Rembrandt, George Hein & me: Reflections on the ICOM CECA 2011 Conference

By Gail Romano.

How easy it is to become blasé. After a couple of days among the works of some of the world’s great art masters I realized I had stopped noticing. Caravaggio, Canaletto, Van der Weyden, Bosch, Rubens, Velázquez, Murillo, Goya, Holbein, Gainsborough, Turner, Delacroix, Manet, Renoir, Rembrandt and Degas… all were in danger of becoming wallpaper, the result of information and sensory overload. Six intensive days of good-quality conference in a large European art museum housed in a neo-renaissance palace in a magical city can do that to me.

Thanks to the support of National Services Te Paerangi, UNESCO New Zealand and Hamilton City Council, in September I was lucky enough to be in Zagreb, Croatia, participating in the ICOM CECA 2011 conference where I presented:  Getting out from under the e-word, the way in which language may programme our thinking patterns and in particular how the word ‘education’ may trigger traditional expectations and assumptions around learning.

The artistic and cultural centre of Zagreb is focused in the “old” town, a dignified setting of many cobbled streets and nineteenth century buildings. While the earliest record of the city dates to 1094, much of the older built heritage was destroyed by an earthquake in 1880.

The conference was held in the impressive Mimara Museum, a large institution with nearly 4000 works and a strong art library.

Mimara Museum (bright morning sun). Photo by Gail Romano.
Morning markets

 “CECA is the oldest committee in ICOM so there is a tradition in conferences. But I think that this year there was something really new.” Emma Nardi, CECA President.

In her opening address Nardi noted that the conference topic Old Questions, New Answers acknowledged the importance of continually re-assessing the answers and assumptions on which we base our practice. The 2011 conference also represented a number of firsts for CECA:  live-streaming of a portion of the conference (a first for ICOM as well), use of social media, attendance by the ICOM President, attendance by members from countries that have not taken part before (125 delegates from 46 countries). The conference also launched the new CECA website which is now linked to social media and includes for the first time digitized versions of all ICOM Education volumes, 1-22. The communication initiatives all arose from another CECA & ICOM first: a survey to profile membership.

Mimara Museum (bright morning sun)

It took me 46 hours travel to get to Zagreb for the conference – and it was worth it. What a stimulating mix. With a backdrop of Rembrandt, researchers, university professors and museum professionals delivered papers on theory and practice. One of the sessions that stood out for me was George Hein’s keynote paper. I have read some of his writing on museum education so was excited to hear him speak. He chose to focus on the implication of CECA’s name: Committee for Education and Cultural Action. Education always has a moral/political underpinning – it is never neutral.  Hein believes museums should step into a leadership role in driving democratic social change by providing people with the tools and knowledge to become active members of society. With this aim in mind, he believes the best educational theory for museums is socio-cultural constructivism.  Ask questions and teach the public to ask questions but don’t answer them. For the summary of a subsequent, related lecture he delivered click here.

George Hein’s political/cultural action education continuum for museums



Education not museum’s primary purpose. Focus on collection & preservation. Mainly art museums. Example: James Cuno, Whose Muse?

Limited education emphasising popular access & education for a broad audience.

Progressive education for social change emphasizing education for a democracy.  Examples? Paulo Freire’s literacy programme, the purpose of which was not just to improve literacy but also the social condition of those he taught. Reggio Emilia’s approach also has a political foundation.

“Unless I make myself a little uncomfortable I am not doing enough. I urge you to push to that level of slight risk. You never know what it is until you try.”  George Hein, Lesley University, USA

CECA Board Members in panel discussion. Photo by Gail Romano.

A second session of significance discussed the use of museum standards for education and learning, and best practice. While a rationale for standards may be reasonably easy to develop it was generally agreed that we can only describe and provide justification for what seems to be an ideal practice, and offer support in reaching for it. We can neither prescribe nor measure. Any standard must be sufficiently flexible to allow for institutional and environmental difference.  The good, better, best approach is gaining ground in the wider museum environment. Unanswered questions out of this conversation:

  • How can we measure or assess if we don’t know or agree what makes meaning for a visitor or non-visitor? Should the guideline be what our community says is meaningful?
  • Who decides on quality criteria? Who decides on the criteria for quality criteria?
  • Is it useful to move from national perspectives of quality to international ones? Will this help the profession? Is this CECA’s role to guide this? 
  • Is certification a better (more gentle) approach to maintaining/ improving quality of museum education than standards? 

Panel participants:  Berit Ljung, University of Stockholm, Sweden;  Nicole Geshé, Universite Libre de Bruxelles & Royal Art Academy Brussels, Belgium;  Stephanié Wintzerith, Evaluation für Kultureinrichtungen, Germany.

Conference workshop on evaluation. Photo by Gail Romano.

More inspiration:

  • There is a political aspect to standard development. For example, in the Netherlands at present there is little support for culture and education. “Culture is a left-wing hobby” has become a popular quote along with the sentiment that it should be “pulled off the subsidy transfusion.” This means the cultural field must prove the value of its work and identify hard outcomes. Cultural education programmes have not previously been included in school inspection programmes but now criteria are being set to control the level of cultural education in schools. What will come of this?   Arja van Veldhuizen, Landschap Erfgoed Utrecht, Netherlands
  • Research into the use of audio guides commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture and Communication suggests that audio-guides in general are not thought through and are usually introduced on the basis of exhibition objectives rather than on the basis of the museum’s communication objectives. This means that exhibition communication methods are often in conflict with each other and the research shows that where there is redundancy users stop reading text labels and prefer the audio. However, users will usually only choose an audio-guide originally if they believe there will be specific, additional and very interesting information presented on given objects. Note this does not apply to guides in different languages.  Hana Gottesdiner, Université Paris Ouest, France
  • Multiple perspectives critical in dealing with challenging histories to prevent feelings of exclusion and to teach critical assessment and reasoning. Must provide the balance if an exhibition communicates a dominant perspective. Check particularly for a passive, descriptive voice.  Pieter De Bruijn, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands
  • While we must be able to receive children as a group we must develop proficiency in methods that allow each child to individually develop relevant skills (observation, interpretation, analysis, creativity, and extrapolation).  Melissa De Vreede, Cultuurnetwerk Nederland, Netherlands
  • We need to become proficient at speaking, hearing and translating “100 languages” – any means by which children (& visitors) take in and share their meaning with the world. May include: verbal, graphic, symbolic, logical, imaginative, physical languages. We need to listen and to respond, to use these diverse languages in our communication. Rather than be based on standards, museum education should be based on a philosophy close to what Aristotle called practical wisdom.  Practical wisdom comes from experience and allows us to respond to the audience.  Elee Kirk, University of Leicester, England
  • A museum only needs one policy – an education policy.  Nicole Geshé, Universite Libre de Bruxelles & Royal Art Academy Brussels, Belgium quoting, I believe, The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-First Century (2006) edited by C. Lang, J. Reeve, V. Woollard
  • What is the intrinsic value of museums separate from their function as education facilities? We can preserve objects in other ways, such as in warehouses.  George Hein, Lesley University, USA
  • Interpretation is a form of cultural action. Museum interpretation and education are often seen as synonyms – each are “the issuing of multi-layered messages, intended or not, to the public.” However, Freeman Tilden in Interpreting our Heritage (1957) spoke of interpretation, not as education or information, but as provocation. It must inspire the visitor to “want to discover things for himself and second to see and understand the things at which he looks.” Lessons for museum education from the past?  Daniel Papuga, Ringve Museum, Norway

So, a week well spent – there is so much that I haven’t been able to mention. Regardless of the country we live in and the focus of our institution, those of us in museum education share many similar issues and pleasures. The many perspectives and experiences that my international colleagues brought made this opportunity rich and exciting. If you have the chance to attend such a gathering in the future, my advice is don’t hesitate.

Krapina Neanderthal Museum – Croatia. Photo by Gail Romano.
Educational programmes at Krapina Neanderthal Museum – Croatia. Photo by Gail Romano.Educational programmes at Krapina Neanderthal Museum – Croatia. Photo by Gail Romano.


Gail Romano is Education Manager at Waikato Museum.  She travelled to Zagreb, Croatia to attend and present at the ICOM CECA 2011 conference with support from National Services Te Paerangi, UNESCO New Zealand and Hamilton City Council.

All images are copyright Gail Romano 2011.