’s collection reflects a particular gender identity. It only concerns itself with the children’s perception of the identity and gender of the artists or artisans behind the artifacts.

2. Why the topic interested you?

As students of art history, we are constantly plagued by the issue of authorship of artworks that we study, especially when it comes to ancient art, with not a single “signed by” found on any of the sculptures, murals, or friezes we admire, preserve and study. Within a museum, the question of authorship gets further lost, distorted or taken out of context, as the artifacts are displayed in isolation of their original environment and context. While academics and students of art history have the leisure to speculate about the plausible identity of the artist, the casual museum visitor has no such training or motivation.

Take the example of a Mughal Miniature in the Prince of Wales Museum in Western India. Plenty of folios are on display within glass cases, with labels such as: “17th century Pahari, King Todar Mal hunting with his ministers, Dimensions of the Folio.” No where is there a mention or signage elucidating the nature of the Mughal karkhana (artisan guild, workshop in the Mughal court), the well-known artists of that period, the communities involved in painting a Miniature, etc. “Artist unknown” seems to suffice for the question for authorship. Such a label doesn’t motivate a visitor to think about the art work beyond its physical presence in a glass case, and they only appropriate its aesthetics (beauty and physicality, rather than its provenance and history).

This issue is important because an inadequate or neutral representation of an artifact leads to a distorted sense of history, or in perpetuating misconceptions about the role of men and women in the history of art.

For example, how do we educate visitors about the gender neutrality or inclusiveness (depending upon the way you see it) of artifacts such as jewelery, pottery, costumes, or household décor such as baskets or mirrors. They are made by either men and women artisans and craftspersons or both, depending upon the community, region and nature of the craft. It would be interesting to find out, however, if the visitor perceives or assigns any gender identity to such artifacts – considered to be typically the domain of women by those unfamiliar with the history and tradition of Indian craft. When more often than not, the gender identity of an artist is not conveyed, does it lead to the perpetuation of certain misconceptions or stereotypes?

I wanted to survey children, specifically, for this project because I would like to understand if the stereotypes associated with gender are extended to works of art, and artifacts, in a museum. I would like to speak to and engage with children between the age group of 6 and 12 (rough age span). I hope that they wouldn’t just depend on “logic” if I ask them a question like, ‘Who do you think has made this huge stone sculpture?’ and answer ‘Obviously, a man’. Because, I daresay, the same logic can’t be applied if I ask, “Who has made this delicate china porcelain?’, because the answer is not obviously “woman”!

So, another important point to keep in mind is the kind of artifacts I might choose to base my questions on. Should I choose artifacts that have an ambiguous gender identity or should I choose displays that are sure to have obvious gender defined authorship? What will be particularly interesting to note here would be the children’s “reasoning” behind how they decide whether an artifact is created by a man or woman, and how, if at all, that reflects contemporary perceptions of a man and woman’s role and identity in society and across professions and role play at home.

The project also aims to engage children visiting museums to take a keener interest in the objects they interact with, either through the guided school tours or during an evening out with parents.

On a personal level, I hope this project turns out to be a catalyst for furthering my understanding of the potentialities inherent in a museum as a space to educate different demographics, in this case, children.

Would it be possible to envisage a time when a fairly sensitive and well-read visitor to the museum would not just ask the following two questions when s/he faces an object: 1) Subject of the work 2) Object of the work, but rather, goes beyond the physicality of the display and interpret the work according to how much it speaks to her/his sensibilities.

For e.g: If a series of figurative paintings have been displayed in a gallery: The questions to consider would be: 1) Male artist or female artist 2) If the subject of depiction are male or female figures/setting. 3) What is the style/composition of a painting if a female artist has painted a woman’s body, similarly, how is this painting different from the artist’s depiction of a male subject/character/setting; 4) How would a male artist paint a woman as his subject, and conversely, how would his depiction of male characters/figures be different from how a female artists depicts male characters.

3. How will you go about doing it?

The project involves conducting a survey of at least 500 children in the age group of 6-13 (roughly, Class 1-6). I will also closely work with the education / community outreach department of the museum to understand and document the methodology through which an intertwined narrative of history, gender and identity is presented before the visitor. I would particularly like to focus on Indian Art, as it would serve the questions the project wants answered better.

I have previous experience in interacting and interviewing museum visitors. In 2005, I had interned at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai (now the Chhatrapati Sivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahlaya) and in the course of a month, I had conducted a survey of 100 visitors (adults) to ascertain their responses on the artifacts on display with specific reference to the label/captions, lighting, display aesthetics, way finding and signage in the museum. The survey allowed me a peek into visitor psychology. Interacting with people from across the country, each coming from a different cultural, linguistic and educational background gave me a hands-on experience and allowed me to draft practical guidelines for the museum towards better design aesthetics. I am comfortable interviewing people, including children.

4. How much time will the entire thing take? – Time line for the project

A year. Detailed break up of module will be submitted later.

5. Which are the areas covered?

Museum studies, museum visitor’s psychology, Gender Representation, Children’s interaction within a museum, Display and design aesthetics in a museum, survey and report making.

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