Cultural acquisitions: A Student-Centred Museum Experience

By Amanda Fritzlan


Amanda Fritzlan has been teaching grade 7 in North Vancouver for 9 years. She recently completed her Masters of Education at the University of British Columbia in curriculum leadership and instructional strategies. Her current interests are philosophy for children and exploring ethics in science education through art. 


Using the perspective of the middle-school students’ experience as the subject, the museum field trip takes on new meaning. Trusting students to explore and engage authentically in a field trip to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia allowed for unique, student-centered learning experiences. Prior knowledge through at school introduction to Aboriginal art theory and practice provided a literacy to enrich personal interactions with museum art and artifacts.

I chose to take my grade seven students to The Museum of Anthropology (MoA) at the University of British Columbia because I thought it was a way to expose all my students to Aboriginal art and culture. Only one or two of my students had ever been there before. MoA manages a phenomenal collection of Aboriginal art. The assemblage of totem poles alone is breathtaking. The curators at MoA attempt to display the artifacts in a way that is respectful and accessible. They also make efforts to return the acquired objects to their places of origin. MoA is representing cultural meaning through these objects and the placement of them.

In the past, my experience with field trips has been one of student reluctance to explore a new territory when they are confined to a strict schedule and prescribed listening, walking, and talking time. As well, I have experienced field trips as isolated events. There is a loose link to curricular prescriptions but often timing and practical details such as cost, transportation, and packaged programs are deciding factors for field trips. Although I thought I was able to plan a field trip beyond this scope, I found that I did not entirely trust my students enough to linger, meander, and engage themselves with the artifacts—to experience the art and artifacts in a holistic manner.

I chose not to schedule a guide at MoA but to allow time for students to create their own tour maps and record their experiences through drawing. I also attempted to build a toolkit/background knowledge bank/legend for their map, by practicing drawing and by sharing what I could about the works they would see. In particular, we watched a video about Bill Reid. We practiced drawing traditional shapes and forms that he used, and examined some of his works through books and Internet images. I introduced students to the surrealist influenced work of contemporary Aboriginal artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. We also looked at the work of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. In particular, we investigated his ways of using traditional shapes and forms in new ways in his Haida Manga hybrid creations. There is a permanent display of Yahgulanaas’ work at MoA. Before going to the museum, I introduced students to an animal painting project and suggested they use the museum pieces to research forms/shapes and animals.

I was amazed and surprised by the focus and time that the students took at MoA. They immediately lay down on the floor, sat on benches, or leaned against pillars with their sketchbooks and recorded their findings in the great hall. There seemed to be little need for parent or teacher “supervision.” They wandered in all directions for a few hours and did not have near enough time to finish their drawings.

Both Solnit (2000) and Stilgoe (1998) use wandering and exploring as a way of discovery, but they take it further. They pursue questions that arise in their perambulations. Stilgoe describes awakening to spatial and visual histories and becoming aware of cultural, historical, and political pasts that “swirl around any explorer of ordinary landscape” (6). The classroom-based school preparation we engaged in before we went to the museum allowed for a lens and a language both verbal and visual for the students to enter into MoA with as a starting point.

So how do my students gain cultural understanding through a collection and display of artifacts that have been removed from their origins? I was taking my students to discover culture in a place that was trying to represent culture.

 Charles R. Garoian (2001) writes about a concept of ‘performing the museum’ in which meaning is generated by the viewer. Performance is a metaphor, as the viewer is an active participant in the exhibit or show. The physical objects and their placement are not the subject. The viewer does not leave her or his self to seek predetermined experience. Instead, the experience of the viewer is the subject. The individual histories and perspective of the viewer shape the experiential nature of the performance (235-237).

I now see performing the museum as a pedagogy that enables us to remove the stilted, traditional agenda of finding Indigenous culture in a museum. It removes the hierarchical, coercive, and prescriptive nature of teaching an experience that is not my own – namely Indigenous culture.

Now, I wish that I had taken more time to explore this way of approaching MoA with my students. Intuitively, I felt I needed to give students a degree of freedom within MoA. Allowing students to roam, to wander, to map freely, and to create their own artwork in response to the museum was their performance. However, conceptually or philosophically I had held MoA and its contents as the central subject. Moreover, there was an element of busywork and behaviour management in the drawing tasks I assigned that inhibited deeper meandering, wandering, and wondering.

If we consider that the development of critical analytical skills that validate students’ experiences as the goal of visiting a museum, we can then enable students to transfer these skills to other curricular areas. I can imagine developing works of visual art, dance, theatre, music, or writing with the students that were their response to or performance of MoA.

In many ways, my classroom is a museum. The curriculum and my pedagogy can also be conceptualized in that manner. I curate the exhibits. I choose how and when to expose students to ideas and materials. I set the pace in time and the (s)p(l)ace (deCosson, 2004). I also have expectations for their retention of information, understanding of concepts, and development of specific skills. These expectations are directed to a large extent by expectations placed upon me in terms of curriculum recommendations. A specific program is selected by a privileged group of individuals and students are expected to achieve certain homogenous outcomes. Foucault (1977) cautions us that teachers are agents of Western systems of power, even as we are responsible for consciousness and discourse.

These ideas draw me to the possibilities that students perform school in the same way that Garoian writes of performing a museum. However, performing school would constitute a shift from the school program as subject to the student as subject. It would mean different outcomes and experiences in every classroom. It would place the arts—and all the activities and learning experienced through the arts—in the centre of the curriculum. The arts allow for, enable, and nurture performative pedagogies and curricula. Through a performance lens, individual creativity and interpretation is encouraged.

If all students perform the classroom, differences of interpretation are presumed. These performances move the social dynamic within the classroom in ways that can bring about focus and work to a (s)p(l)ace where we can honor personal ideas and perspectives, where outliers and non-conformers become the norm.

As teachers, we are only able to gain insights from the perspectives of our young students through their authentic expressions. Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl (in Solnit, 2000, 27) argues “it is the body that moves but the world that changes, which is how one distinguishes the one from the other: travel can be a way to experience this continuity of self amid the flux of the world and then begin to understand each and their relationship to each other.” Applied to school and curriculum, if we understand that the student is continuous and the curriculum is in flux, we shift the relationship and release judgment of the student from an arbitrary assignment. This philosophical shift is needed to help students know who they are and how they can be present and alive in relation to the material—how they can perform what they learn.



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 Foucault, M. (1977). Intellectuals and power, In D. F. Bouchard (Ed.), Language, counter-memory, practice (D.F. Bouchard and S. Simon, trans.). New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

 Garoian, C. ( 01). Performing the museum. Studies in Art Education, 42(3),234-248.

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 Jacques, P., Johnson, G., Taylor, J. (producers), & Long, J. (director) 1979. Bill Reid (DVD). Montreal, QC: National Film Board of Canada.

 Solnit, R. (2000). Wanderlust: A history of walking. New York, NY: Viking Press.

 Stilgoe, J. R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York, NY: Walker & Company.

 Townsend-Gault, C. (1995). The salvation art of Yuxweluptun. In Townsend-Gault, C, Watson, S., Yuxweluptun, L. P. (Eds.), Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun: Born to live and die on your colonialist reservations. Vancouver, BC: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.

 Yahgulanaas, M. (2002). The last voyage of the black ship. Vancouver, BC: Western Canada Wilderness Committee & Tales of Raven.