International Journal of Art & Design Education

Concepts as Context: Thematic Museum Education and its Influence on Meaning Making (pages 103–115)

Volume 33.1   2014



Thematic art museum education programmes – programmes where visitors make meaning of various artworks in relation to a specific preselected theme – are conspicuous within interactive museum education on both sides of the Atlantic. How do thematic programmes influence visitors' experiences with art? In this article, I explore this question based on data collected in a museum education class at a graduate school of education. The findings emphasise how the selection of a particular theme inevitably shapes the way viewers read an artwork. Viewers who are compelled by aspects of an artwork that do not ‘fit’ within the assigned theme feel frustrated in thematic programmes. These viewers contend that the thematic approach flattens the rich, multidimensional – and multi-thematic – experiences that artworks invite. By the same token, the data suggest that the limits that themes set can promote in-depth exploration of certain interpretive avenues in the work and yield feasible, insightful interpretations that might otherwise remain obscure. Ultimately, this article is a reminder that the themes museum educators select – or their absence – inevitably shape the way individual artworks come to life as viewers interact with them.