Art as a Form of Inquiry and a Way of Knowing


March 13th, 2012

In March 2011, the Exploratorium hosted a conference called Art as a Way of Knowing. The conference brought together some 125 leading international thinkers—representing work in education, art and science museums, contemporary art, and interdisciplinary research. Participants gathered for two days of presentations, discussions, performances, and roundtable conversations about art as a method of inquiry and way of knowing. A report on the conference will be issued this month, and can be downloaded at

A starting point for the conference was to move beyond the discussion about similarities, differences, or complementarities between art and science. Instead, we wanted to know how the arts expand our engagement and understanding of the natural and social worlds. In particular, we were interested in the implications of this history and practice for the field of public engagement with science.

The conference was structured into three main strands:

  • exploring art as a form of inquiry
  • understanding lesser known histories of art, education, and science that converged to shape the post–World War II science museum and the institutional learning cultures that emerged from this legacy
  • surveying the contemporary landscape, focusing on compelling ways in which artists are working in science and interdisciplinary contexts today, including in informal public learning environments

The final report summarizes key ideas, which we share here in bullet form:

Art as a Form of Inquiry, Method of Pedagogy, and Way of Knowing

  • Art as a Form of Inquiry, Method of Pedagogy, and Way of Knowing
  • Art is effective at engaging and distilling complex and dynamic problems.
  • Art challenges habits and certitude.
  • Art engages all of the senses and sense-making capacities of the learner.
  • Art provides opportunities for synthesis and personal meaning-making.
  • Both artists and scientists pursue the big questions of their times.

Cultural Histories: Why Art to Engage People in Science?

  • Artists after Sputnik increasingly engaged directly with processes of nature and systems of the natural world.
  • Artists in the late 1950s and early 1960s moved their work outside of the art world’s gallery system to everyday locations, public spaces, and public lands to foster new perceptions of the world.
  • The questions, tools, materials, and inquiries of artists from the 1960s have influenced the practices of artists and cultural institutions today.

Program Design: How Are Artists Actively Engaging People in Science Learning

  • Artists are engaging the public in explorations focused on the dynamic relationship among local physical, cultural, and natural landscapes.
  • The arts are positioned as central to the development of maker and hacker cultures, blending low- and high-tech means of production.
  • The arts are being integrated as both a process of learning and a means of authentic assessment, in formal as well as informal settings.
  • Opportunities for artists to move out of the studio and into the lab continue to proliferate, providing rich contexts for artistic research and investigation.

Conference agenda, details, videos, transcripts, and the full report can be downloaded at