Tacit Knowledge: we know more than we know we know

I have always been interested in the difference between the veneer of the conscious self – the things we think we know and can articulate – and then all the other stuff that lurks beneath that – the memories, biases, aptitudes, drives and desires that exert an enormous influence over our thoughts and actions. What fascinates me most about the latter is that you can never fully look it in the eye, by its very nature it lies beyond conscious engagement. A whole family of trolls lives under the bridge you’re standing on – you can’t see them, but you can sense them. And when you visit a museum, your troll family comes along too (hiding behind pillars, under ticket desks and inside vases). You leave the museum having had two experiences – the one you’re aware of and the one you’re not aware of, but it’s there nonetheless. How can we engage more deliberately with both? How can we encourage your troll family to want to come back too?

A useful way of thinking about non-declarative knowledge is Michael Polanyi’s concept of tacit awareness or tacit knowledge. I once had it described to me as ‘everything you know minus everything you can say about what you know’. Classic examples of tacit knowledge are riding a bike or playing a piano – the more attention you pay to what you’re actually doing, the more likely you are to stuff it up. Polanyi presents knowledge as a construction that is social (for example, both language and tradition come from a shared, collective understanding) and deeply personal (we can only understand the world through our individual experiences). Without ever being able to touch an entirely objective reality – because we assimilate everything through our subjective experiences – Polanyi argues that all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.

An important dimension of tacit knowledge is the difference between focal and subsidiary awareness. Polanyi describes hitting a nail with a hammer as an example. The nail has our focal awareness (or it should have, to avoid an injury) and the hammer has our subsidiary awareness:

“When we use a hammer to drive a nail, we attend to both nail and hammer, but in a different way… The difference may be stated by saying that the latter (hammer) are not, like the nail, objects of our attention, but instruments of it. They are not watched in themselves; we watch something else while keeping intensely aware of them. I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in my palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving the nail.”

Polanyi also uses the example of reading a letter as another way of illustrating the difference; our focal awareness is on deciphering the meaning of the letter, our subsidiary awareness is on the words, grammar and syntax, enabling us to decode the content. In both instances, if you move your focal awareness to that of the subsidiary, it all goes a bit awry: attending to the hammer rather than the nail is asking for trouble; and attending to the shape and length of every word in a sentence loses the meaning. We can flip our focal attention between the two states but we can’t focus on both simultaneously.

Now consider the focal and subsidiary awareness required to engage with an artwork. Like reading a letter, our attention can move between the content and the ‘grammar’ of the object – the ideas themselves or how those ideas have been manifest. When I look at art, I’m aware of a rolodex whirring around at the back of my brain, making connections with other artworks, styles and movements that I’ve seen over the years. I like it when I get the little art historical in-jokes and references. This subsidiary awareness provides me with a set of rules to understand and decode artworks and it’s not something I do consciously. I think we are, as museum professionals, sometimes guilty of assuming everyone has a similar rolodex to frame their understanding. I’ve always been suspicious of the anti-interpretation argument that ‘the artwork should speak for itself’. This is fine for an art-savvy audience with a whopping image bank to draw on – in which case, the artwork isn’t speaking for itself, but lounging around on a pile of the audience’s previous gallery experiences. Without a knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian language is just a beautiful collection of curves and corners; without a knowledge of Minimalism, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) is just a tidy arrangement of bricks.

Everyone brings their prior knowledge, be it art-based or otherwise, to the experience of visiting a museum. Not all of this knowledge is declarative or conscious, but it does all have an impact on the quality of the visit. As an habitual museum-goer, I don’t think about how I orientate myself on arrival or plan a visit, it just happens. In comparison, if I was doing something brand new, like go to a monster truck rally, I would be attending closely to every step of the process required to get in and seated, and I’d feel like I was on the back foot most of the way. Our museums send out a lot of subtle signals to first-time visitors and their accompanying troll families: some of these indirect messages are welcoming, such as clear signage and relaxed staff; and some of them are off-putting, like hiding the front door and offering scant interpretation. Whether we are aware of these signals or not, our troll families are taking detailed notes. We will leave either feeling good about the place and keen to return, or wanting to never darken its door again, and it won’t always be possible to explain why.

The concept of implicit learning is closely linked to tacit knowledge. As the name suggests, learning is implicit when we are not aware that it is happening (check out Michael Eraut’s work on non-formal learning in the workplace for more information on implicit learning). Alex Elwick’s interesting article, ‘Understanding implicit learning in museums and galleries’ (Museum & Society, Nov 2015) highlights some of the challenges inherent to researching tacit knowledge. Elwick interviewed ‘Friends’ of two galleries and looked for contradictions in their observations of their own gallery-going experiences, arguing that their implicit learning is revealed through these conflicting views. I don’t know if these findings were fruitful, but I did find the introduction fascinating and the references offer plenty of material for further reading.

Tacit knowledge is also frequently discussed in relation to the act of making in art, craft and design, as the skills are often developed over years and can’t easily be described. British writer, Peter Dormer took inspiration from Polanyi’s theories for his book, ‘The Art of the Maker’ (1994). Dormer wrote about ‘craft knowledge’ and its practical/tacit qualities. Through his own attempts to learn figurative clay modelling and calligraphy, he tried to better understand the implicit learning that was taking place.

For another angle on tacit knowledge that considers the workplace, I’d recommend the article, ‘Narrative and Social Tacit Knowledge’ (Journal of Knowledge Management, 5 (2), 2001). Its author, Charlotte Linde, researched an insurance company, looking at how social tacit knowledge was demonstrated and learned through narrative. Her observations are not particular to insurance companies and speak more generally to the experience of working in a team and how one becomes familiar with, and adapts to, the culture of an organisation: “…part of becoming a member of an institution involves learning the stories about that institution which everyone must know, the appropriate times and reasons to tell them, and the ways in which one’s own stories are shaped to fit a new institutional context.”  So it looks like we bring our troll families along to the office as well. They hide in filing cabinets, behind doors and under conference room tables, quietly learning the particularities of working for that specific place.

I love the way tacit knowledge makes itself known; it’s infuriatingly present and absent at the same time and it defies any direct engagement. You can sense it and know it ‘in your bones’ but still struggle to pin down exactly what it is or where it’s located. Declarative knowledge is just one small aspect of museum-going; visitors are picking up so many more micro-messages about our organisations, both good and bad, that contribute to the overall experience – an influence we shouldn’t underestimate.

Image: Outside Weta Workshop in Wellington, NZ.

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