Sunday, 22 September 2013

Do museums make you tolerant?

Picture: Crystal Bridges Museum/Stephen Ironside
Don Bacigalupi, President of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, claims that research proves that after a single visit to his museum with a one-hour tour school students "showed significant increase in critical thinking skills, levels of tolerance and an increase in historical empathy." Sounds impressive, but it's not true.  

The critical thinking score was mainly derived from the students' ability to describe works of art; 96% of the average score for 'critical thinking' came from describing a picture and working out what's going on. The remaining 4% came from things like evaluating, problem finding and flexible thinking - all the stuff we might regard as 'critical thinking'.  It seems odd to me that critical thinking should be one of the key things sought in this study, as it's not generally considered to be one of art's specific virtues. 

Common sense should tell us that such a fundamental aspect of character as tolerance is unlikely to shift measurably after half a day in a museum. I'm still an intolerant curmudgeon despite many days in art museums. The study tried to measure tolerance with four questions, but the methodological appendix concedes that the statistical measure for the internal consistency of these questions - i.e. if they are actually testing the same thing - "falls short of conventional standards". When asked about the statement 'Artists whose work is critical of America should not be allowed to have their work shown in art museums', 32% of students who'd been on the trip agreed versus 35% of those who hadn't. That small difference is meaningful, but the failure to demonstrate that they have a coherent measure for tolerance means you can't claim that school trips to art museums make children more tolerant. The internal consistency score for historical empathy was also weak and only marginally achieved the minimum standard to be regarded as statistically valid. 

Bacigalupi is right to say "no one would dispute the cultural enrichment that [school museum trips] affords these children", which makes me wonder why they're struggling so hard to justify them. We should be especially sceptical of this research because it reinforces generally held views about the value of cultural visits. We're predisposed to give more credence to research that supports our views, and to disbelieve research that challenges our prejudices. But research isn't true just because it's palatable.

The research showed that kids recalled stuff they'd been told a few weeks earlier. And they were able to apply what they'd learned; kids who'd been to Crystal Bridges scored better when writing about a picture they hadn't seen on the trip. Shocking news - children can be educated! I jest, but it's a serious point. The article makes the important observation that school museum trips often eschew teaching in favour of facilitated discussion, on the erroneous assumption that kids won't retain information that's fed to them. I think some of the findings have been over-stated and some important details are hidden away in the statistical appendix, but this is a robust, interesting and useful study. 

Crystal Bridges is over-selling this research, which is irresponsible and unnecessary. But that's not to question the merit of their school tours. From what I can see, it's a serious and well-thought-out programme that sets high standards. It stands tall on its own merits, and has no need of Bacigalupi's extravagant claims. 


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  2. How true what you say. As a grumpy traditionalist arts critic I would only point out that not all the work on view at Crystal Bridges is "art"—not by any objective definition, that is. School children on tour are not likely to learn of this contrarian perspective when viewing such works as Joan Mitchell's 'Untitled" - - however.

    As it happens, a recent post on the Real Clear Arts weblog is entitled "School Days At Crystal Bridges: Ring That Bell!" - . I make two comments there.

    (Our Facebook post today features "Musings on the art world by a horrified traditionalist," by the way. Thanks for it.)

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, 'What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand' (2000) - -

  3. Thank you both for your comments, and for the link. I've been following the reception of this research, and the one-sided press release seems universally to have been accepted as objective fact. Such a shame, as the evidence shows a very different picture.

  4. My wife and I visited The Crystal Bridges Museum earlier this year and I struck up conversations with two of the security guards and was impressed that they both were very interested in art history. Genuinely, not a few lines rote or anything. I was impressed. Of course, Rockwell's giant "Rosie the Riveter" already had me all smiles before I talked with anyone!