Looking, understanding and making meaning
: higher education ceramics students as a ‘community of learners’

  • Catherine Speight

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The learning encounter for the ceramic student in the museum takes place against a field of forces (Bourdieu 1993) and cultural struggles (Borg and Mayo 2000). Some are materially present, others are unseen and invisible. They are about access to information, about the choice to see something up close or not and the different power relationships that exist between curators and educators. Students get entangled in the relationship in-between. To succeed they must be able to deal with these different forces. This, I argue, is individually-led but is best supported through group activities and peer networks. Learning about ceramics at the V&A is about managing the restrictions the museum imparts on its visitors as well as finding ways to access information that is relevant and useful. There is little in the V&A’s galleries that helps students to make a connection or work through an idea or process. For students to critically navigate their own pathway, they must learn to question the cultural arbitrariness of what they see in the museum, to ask questions about whose history is being represented, who decides what is selected and to ask why is something here? Conversely, they must also think about what is omitted, why one object takes precedence over another? They need to approach the museum with their own set of critical learning skills, but to do so they must be taught. Drawing on Barbara Rogoff’s research on informal learning fields and specifically the ‘Community of Learners’ model (1994), this study examines the complex interplay between the ceramic student, the museum and their wider disciplinary practice and what this transactional relationship means for individual and group-based learning in the museum. The concepts of field, community and power are used as intellectual tools through which to understand the construction of knowledge and formation of meaning and identity for ceramics students at the V&A. A student’s interpretation of what they see and think in the museum is guided by their tutors. Students can appear reticent to question their judgement, the ‘expository agency’ of the educator is invisible and naturalised as part of the gallery’s discourse. The dilemma is that neither the museum nor the university are aware of how the other is perceived. For university educators, they must reflect on what and how they teach in the gallery and the effect this has on their students. The challenge for museums is the struggle to renegotiate relations of hegemony that are deeply embedded in their structures and behaviours. In the museum, surrounded by objects and defined by their course objectives, HE ceramic students stand at the intersection of a field of forces. Here they ask the question, ‘what is expected of me’? In this study, I argue it is the responsibility of museum and university mentors to help students answer this question and in the process to help them develop their own set of learning strategies, so they too can become independent learners in this rarefied setting.
Date of AwardMay 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorDamon Taylor (Supervisor) & Guy Julier (Supervisor)

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