Guest Column with Dr Heather Gaunt

August 12 / 92

Academic Programs at the Ian Potter Museum of Art

I've been Curator of Academic Programs (Research) at the Ian Potter Museum of Art since mid-May, having returned to work at the Museum after 13 years away raising a family, doing a PhD and working in other positions. My role, a new one for the museum and myself, is tremendously exciting, having the potential to fulfil the triple helix mission of the University in the most practical terms: engaging with students, graduate and undergraduate, and external partners, in richly cross-disciplinary and collaborative ways. 
 
The Academic Programs unit at the Potter has two full-time staff dedicated to connecting academics and students from across the University to the museum's collections, programs and environments. Most undergraduate courses with which we engage come for a week of tutorials in a semester-length course, although some visit multiple times in a semester. Tutorials can relate to  xhibitions, or may focus on selected works brought out from collection storage. In Semester 2 we have students from more than 25 different courses visiting the museum for tutorials, or engaged with assignments or seminars. The majority come from the Faculty of Arts, but we also have students from Business and Economics, Science, Engineering, Dentistry, and Education.

My particular focus is on fostering student research activity, administering various internships, and setting up relationships with courses where we can offer a 'problem' for groups of graduate students to work on, in courses such as the Graduate Certificate in Advanced Learning and Leadership (GCALL) and the Executive Master of Arts. The more diverse the disciplines I can connect, the happier I am. 
 
Research can focus on areas such as artworks, exhibitions, the built environment, outputs such as statistics on visitation, 'case study' scenarios for advertising and marketing or business skills, issues in law such as Intellectual Property Rights or copyright.  Finding a common language to address research issues is part of the challenge, with connections in projects as diverse as geospatial engineering and palliative care.

One key area in which we can contribute meaningfully to undergraduate and graduate programs, beyond the traditional connections with art history and curatorial studies, is in teaching visual observation skills. The art museum offers a unique environment which takes students out of their normal mindset, where art can be used as a 'visually foreign object' to teach students how to detect and describe fine visual detail, to extrapolate meaning and/or narrative, and communicate what they see effectively through discussion and debate. 
 
I started this work with a pilot seminar in June this year, in collaboration with Dr Natasha Michael from Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, in which we asked a small group of medical students to examine and debate 'differential diagnoses' on key works of art on display, skills which were then explicitly transferred in discussion to medical scenarios. A similar successful session was conducted with students of Dr Mina Borromeo in Special Needs Dentistry, this time with a greater focus on  empathy development. 
 
All the students found the work undertaken to be relevant to their learning, and were interested in further, lengthier 'courses' in the area. Having had encouraging conversations from academics in other disciplines, I am now interested in expanding this type of visual observation skills enhancement training in areas such as art history and engineering, where skilful interpretation of visual data is crucial to academic and professional success.

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