1 Why multiliteracies at the museum?

Chantelle Warner

Why the Museum?

In recent years, a growing number of scholars and practitioners in language teaching and learning have advocated for approaches that prioritize learners’ activity and engagement with meaning making in the wild (e.g., Malinowski, Maxim, & Dubreil, 2021; Dubreil & Thorne, 2017; van Lier, 1996). Embedded in this thinking is a question whether the carefully curated, discreetly organized presentations of language and culture found in textbooks and teaching materials, however well-chosen, necessarily leave out opportunities for disequilibration (Piaget, 1963; van Lier, 1996, 2004) and transformation. Of importance here is not only the extent to which texts and materials are authentic, in the sense that they have an at least historical relationship to communities of speakers who use the language being learned and taught, but the complexity of the semiotic experience. Outside of the classroom, language is rarely (if ever) encountered as an independent system. Instead, it combines and meshes with a range of other modalities.

Consider the linguistically sparse texts in the image below, which was taken from a pedestrian underway located at the edge of downtown Tucson, Arizona.


Tucson mural. Photo by Chantelle Warner © 2021.

Positioned as they are on the wall, the three murals lend themselves to being read individually or as a series. The murals are heavily visual. Images are featured centrally in each of the squares, which are delineated by differently colored backgrounds. The use of different font types and weights also shapes the meanings of words; for example, in the middle mural, the word Mexican@s is presented in a modern serif font at the top. This is a gender inclusive expression for Mexicans that combines the femine -as ending and the masculine -os ending and which reads more readily than it speaks, pointing to the privilege here of the written mode. The text below reads “¡VIVA LA MUJER!” in a capitalized script with elements that imitate formal handwriting. The word “chukson,” written in a modern blackletter font often associated with medieval or gothic texts, echoes the indigenous name given by the Tohono O’odham people to the space at the base of a mountain, now called Sentinel Peak, which they inhabited an estimated 3,000 years before the city that now stands there appeared. This same mountain is just hidden behind the murals that mark this traffic bridge, which crosses below the railway track that brought settlers out west in late 19th and early 20th centuries. As I stand here, cars whoosh along the road below creating a soundtrack to the image. Just past one end of the underpass is the old center of Tucson as a city, established as a Spanish military fort in 1775, not quite a decade before the Gadsen purchase made the territory part of the United States. I am walking in the other direction, towards the Dunbar-Spring neighborhood; for the first several decades of the 20th century, this place was home to Tucson’s only segregated school for Black students and thus to the majority of African American families in the city, including the two prominent residents for whom it is named: the teacher John Spring and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In some sense, the images stand as waymarkers, signposting two different moments of the city’s history and reminding passersby of the forms of oppression and empowerment that suffused them.

In snapping a picture of the murals, I entextualized many elements of their design, turning them into some that could be shared with people far away from the center of Tucson. This act of creating a text also allowed me to transpose them into new semiotic contexts, here as an example in this teacher guide. But dimensions of the encounter, including spatial, audial, visual elements that extend beyond what can be seen in my photograph also go missing. Transposability and traferrability are valuable aspects of texts, which make them particularly desirable in instructed language contexts, because they bring languages and cultures into the walls of the classroom (be they physical or virtual) and allow them to beexperienced, analyzed, and reflected upon. But language and literacy are grounded most deeply in intersubjective, sensory, and embodied experiences (Leander & Boldt, 2013) that resist the confines of the page.

How can we combine the learning affordances of cultural objects such as texts and images with the kinds of embodiment and movement of semiotic encounters in the wild? This is the puzzle that inspires the project at hand, along with one tentative solution: the potential of museums as a space for exploring language, literacy, and culture in a way that is both curated and complex, stable and unpredictable. Museums – especially but not exclusively those specializing in history, culture, and art – are carefully designed compositions of multimodal elements, including visual artworks and displays, texts, spaces and ways of moving through them, and sometimes even sounds. As Levent and Pascual-Leone (2014) write, “The museum experience is a multilayered journey that is proprioceptive, sensory, intellectual, aesthetic, and social” (p. xiii). Gallery experiences can in a moment focus attention closely and intimately on a single work of art, when the viewer pauases before it to contemplate and examine it. But the dynamic bringing multiple, mulilayered elements together that is central, and  that is arguably what makes viewing a work in a museum qualitatively different from viewing a picture of that same artwork.

Although a claim undergirding this teacher’s guide is that museums are special spaces, they are also not unique, and there are ways in which public art displays, such as the one opening this chapter, can also have some qualities of a gallery experience. Even spaces that are not typically framed as aesthetic, such as the beautifully designed market spaces in Kenya and Tanzania featured in some of the Swahili units in this book, can have elements of a gallery. Virtual spaces can also induce some aspects of a multilayered experience; for example, a web site that allows users to navigate a virtual tour while playing music or other sounds can recreate some of these elements. Thus although the focus and the point of inspiration for this volume is on museums as sites of language and culture learning, issues of access and mobility that constrain an instructor’s opportunity to take students into a physical space are taken into consideration and adapted activities are suggested.

Why Multiliteracies?

In US-based discussions around instructed language learning contexts, multiliteracies approaches have developed over the past two decades into one of the predominant models for conceptualizing second language pedagogy (e.g., Byrnes, 2006; Kern, 2000; Paesani et al, 2016; Swaffar & Arens, 2005; Warner & Dupuy, 2018). The term multiliteracies, is meant to capture the plurality of modalities that come to play in literacy activities (Cope & Kalantzis, 2009, 2015; New London Group, 1996), as well as the diversity of styles and linguistic codes language users maneuver as they make sense of the world and themselves. Instead of equipping learners with decontextualized skills, structures and rules of appropriateness, the mission of language education is in this view to develop learners’ practical sense of how to make new meanings by expanding their linguistic repertoires and fostering in them a critical awareness of language use.

Central to the framework of multiliteracies is the idea of meaning design. As a concept for understanding literacy and language development, design emphasizes variability and agency by promoting textual awareness (see Allen, 2018; Kern, 2000; Paesani et al, 2016). The New London Group (1996) offered a three-part heuristic for understanding the different dimensions of meaning making as design, which has been further developed in work by Cope and Kalantzis (e.g., 2009, 2015) (both members of that earlier collective). Within their model, language and other modalities are viewed as dynamic resources (Available Designs) for meaning making that undergo constant changes (Designing) as language users adopt them for their own intentions and purposes, leading to a novel composition (The Redesigned). This process is transformative both in that the Redesigned becomes a potential future Available Design, but also because “the act of designing leaves the designer Redesigned” (2009, p. 177). Language learning as meaning design thus also foregrounds the subjectivities of learners, who are positioned not primarily as decoders of others’ (typically native speakers’) meanings but as reflective, creative meaning designers themselves.

The concept of design has inspired a lot of recent work in language and culture teaching (e.g., Allen, 2018; Troyan, 2016).  Amidst this growing body of work, which has provided a foundation of concepts and research-based practices for supporting language and literacy development, some scholars in literacy studies have begun to question whether the emphasis on design as goal-oriented risks privileging instrumental uses of language and ideologies of prescriptivism that multiliteracies approaches purported to work against (e.g., Leander & Boldt, 2013; Pahl & Rowsell, 2020). There are some notable parallels here to contemporary critiques of these same tendencies within discussions of intercultural learning (e.g., Kramsch, 2011; Zarate, 2014). Leander and Boldt argue that although the metaphor of design was intended to capture both the process and product of literacy activities, it ends up overemphasizing goal-orientedness and neglects the ways in which literacy is lived as “forming relations and connections across signs, objects and bodies in often unexpected ways” (p. 25). In their work on what they describe as “living literacy,” Pahl & Rowsell and their collaborators (2020) argue further that literacy research has overlooked multisensory dimensions of literacy and the role of affect and emotions as ways of learning and knowing (p. 8). These scholars collectively argue for a greater focus on how literacy unfolds across time and space, as well as more attention to the aesthetic dimensions of language and other symbolic forms as users encounter them in real life situations. Taken together, these ongoing conversations in language and literacy development recognize that while we do things with words (to borrow Austin’s much-cited phrase), we don’t only engage with words to get things down and language/culture pedagogy must attempt to capture some of the complexity and messiness of meaning making as it is experienced.

Multiliteracies at the Museum

The educational potential of museum galleries as spaces that are both carefully curated (read: designed) and also afford variable, dynamic forms of engagement is the focus of a handful of recent publications (e.g., Barry, 2010, 2012; Palpacuer Lee, 2018; Savva, 2013; Savva & Souleles, 2014). Of these, only Palpacuer Lee (2018) focuses explicitly on the context of second language learning.

Inspired by Leader and Boldt’s call to re-visit multiliteracies frameworks, Palpacuer Lee (2018) advocates for the potential of museums as spaces for language teacher development, within which educators can develop an awarenes of how to approach “L2 literacies as the interplay of intersubjective, sensory, and embodied experiences of language users in their situated encounters with symbolic forms” (p. 134) Palpacuer conceptualizes works of art as nodes in “clusters and networks of multimodal meanings,” which can be explored and harnessed during museum-based encounters. The teachers in her study “are invited to pay attention to meanings as they emerge in talk and in context—and to movement and emotions as they unfold in the present tense of unpredictable and emerging literacy events” (p. 136)  and to take these insights back into their own instructional practices. Drawing from the multiliteracies framework of Cope and Kalantzis (2015) and Serafini’s (2014) model of visual literacy, Palpacuer Lee proposes framework, which includes a set of design elements and accompanying questions for guiding learners to experience, conceptualize, analyze, and apply their emergent knowledge in relation to multimodal texts. The following is an adaptation of Palpacuer Lee’s conceptualization:

Design elements Guiding questions
Dots, lines, shapes, directions, tone, colors, textures, dimensions, scale, and movement Representational: What do you see?
What is represented in the painting?
How is the painting designed?
Gaze and visual vectors between participants Social: How do you feel?
How does the painting make you feel?
What in the painting (or in the context of the painting) makes you feel this way?
How do you interact with the characters in the painting?
How do the characters interact with each other?
Multimodal ensembles Organizational: What do you think?

How is the painting designed?

Intertextuality and genre Contextual: What do you think of?
What other texts does this painting remind you of?
What genre(s) can this text be associated with and why?
Author and authority Ideological: What do the artist and the museum want you to think and feel? Why?
Application / Oppositional practice For teachers: How and why would/could you use this text in your L2 classroom (or not)?
How would you approach this text with your students?
For students: How can you transform this into another kind of text (e.g., in a different context, genre, modality, etc.)?

The questions and design elements highlighted by Palpacuer Lee ungird the approach taken in this volume.


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