Digital cameras as renewed technology in a gallery: Young people as photographers of their learning

Galleries are now actively concentrating on enriching the total gallery experience’ for visitors, and as McIntrye & Murphy (2011) reiterate are ‘tailoring new kinds of social experience for visitors to exhibitions’ (p. 4).  In addressing this focus,  mobile devices, interfaces and connection with websites are becoming more embedded and networked, and are thus changing the experience of visiting galleries (Johnson, Adams & Witchey, 2011; Dixon, 2011). In their nature, the interaction with digital technologies offers and provides more flexible and personalized information and encourages interaction and discussion between visitors, gallery staff and artists (Becker, 1995; O’Brien, Djusipov & Wittlin, 2007). The impact of these changes for gallery education staff in these settings is allowing for new and innovative exploration (Chamberlain, 2011; McIntyre, & Murphy, 2011; Johnson, Adams & Witchey, 2011; Department of Natural Resources, Environment, The Arts and Sport, 2011).  Digital technology is challenging the way gallery education programs (both public and school programs) support exploration and discovery especially with the development of mobile technology. This way of working and engaging with meaning making has become very important to gallery educators and many are exploring how digital and communication technologies can be developed to offer visitors a more interactive, personalized gallery and art museum experience (Mackey, Adams, & Focus, 2010; Chamberlain, 2011; Dixon, 2011). The digital camera is seen as one technology that can be used in this space to enable the interaction with young people on school organized visits. This is one aspect that the Ways of Seeing pilot project aimed to investigate.


In rethinking how the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), a major art gallery in Melbourne, Australia, envisioned their education programs and thus the impact on children and young people, a need for further work had been acknowledged in the area of feedback and evaluation of programs and experiences. The approach of listening to young people through the generation of digital images ignited interest in the NGV educators specifically for impact on education program planning, consultation and perspectives on lived experiences. Aligned with the NGV’s strategic planning, this pilot project aimed to establish possibilities for young people to use digital technology to record their learning as visual narratives in gallery-based learning programs. The aim was to enhance engagement with art knowledge, understanding, meaning making and the gallery as an art space. Underpinning this new way of working and collaborating with young people was an innovative way to connect with how young people learn and understand from multiple perspectives and how they understand their gallery learning experiences. This new way of working for the NGV was developed out of the image based research by Lemon (2008; 2010) to enable the views and experiences of young people to be expressed while encouraging mutual respect by adults to listen and appreciate varying perspective. It was also hoped that collaborating with young people and promoting them to generate images of their gallery visit would provide feedback on experiences to influence future learning and pedagogical approaches within gallery education programs.

As a qualitative mixed methods (Mason, 2006) study, an interpretivist paradigm framed a participatory action research methodology underpinned by image based methods and visual narrative inquiry (Bach, 1998; Lemon, 2008; Lemon, 2011). The pilot project engaged one school, a primary school from the southern metropolitan region of Melbourne, Victoria, Australia and invited 28 primary aged students (12 males and 15 females) with a mean age of 10.42 years from grade 3 to 6. The mixed age and multilevel group enabled varied age appropriate interactions to be explored and represented. Two teachers and three NGV education staff were also involved in various stages of planning, implementation, and delivery of gallery learning experiences with the young people as a part of the project. Permission was received from all participants including those under the age of 18, with pseudonym given to all participants.

The pilot project included five stages that highlighted the transferring of learning between all participants in multiple sites at multiple times . Data collected was field notes of observations, participant reflections over the five stages of the project, and the students’ photographs and visual narratives.  

This post focuses on elements of one stage; the school visit to the NGV (Stage 2), where the digital camera was embedded into learning opportunities to capture the lived experiences of the young people. Each student had their own digital camera when they visited the gallery that were sourced via the school, home and researcher.  In focusing on the embedding of a renewed digital technology in the gallery space for the first time, insights shared in the next sections focus on student voice and choice, access and equity, and the movement around the gallery when using the digital cameras.

Digital cameras in gallery learning

The digital camera integrated into this pilot project was seen as an emerging technology as it was not a digital tool commonly accessed for gallery education interactions. Emerging technology in gallery spaces are sometimes reconnections to ways of working with pre-existing technology (Johnson, Adams & Witchey, 2011; Dixon, 2011). In their nature, the interaction with digital technologies offers and provides more flexible and personalized information and encourages interaction and discussion between visitors, gallery staff and artists (Becker, 1995; O’Brien, Djusipov & Wittlin, 2007; Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). It is in this case that the collaboration between the technology and the gallery space offers innovative ways of working, celebrating learning and challenging new ways of listening to young people.

Working with the gallery this way encouraged further interaction and promoted the freedom to come back and revisit their learning…for the children to explore in a way that is centred around their own inquiry, and that they can come to the gallery for as long or as short a period a time…the digital camera encouraged a more meaningful interaction with the gallery. (Santina, teacher reflection)

What was also interesting in the integration of the digital camera was the connection to the idea that visitors can take home content, memories, and their lived experiences (Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). As Simon (2010) reiterates ‘the ideal personalized cultural experience doesn’t end when visitors leave the institution’ (p.67) and while it impossible and unrealistic for museums and galleries to continually maintain a relationship with each visitor there are opportunities for personalized connections ‘to follow visitors beyond the exit doors’ (p.67). The Ways of Seeing project tuned into this, highlighting the eagerness for young people to continue to engage with the photographs they had generated on their visit to the gallery in other spaces such as at school and home. A strong connection to ‘voice’ and ‘choice’ in regards to how and what the young people photographed was evident, as to the insights shared across spaces.

Voice and choice

Promoting the students to share their voice and for them to feel valued for their contribution was paramount to the success of this project. From the beginning of this collaboration, the agreements of mutual respect and listening were crucial for the students to realize that adults did actually want to hear what they had to say about their experiences.Sharing my opinion meant that for Jenny (Grade 3) she:

 ‘…could really tell them (NGV Education staff) what I thought because sometimes when you are expressing an opinion to someone who has a different opinion sometime you feel you should agree with them, you say what you think they want to hear not what you really think’.

Voice and choice is connected to the social aspects of intrapersonal and interpersonal learning; being independent and working with others, problem solving how to do this while interacting in the gallery as well as with the artwork. The students are seen as independent learners (Kydd, 2007; Burnham & Kai-Kee, 2011). As young people the choice to interact with peers that are friendship-driven and interest-driven (Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., et al. (2010) was a significant pedagogical decision on the part of both the teachers and gallery education staff throughout this project as this connection was seen as a motivator of sharing voice and being heard alongside inquiring together.

In using the digital camera in the gallery space to capture lived experiences Brad (Grade 4) shared that when he made the visual narratives he wanted to make sure he ‘showed them what I did like and didn’t like so it was showing my point of view’. Melanie (Grade 5) enjoyed ‘capturing the artwork however [I] wanted to be honest as well’. Being authentic and valued for opinion highlighted the strength in honoring student voice. Many of the young people expressed appreciation of being listened to.

As the students were shown mutual respect for sharing their opinion the gallery education staff honored what they were hearing and reflected on these insights. As Simon (Grade 5) shared ‘because we get to explain what we like and what we don’t like’ when the NGV education staff saw us in the gallery and when they visited us at school ‘I did my best so they could see what I liked’. The collaboration of young people and gallery staff generated appreciation and allowed for the establishment of a learning community where neither judgments nor put downs were present.

Students sharing their visual narratives at the school to an audience of teachers, parents, peers and gallery staff with one NGV staff member recording their experience on their mobile tablet.

The valuing of voice for impact of continued learning and teaching moments, that connected with young people, encouraged the pedagogical benefits of student centered inquiry and art appreciation with the NGV as a provider of these experiences.

The sharing of voice and being listened to really resonated with the students. Once they knew they were going to be listened to by the gallery education staff they shared deeply. (Santina – teacher reflection)

Capturing what took the young people’s attention was valued and the post project reflections (Stage 4) highlighted comments of enjoying the opportunity to collaborate with the NGV on sharing views for program impact, development and reinforcement of what works well. Leanne (Grade 4) reflected in her writing commenting that ‘the best thing about using the digital camera was that you could record the things you like – like you have your own gallery to look at later (take out the parts you like and store them)’. Choice associated to generating own digital photographs was also highly rated by the young people. Natalie (Grade 5) reinforces ‘we got to capture the moment’.

The digital camera was a device to support student centered inquiry and their curiosity. The choice associated to how this was done while maneuvering the gallery space honored their inquiry.  When the young people were allowed to explore the gallery based on their own interests and guided by moving floor to floor, their own noticing, confidence and freedom to inquire became more student directed.

A group of young children in the gallery reviewing their images on their digital cameras.

The choice associated to being able to select what to photograph, when, how and why validated the sharing of their voice; it offered sharing of their insights into their experiences. This validation was critical in connecting to the collaboration agreements (mutual respect, open communication, no put downs, and active listening) but also verifying that the teachers and gallery education staff really did want to hear their voices.

Access and equity

I got to take photos of what I thought was interesting. You could use it [the digital camera and generation of photographs] for your expression of what the gallery was like. (Charlie, Grade 6)

The young people of this study were introduced to the digital camera from the initiation of the project. The aim of the gallery visit was made explicit as to the why of using the digital camera to capture their experiences. The support prior to visiting the gallery was constructed through camera orientation lessons at school, as one of the teachers reflects:

Photography skills were developed and extended. A lesson by a photographer [a teacher on staff] with real life connections and examples demonstrated for the students what is possible, promotes this art form, and also allows for the chance to inquire and question. The skills learnt were transferred to practice in the gallery. (Santina, teacher reflection)

The need to make sure the children were comfortable in using their digital camera meant a photography orientation session was required to be carried out. This was undertaken in two forms: a formal at school session by an experienced photographer (in this case a teacher on staff) who could talk about compositions, angles, how to hold a camera steady, lighting, and how to construct an image that captures exactly what is wanted. The second session was an informal on the spot briefing about digital camera use at the gallery before the formal program began (due to variety of sources the cameras were accessed from) that focused on turning camera on/off, turning off flash, and how to care for the camera.

It was small and handy to use. There was a grid so you could take your photo properly. (Steph, Grade 4)

The logistics of each child having a camera was vital to the success of the project and to valuing each child’s individual voice. Imogen (Grade 3) mentioned that ‘if I was sharing a camera I wouldn’t always get to take photos that I wanted to’ and that this supported her being able to remember and create the visual narratives on return to school. Capturing the experience was supported by the Stage 1 preparation of using a digital camera. Bronwyn (Grade 3) reflected that ‘seeing things and choosing the angle and framing for each shot’ enabled as Oliver (Grade 3) reinforced ‘that you could show people what you saw’. Steph (Grade 4) supported the prior camera workshops benefit by sharing that ‘it was small and handy to use. There was a grid so you could take your photo properly and that learning this before visiting the gallery helped me take better photos’.

Moving around the gallery space

Challenges to create inclusive and accessible spaces that are open to appropriation and responsive to contemporary agendas of ongoing lifelong learning have resulted in new architectural forms for museums, inside and out (Macleod, 2005). The development of a map of the NGV exhibitions floor by floor by the gallery education staff assisted the students to be able to be safe and know where they could move around while using the digital camera. This included inside and outside exhibition spaces.

Outside there was this awesome climbing 3D octagon thing that we sat on and had our lunch. (Steph, Grade 4)

The project highlighted free exploration of the gallery space however this was guided in terms of the time, exhibition spaces accessed, and boundaries of where they could and couldn’t go based on the learning outcomes of the program. Trust and mutual respect for following traditional gallery etiquette (such as no touch, no run, and low level of sound) underpinned the physical movement around the gallery space. Parent helpers for care and compassion of movement around the gallery supported the students to be able to explore floor by floor across the designated collections and exhibitions and to make sure the flash was turned off.

The security guards were scary. (Imogen, Grade 3)

Individual gallery constraints were highlighted through tensions between security staff. This manifested itself through security staff either being supportive of the young people maneuvering through the gallery space with more freedom verses preempting potential challenges when interacting with artwork space. Some expected there would be problems and suggested undesirable etiquette could be present therefore the young people shouldn’t be allowed in exhibition spaces. It is interesting to note that there was actually no misbehavior by the students or etiquette that interfered with acceptable viewing of artwork, rather a high level of engagement and self and peer monitoring. The ability for gallery education staff to be able to move ahead of the young people across floors enabled security staff to be briefed about the project and how the education team was trialing a different way of working with young people was a productive strategy enacted.

Concluding remarks:  The digital camera

The digital camera was mobile throughout spaces and time for the Ways of Seeing project. We highlight that learning with and through the digital camera as a renewed digital technology ‘happens nearly anywhere and anytime’ (Peppler, 2011, p.9). The young people were trusted to use the equipment, given access to skills and knowledge for successful use, encouraged to use the digital camera and capture their gallery visit experience while instilled with choice to capture what was meaningful for them. What came with the generation of their images was the availability to share across multiple sites in the gallery, at school or home and over time with peers as well as with other classmates who were not a part of the project. Opportunity also arose to share across sites and over time with teachers, parents and family, and the gallery education staff. Ongoing learning and the ability to keep participating in meaning making stimulated by the art work and gallery space (Simon, 2010) was supported through the use of the digital camera. Even the downloading of images in school, home, and across different computers and spaces supported participation and engagement beyond just the time spent in the gallery space.  For this to occur it was important for the following guiding principles to be enacted throughout the collaboration:

  1.  Access and equity are vital for all involved in a collaboration
  2. Scaffold use of the digital technology and allow for learning of new skills
  3. Trust young people with digital technology
  4. Support use by being available to assist with questions and problem solving in use
  5. Allow choice to be enacted in how the digital technology is used 

Young people were seen as capable photographers and generators of visual narratives to communicate their experiences, thoughts and ideas as lived experiences of their gallery visit. The initial insights gained, although not fully shared in this paper due to ongoing analysis, allowed for understanding what types of art works fascinated students, how they engaged with the size and multi-sides of art works, as well as their needs for information, want to be able to ask questions, and appreciation for being able to express what they actually think about art work rather than conforming to what an adult wants to hear. For the teachers and education gallery staff the insights into realizing students want to share their voice more and how empowered they felt in being trusted to use the digital cameras will have implications for further learning and teaching design.


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