January 19, 2016, by Jason Feehily

“Learning together is the best way of learning about each other”

I have recently returned from teaching a masterclass for museums professionals at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo. The masterclasses, part of a series of initiatives aimed at capacity-building in the Creative Industries sector in China were delivered in collaboration with a team from the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A). There were two parallel masterclasses: Managing your Museum in a Global Context covered project management, strategic planning and branding. Storytelling looked at the lifecycle of an exhibition, historical Western approaches to collecting and display, design of museums spaces and the visitor experience.

The masterclasses were delivered collaboratively by University of Nottingham academics with art history, cultural heritage and technical expertise, alongside ‘hands-on’ practitioners from the V&A. The academic in me knows that setting up such a team and delivering successful training when the expertise of the trainers is so divergent is a challenge!  It can only be successful if the team is clear on what the objectives of the training are, and if the teachers collaborate closely and share a clear sense of who is responsible for what.  When it all comes together it is brilliant! There is nothing as exhilarating as teaching that comes together but multiply that sense of achievement when the group you have been working with consists of 60 practitioners drawn from the diverse and dynamic Chinese cultural heritage and museums sector, and you have just spent 3 days working at a really high conceptual level, with fabulously stimulating conversations.



The author at University of Nottingham Ningbo China

Of course, what I haven’t mentioned yet is that while the delegates and I shared expertise and a keen interest in the material, what we lacked was a common language. The delegates mostly spoke Mandarin and while I have been learning Mandarin for over a year, I might be able to order some food, but explaining ideas about, let’s say, Aristotelian ideas of magnificence or Foucault’s heterotopia? The language barrier really worried me: in my teaching, I rely on establishing a connection with the students and getting a sense of how they respond to material. I can then adapt my pacing and delivery accordingly. So how was this going to pan out across a language barrier that could only be overcome by using synchronous translation?


Group working session

It turns out that I had nothing to worry about. The delegates attended the masterclass in order to learn, and they wanted to communicate their ideas as much as I wanted to talk about mine. It took surprisingly little time for us all to get used to working with each other through the slight timelag of synchronous translation. In addition, we ran the classes as ‘flipped classes’, and delegates had a handbook with translated slides they could use, which maximised discussion and networking time in the classroom.


Dr Wang Qi School of Architecture and Built Environment

What have I learned? Arguably, more than my delegates! The challenge of thinking about academic material as directly applicable to an industry brought the material to life in a different way and far from diminishing the value of academic enquiry, really highlighted the robust contribution Universities can make to the cultural heritage sector.  The experience of thinking about Western models of collecting and display with a Chinese audience with a different cultural history led to fascinating debates about the ‘period eye’, for example.  The experience of teaching this different group of learners has challenged me to ask more questions of my own core research. Learning together is the best way of learning about each other. I can’t wait to go back.

Gabriele Neher

National Teaching Fellow, History of Art

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