Challenging gender representation, injustice and inequality through art gallery interventions (Huddersfield did it first!)
You may have read recent press coverage about the (temporary) removal of the Victorian painter John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs by Manchester Art Gallery. After the removal, at a planned performance event by artist Sonia Boyce, gallery visitors were asked to write comments and their thoughts on post-it notes in the space left by the painting. This invited them into a dialogue and discussion, and one which was visible on the gallery walls for further visitors to see and engage with. It engaged debate gaining wide press coverage and brought some important issues into focus.
Using post-it notes was a brilliant idea. But, let me tell you, we were doing this at the University of Huddersfield in an art gallery last year!
In March 2017, we welcomed Professor Darlene Clover from the University of Victoria, Canada, to the School of Education and Professional Development as an international scholar. The visit was a fantastic success. With Darlene, and some other members of a Canadian-organised international research project, I am currently researching how art galleries and museums can be used to draw attention to injustices and inequalities, particularly gender, and their potential to be sites for change.
One morning last year, Darlene and I took my cohort of PGCE students (training to be teachers for the lifelong learning sector) into Huddersfield Art Gallery. Darlene introduced the concept of a ‘hack’, and we then asked the students to ‘hack’ into the gallery using a series of questions to analyse and critique representations of not only gender but also of class and race.
The students were asked to intervene, interrupt, change and deconstruct the gallery using post-it notes. They ‘uncovered’ the ‘unseen’, temporarily disrupting the gallery space (with permission) by placing notes on to the walls of the gallery next to artworks, exhibits, labels, curatorial statements.
These notes of intervention made observations, posed challenge, asked questions, contained provocative statements and expressed thought and emotion. There was rich dialogue, discussion and critical reflection about the politics of representation in a gallery and society, and how ‘unseen’ systems of power and meaning can perpetuate injustice and discrimination.
The gallery changed from a passive space into a place of living enquiry, ‘a site for intense engagement’ (Boulton-Funke et al. 2016, p.248), where problematic gender, class and race constructions and exclusions were revealed, according to one student, ‘deeper, quicker’. Gallery visitors, members of the public, were seen to be reading the post-it notes and to be finding them interesting and thought-provoking. Increased critical consciousness was evident in the students, and research has shown this has remained after completing the course.
Meeting Manicom and Walter’s (2012, p4) call for new ‘pedagogies of possibility’, there is great potential for the site-specific pedagogy we are developing to have lasting impact and influence.
With Darlene, I am researching the ‘hack’ as a pedagogical tool and also as an interventionist and analytical practice; we will be presenting and publishing the details of our initial research and findings later this year both at SCUTREA 2018 in Sheffield and at CASAE 2018 in Canada. We will be sharing the outcomes of using the ‘hack’ with postgraduate students in both the UK and Canada, with data and findings drawn from post-it notes, journaling, observations and follow-up focus groups and interviews with students. We are continuing to develop the gallery ‘hack’, and to research its effectiveness – watch this space, it’s exciting! We are looking forward to welcoming Darlene to the School again next week, when she will once again be working with staff and students.
To go back to Hylas and the Nymphs, commenting in The Guardian, Gilane Tawadros says that art institutions shape our attitudes:
‘our sense of who we are, how we see ourselves and we relate to others, is determined by culture in its widest sense. The artworks and objects in our museums and galleries reflect particular stories, and versions of people and events, which should be open to challenge’.
Many of our former students have been in touch following the Hylas and the Nymphs news coverage, linking the post-it notes photographed by the press with their own gallery intervention last year, and the effect upon them. One former student, for example, emailed to say how it has continued to critically influence both her current Master’s study and practice as a newly-employed teacher. ‘It really was an enlightening day’ she said.
Ahead of the game – we at the University of Huddersfield did it first!