Looking 101: A conversation with curator Essi Rönkkö

The average museum visitor spends less than 30 seconds looking at a work of art. It usually takes us far less than that to draw conclusions about what we see; the human brain seems to perform this work automatically and instantaneously. How can we slow down our looking habits to better understand the process of meaning-making? How can our individual backgrounds and lived experiences affect how and what we see?

In Fall 2022, The Block is piloting a project titled Looking 101, an exhibition curated by Essi Rönkkö, Associate Curator of Collections. This installation of works from The Block’s collection supports Northwestern’s undergraduate curriculum and offers visitors a way to exercise and develop visual skills that can be used to analyze any work of art. We sat down with Essi to learn more about the exhibition and its goals.

What was your inspiration for the Looking 101 installation?

I wanted to think about ways to activate work from our recent collecting initiative, and saw the potential to expand upon our collection-based teaching. Our galleries are always teaching spaces, but we wanted to experiment with turning a gallery into a classroom, while also keeping it open to the public. What we came up with is Looking 101, an exhibition that serves as a teaching space but is also open to visitors when it’s not in use by students and faculty. Our hope is to both increase our physical capacity to invite students in during the Fall term and share our teaching mission with the public.

A view of Looking 101 in The Block Museum Katz Gallery

What classes will you be working with? You’ve mentioned a specific focus on first-year curriculum.

I worked with a number of faculty members teaching introductory classes in the fall to select 10 works for the gallery to support their syllabi. Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences has just launched its new College Seminar—a course taken by most first-year students in the fall—which serves as an orientation to studying in college. While these fall seminars have a thematic focus, they are also intended to serve as an introduction to campus resources and to academic skills, including writing and research. For example, an African American Studies seminar may be about the legacies of class, gender, and race in America, but will also support students to explore that topic through the introduction of research frameworks and methodologies that might be used across a variety of subjects.

We saw these seminars as an opportunity to create something that has broad appeal across prominent themes in the curriculum.  In particular, we wanted to offer a tool to introduce students to concepts of close reading and visual analysis, and the development of critical thinking skills—and to The Block as an educational resource.

What will visitors encounter when they arrive?

This exhibition will look slightly different from a typical museum installation: There aren’t any labels with interpretive texts on the walls to go with each object. Instead, you are invited to enter the space and pick a work that you’re interested in learning more about. We encourage you to really spend some time looking before gathering any contextual information. For this purpose, we’ve provided a looking guide with prompts for engaging with the work during these initial steps of looking. Typical gallery label information is also available by QR code, or in a research packet available in the gallery after you’ve built your own initial analysis of the work.  

In the end, you are invited to develop your own interpretation of the work by combining your own observations and personal perspective with the additional information we have provided. There is no single, objective, and correct interpretation of any work of art; meaning is always contextual and subject to rethinking.

Essi Rönkkö, Associate Curator of Collections, leads a close-looking conversation.

Perhaps that is true even for art historians, or those who have specific subject-matter expertise related to the work?

Exactly. This exhibition foregrounds how expertise can be shared and can come in many forms. We are all experts on our own lives, and we can bring that to bear in an encounter with art in a way that’s legitimate and can add to the interpretation.

I hope this exhibition will also encourage people to pay attention to that—often anonymous— authoritative voice that curators use when we write gallery labels and offer our interpretations. I also hope visitors get to explore how contextual information about a work of art changes how we see it.

Is this a method you’d suggest using in all art encounters?

Not necessarily. There’s no one correct way to look. This guide simply offers tools to get started and mirrors the beginning of a typical class visit with me in our study room.  I like to start with a discussion and weave in contextual information in along the way, rather than lecture at people.

Will you walk us through the steps of the looking exercise?

You start with pointing out and describing everything you notice: looking at what materials and techniques may have been used to create the object; any forms or styles that you recognize; naming elements of color, space, composition, and perspective. And then we start over, looking again. I urge students to force themselves to spend almost an awkward amount of time pointing things out. It is sometimes surprising how many things you see when you force yourself to keep looking before jumping to interpretation.

Once you feel like you have noticed everything, it’s time to put together an initial analysis of what is going on based on your observations. What seems to be the focus, if there is one? Is there subject matter that you can recognize based on your own personal experience or knowledge? Is there a certain way that the work of art makes you feel and why might that be? How might your personal experience influence your analysis?

Looking 101 viewing guide on the gallery wall

After you have developed that initial interpretation on your own, you can go to the research packet and learn more.  In a classroom setting, I will play that role and share what we have learned through research or our object files. Here, we tried to keep that information as factual as possible, and—although the line between interpretation and fact is always a little hazy—, we try to not offer too many of our own interpretations.

The final step is putting together your own interpretation with the additional information and thinking about what the work means for you. You can also consider how your experience might have been different if you had read the research information first. And again, this part is always subjective.

I think one of the things I love most about this process is that those steps steer you from trying to do all those things at once: looking, interpreting, and analyzing all at the same time.

Having a framework for breaking down a complex task into manageable chunks makes even the most daunting task doable. In that sense, this is the simplest possible introduction to what methodology is. Dissecting the analytical process can also help you notice or identify some of the cultural assumptions we make when we interpret a work of art or an image. Say, you see an image and say immediately “Oh, it’s a photo of a guy from the 1970s.” How did you make such a quick interpretation? What are the specific clues in the image about technique, gender presentation, and time period that you used to make that interpretation? And sometimes it might be a little surprising, or even uncomfortable. Those assumptions about things like race, gender, and class that we bring to every situation are really interesting to investigate.

Is this process best done individually or in a group?

It’s definitely great as a dialogue with another person or as a conversation in groups. Different people notice different things, and that’s always so fascinating to see those differences of perception or opinion. But you can do it on your own just as well.

Do you see this project as a model for similar teaching galleries going forward?

I hope to learn a lot from this experiment to develop our curricular engagement. We will assess the format by reviewing feedback from our faculty collaborators and visitors. My hope is that we can develop this space a resource our faculty can rely on being available every year.

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