Image courtesy The Ian Potter Museum of Art, the University of Melbourne
The University of Melbourne has a new model for the ways an art space can be used. It’s not exactly science but it is experimental.
Curator of Academic Programs (Research) at Ian Potter Museum of Art Dr Heather Gaunt wants to tip upside down the notion of an expert setting the gallery experience by throwing open the doors to every academic discipline that can take what’s there and make it their own. No longer regarded as art novices, visitors are invited to instruct the experience to suit themselves, so that they take away what they want rather than be grateful for what they’ve been given.
"I am particularly excited about forging cross-disciplinary relationships," Dr Gaunt
explains. "I think this could be one of the most valuable ways the Potter can contribute to university research and learning, by being a centre-point for multi-disciplinary projects, taking in undergraduate and postgraduate student cohorts. It will no longer be relevant only to people interested in art and history." A student in medicine, for instance, can learn something about empathy by engaging with the works, whereas a computer science postgraduate might investigate the behaviours of visitors by tracking their movements in sophisticated ways. In short, the experience gains value and significance through the active connections it makes with the viewers from the perspectives they bring. It may be a shift in perceptions but it’s also a reminder that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whatever that form of beauty may be.
"In these ways we at the Ian Potter Museum of Art align ourselves very directly with
the ‘Triple Helix’ mission of the university," Dr Gaunt elaborates. "We can offer artworks, exhibitions, a building environment, sets of statistics, a ‘case study’ for advertising/marketing/business skills/Intellectual Property/indigenous issues … the list is endless, and is limited only by our ingenuity in finding connections with students and academics with their current coursework or future research directions."
What follows is a sample of the ways the museum’s collection can lend itself to the life of the campus by bringing students to see the art, not as a static visual, but as an investment in their diverse interests. A student enrolled for a Masters in Architecture can make designs for an environmentally sustainable renovation to the Potter’s architectural form, and another student of psychology can draw on a visit to amplify their study of neuroscience and the mind. Special Needs Dentistry students can hone visual observation skills and empathy by examining and debating visual and narrative elements of paintings. Many of the visits will take the form of undergraduate tutorials, but a number of them will be graduate seminars, such as those for doctoral students in History and English, and Masters students in Teaching. Students in the Faculty of Business and Economics in the Department of Management and Marketing will have assignment work and drop-in information sessions as part of the coursework in audience evaluation and advertising strategies. "For example, in Semester 2
we have 320 students in a third year Advertising and Promotions course using the Potter for both their semester 2 assignments, doing a SWOT analysis of our advertising strategy and then writing a new strategy for us. 90 students in a second year Market and Business Research Course are writing an evaluation survey for us, delivered by us on our website, then crunching the data they get," Dr Gaunt says.
It’s a mix. A mix of disciplines, a mix of levels of study, and a mix of delivery methods, but they are all using what was formerly an art space to give their own special investigations and meanings to the work on the walls and floors.
"Since the 1990s, I see a really big change in the University of Melbourne," Dr Gaunt
reflects. "Like many people, I felt possessive about the university that I knew through the 1990s, and was not immediately ‘sold’ on the changes with the new degree structure, and all that it encompassed. But now I am very struck by the positive nature of these changes … and [am] tremendously excited about the way collaborative work and interdisciplinary connections are second nature in our work."
Dr Gaunt cites a computer science project she initiated. Now, read that sentence again. An art museum initiated computer science project. Her colleagues in this enterprise are Dr Allison Keally from Infrastructure Engineering, who heads the project as Chief Investigator, Dr Aaron Harwood from Parallel and Distributed Computing, Dr Wally Smith from Information Systems and Dr Matt Duckham from Infrastructure Engineering. Affiliate organisations that could become involved are Crown Casino, Melbourne City Council, Omnisense Limited, and the School of Surveying and Spatial Information at the University of New South Wales. Only Omnisense Limited needs explaining. It is a UK company based in Cambridge that supplies real-time location-enabled wireless sensor networks. You could
safely say that this would never have happened in the fortress system of the division of learning. The project team has applied for seed funding from the Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society (IBES). Three PhD students have been appointed to the project as well, and there will probably be involvement of third year Geomatics majors students in Bachelor of Environments and Bachelor of Science, and first and second year Master of Engineering (Geomatics) students. A related pilot project is the subject of a funded summer research experience offered by the Potter to computer science students through the School of Engineering.
It doesn’t stop there for the Ian Potter Museum of Art and Dr Gaunt. Other prospects would be "using the Potter as a space for contemporary music composition projects, possibly incorporating animation and filmwork," she says. Then there’s the spaces attached to the museum. "Our Director Chris McAuliffe, just returned from a year acting in the role of 2011- 2012 co-chairman of Australian Studies at Harvard University, is full of fantastic new ideas to stimulate student connections, with groups of students coming out of courses such as the Executive Master of Arts assigned to solving ‘Potter problems’. An example of these is Chris’s ‘Potter problem’ on leisure and consumption, which are now an integral part of the museum experience," Dr Gaunt observes. "Visitor surveys show that attendees are likely to visit with friends, take a meal and so forth as part of the exhibition visit. The cafe is popular and has a strong brand. A grassy knoll [adjacent] presents a modest oasis opportunity. The Potter, as a stakeholder in that campus area, has participated in committees speculating on design and layout. The challenge: get the Potter back into the design conversation, develop the amenity and the business so that the Potter and cafe benefit."
That’s it in a word. The challenge. In the end, that is Dr Gaunt’s brief. To keep finding challenges that draw in the many parts of the university to reinvent the relevance of the museum and the art it holds.
For more on offer at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, see its academic programs.