Curating Narratives: from the Museum as Classroom to the Classroom as Museum

Martina Borghi (PhD candidate) and Prof Giuliana Pieri, LLC, School of Humanities

College Excellence Teaching Commendation 2020

We are two traditionally trained art historians who work in the broader field of Italian Cultural Studies. In 2019 we devised a series of educational events with schools (Sixth Form MFL and Modern History) and Universities (Italian Studies Departments at Hull and Leeds, and School of Modern Languages at Edinburgh University) based on our research expertise in interwar and postwar Italian culture.

The initial stimulus was the exhibition curated by Pieri, entitled The Making of Modern Italy: Art and Design in the early 1960s (Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, London, January-April 2019). On this occasion Borghi run a number of workshops for students of Italian with schools (North London Collegiate, Marlborough College, Harrow) and universities (UCL, RHUL, Birkbeck). The idea was to open up the gallery space to MFL teaching, showing the potential of an engaging, inspiring, and multi-stimuli location such as an art gallery for the learning of a foreign language. The space was conceived as a means to offer students the opportunity to train their oral (listening and speaking) skills with different activities while they were guided throughout the gallery. The object-based environment greatly helped students to contextualize the information given to them. Furthermore, the direct interaction with different kinds of visual sources facilitated and encouraged comprehension and discussion (in Italian) on the exhibition topic. The interdisciplinary and multimedia nature of the project allowed at the same time a linguistic, contextual, and historic analysis. For more information about the nature of the workshops organized please read our blogpost on the Interdisciplinary Italy interactive blog:


Students as curators 

The gallery workshops led us to develop another series of events in which we focused on the use of curatorial practices, understood as the interaction of selection, display and interpretation, as a pedagogical tool to create what Emily Pringle calls: ‘open, generative and questioning environments where practitioners are empowered to ask questions explicitly, explore these through a process of enquiry and make the knowledge created through this process visible’ (E. Pringle, Rethinking Research in the Art Museum, Routledge, 2020, p. 47). Students and participants in the workshops became curators and were given the task to select visual material, devise visual narratives on ‘their’ section of wall space, and present their curatorial choices to the other participants, honing both critical/interpretive skills and presentation skills. The workshops with the universities of Hull, Leeds and Edinburgh used authentic material displayed in London in The Making of Modern Italy, developing thus the pedagogical legacy of the exhibition (which is by nature ephemeral). The workshops with secondary schools (Sydney Russel School and Riverdale School, Essex) focused on the material and visual culture of Fascist Italy, tying the learning activities to the modern history A-level curriculum, building on existing knowledge but also expanding the range of historical sources that students are normally accessing:

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Giving students agency  

By highlighting the degree of subjectivity and personal readings that informs curatorial decisions we aimed to empower students to own their knowledge, share it with members of the ‘curatorial’ group, and use existing and new co-created knowledge in exhibition-style displays, turning participants into critical interpreters of the work on show.

The underlying principle in the events for both university students and especially schools was the way we questioned the customary privileging of the expertise of one specialist individual (lecturer/curator/teacher) over a more dialogic and inclusive form of knowledge creation. Questioning sources, reflecting on how knowledge and interpretation are created through the selection of the material and visual displays (which can undermine, support or challenge textual interpretive narratives), taking the lead in presenting curatorial and interpretive choices; all these processes can be harnessed by educators to foster key critical skills. This practice-lead pedagogy is rooted in the cross-disciplinary and collaborative nature of our research. It is also in dialogue with the field of critical museum studies (Maura Reilly, Curatorial Activism: Towards and Ethics of Curating, London, Thames and Hudson, 2018). By creating an inclusive dialogue, our aim was to give young people and university students agency.

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Student reflections  

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Students were particularly interested in the idea of how exhibitions were created and how material on display could tell multiple stories and function as a multi-layered learning tool. 

We collected feedback forms from students and teachers, and have been able to identify the following strengths of this innovative pedagogical approach:  

Making Transferable Skills Visible to Learners:

The curatorial workshops in universities and schools focused on students’ transferable skills. In their comments they described the activity as a good way to improve teamwork and leadership/organizational skills, work under time constraints to deliver a museum-style educational activity (the guided tour of their section of the exhibition), and present in front of other people (verbal communication).

Supporting and Developing Critical/Interpretive Skills:

The curatorial phase stimulated students’ personal interpretation and critical thinking about the use of images and helped them to relate visual stimuli to the studied historical context. Most importantly, different A-level students described this phase of the activity as a productive moment of self-reflection on the concepts analysed. Furthermore, students noted that they felt more confident in the analysis of images and other visual sources, and better equipped at teasing out historical/contextual information from the sources they worked with.

Generating multiple forms of knowledge, both theoretical and practical:

Participants appreciated the chance to understand the process of curation, especially in relation to the way display affects meaning and how it interacts with verbal narratives. Many participants reported change in behaviour, commenting on how the workshops had given them real insight into curatorial practices and the way exhibitions and displays communicate knowledge. Using curatorial approaches in the classroom had also important epistemological implications, underscoring the principle that scholarship is not simply communicating knowledge but creating new knowledge through an enriching pedagogical exchange. This is an important shift, especially for A-level students, who may be preparing for higher education, but also for university students who through the workshops were encouraged to reflect on the role of knowledge holders, who should be defined less by what they know and more by how they develop and share their knowledge. The underlying principle is a move away from epistemological authority to the dissemination, integration and application of scholarly knowledge from elsewhere which fosters inclusive learning in which knowledge is co-created in critical dialogue with others. 




See other case studies on our Seminars and workshops page