Department of Art and Art History Austin

Visual Art Studies Student Julia Caswell Competing in University-Wide Undergraduate Research Showdown

Fri. October 14, 2016

two viewers in a gallery listening to an audio guide and raising hands
By virtue of its pioneering experimentation with digital technologies, museum education has moved out from the periphery of conversations in education. Here at The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Art and Art History, our Visual Art Studies undergraduates are given the resources and the mentorship to think big in terms of digital technology and the museum experience. Visual Art Studies senior Julia Caswell’s experience is a case study for what can be accomplished. Caswell is currently participating in the Texas Undergraduate Research Showdown, presenting her research into new strategies for digital engagement for museums through audio walks.


Be sure to check out Julia’s project and VOTE for her research to advance to the final round!

“Research plays an important role in the undergraduate Visual Art Studies (VAS) program,” writes assistant chair of the Art Education program Dr. Christina Bain. “Since our field examines questions that generally focus on people, learning, and creativity, qualitative research methodologies are well suited for this type of field-based research. VAS students have multiple opportunities to practice research strategies during their coursework and participate in the Undergraduate Research Showcase annually.”

We decided to interview Caswell to find out more. Interview conducted over email.


Could you explain a little bit about your project for Undergraduate Studies Texas Research Showdown?

Julia Caswell: My participation in the Undergraduate Studies Texas Research Showdown is bounded by two objectives. First, the competition’s video requirement asks students to explain their creative research to a general audience. Within the competition format, other students on campus can vote on their favorite entries in the competition and the top six applicants—three voted in by popular vote and three selected by a panel of UT judges—are invited to present their work to a live audience at the final round on Tuesday, November 15, 2016.

Secondly, my objective going into this project and this research was to investigate systematically how audio walks were designed, implemented as educational programs and studied in a museum setting. Which meant that, while interning as the School Groups Program Intern at the Children’s Museum of the Arts in New York, I proactively developed an audio walk. An audio walk is a digital program that you can use in an app-format that gives you interactive information to create an immersive experience with the work in the Cynthia C. Wainwright gallery. The design is meant to encourage engagement while directing viewers through the gallery, introduce children and their families to contemporary art, and utilize inquiry-based questions in the development of higher-level thinking, all while being easy-to-use and fun.

The implementation and testing were developed for the Children’s Museum of the Arts with their unique space and mission in mind. This is an idea I came up with while considering the needs of all the museum’s stakeholders, including the curators, administrators, teaching artists, art educators and most importantly the museum’s patrons. The museum was very open to the different avenues we could take with incorporating audio into their programming. With their willingness to try something new, I was able to create something that I feel really innovates and expands on best practices for education around contemporary art. 

What theoretical lens informed this project?

Some of the theory I was looking at was associated with engagement and experience. Similar to stories, audio walks have the enduring ability to capture one’s attention and engage it uniquely. Husserl and Bachelard’s conceptions of phenomenology play a role in this research and practice, specifically when we refer to reflection, first-person perspective and the kind of immediate reach of “the poetic image when it emerges into the consciousness as a direct product of the heart, soul and being of man, apprehended in his actuality" (Bachelard, 1964).

But also, I was looking at contemporary Canadian audio walk artist, Janet Cardiff and her understanding of phenomenology as connected to “user’s experience.” Cardiff uses simple and straightforward “technology to create a complex, virtual reality in which the 'real' becomes inseparable from the virtual” (Sohal, 2006, p. 73).


What other previous experiences have you had that led you to this field and this research?

It is hard to tell, at this point, what led me to this field and research. You know the old debate, which came first the chicken or the egg? I think the egg, for me, always comes before the chicken. I often have fully-formed pictures in my head and really just need others to enact them to make them real.

One experience that led me to this field and research was my involvement in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship (IE) Pre-Graduate School Internship last semester. My graduate mentor, Allison Clark, who now works in education at the Getty museum, worked with me on a multi-directional mentorship that engaged my passions. We crafted a syllabus and had a conversation in her office once a week. This informed everything I do and I am so thankful for this experience.

I can remember, after a reading about art and technology for a Visual Art Studies class and then having a conversation within a philosophy and criticism course, asking myself and my class, “How are we preparing future students?” It's not just technology as hardware anymore, it’s culture. It’s the way we communicate with one another and the environment that communication creates. For an educator, that becomes a question about the way we teach. So the question behind my research became: What drives today’s students to participate in educationally purposeful activities? What I found was an emphasis on personalized experience among new technologies. The experience of an audio walk is immersive and engaging. Audio walks challenge the user's sense of ordinary. Although an audio walk can be administered as a group, the emphasis of personal cognition is a dynamic tool audio walks employ. As a result, students feel a personal sense of relevance with the curriculum.


In the video, you describe a gap between theory and practice in contemporary museum education. Could you explain?

I think the field of art education is always trying to bridge the gap between theory and practice. My research is in response to what I observed in this particular museum. Twenty first century skills such as problem solving, creativity and communication play a huge role in what art educators do. In conversation with those I had the privilege to work with at CMA, I realized there was a gap between the theories contemporary art draws upon and the actual engagement of the visitors. They were having different conversations entirely. The educator and/or the art historian is normally the filler of that gap, whether by leading tours, programming or holding guided discussions of the work. But I wanted to take it a step further beyond the traditional didactic texts that accompany works in a museum. Audio walks can be a combination of the sound from the actual surroundings overlaid with sounds from past experiences, movie soundtracks, musical instruments, narrative, etc. Audio walks allow the viewer to embody the experience in a variety of ways and not only receive information. 
Additionally, the audio walk employs gamification as an engagement strategy. In the development of the audio walk, I used game-design elements and game-principles. Even something as simple as asking a young user to find all of the basketball hoops in a painting, can significantly increase the level of engagement with the work. At its heart, this research suggests the possibilities of reaching contemporary youth learners who are adept at technology and giving them a platform for learning through personal relevance. 


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