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Donation from Penelope Seidler creates Visual Understanding Initiative

17 July 2021
 Decoding images in a digital world 
A generous gift will improve students' visual literacy and help researchers understand how images shape the world.

Architect Penelope Seidler AM has made a major donation to establish a new Visual Understanding Initiative at the University of Sydney.

Through teaching, research and public outreach programs, the initiative will improve visual literacy, using skills and ideas from art history and theory to increase understanding of images in other disciplines, including medicine, science, media and communications, and architecture. 

Mrs Seidler’s gift reflects her belief in the power of the image and her concern that the arts and humanities have been undervalued in Australia in recent times. 

“Today we are bombarded with images everywhere, so the visual is becoming increasingly important,” Mrs Seidler said. “This will become more and more the way ideas are disseminated and that needs investigation.” 

The initiative will teach the University’s students to interpret and analyse images in daily life. It will also see researchers from across the University collaborating on multidisciplinary investigations into how images can shape society, affect health and wellbeing, and disseminate both information and fake news. 

Under the initiative, the University will establish an undergraduate course in visual literacy, teaching students to interpret images as fluently as they read words. The course will initially be offered to students in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, but the hope is that it will later be available to all undergraduates. 

While Australian school and university students are taught some fundamentals of visual literacy it is new in Australia for a university to treat it as a standalone set of skills, across multiple disciplines, and to involve researchers and the community. Visual literacy centres have been established in Europe, America and Canada but this is believed to be a first for Australia.

“Our ambition is to establish the University of Sydney as a pioneer in the new field of visual understanding and elevate the study of this important field,” commented Professor Mark Ledbury, who will lead the establishment of the initiative as Director of the Power Institute, the University’s foundation for visual art and culture.

“Historically art history and visual art students immersed themselves in how to understand the symbolic way images work and how to read them. In our image-saturated current environment all students can benefit from visual literacy. We need to give people the sense that they can deal with the deluge of images, especially from the digital world, and to be more sensitive and ethical in their use of images.”

We need to give people the sense that they can deal with the deluge of images, especially from the digital world, and to be more sensitive and ethical in their use of images.
Professor Mark Ledbury

Professor Ledbury hopes to expand the Initiative’s research agenda, collaborating with faculties across the University to examine questions such as: 

  • What is the neurological basis of visual understanding?
  • Can we train ourselves to spot deceptive or fake images?
  • Is aesthetic beauty necessary to our health and wellbeing? 

Among the first proposed research projects will be investigations of what and how we can learn from the traditions of visual communication in Indigenous cultures in Australia and beyond. The complex and multifaceted bark paintings currently on show in the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s  Gululu dhuwala djalkiri exhibition are a demonstration of how complex ideas about identity and belonging can be communicated through visual patterns and schemas. 

“One of the inspirations for this initiative is the Wapatah Centre for Indigenous Visual Knowledge in Canada directed by Dr Gerald McMaster. The Centre demonstrates the importance of studying how knowledge is transferred through complex systems reliant on visual symbols,” said Professor Ledbury. 

“Visual codes have been used for tens of thousands of years to communicate. If we are attentive and receptive, there is a lot we can learn from Indigenous culture about how knowledge can be encoded in images. 

“Thanks to this generous gift, we will also be able to show how the training, skills and knowledge of people in the arts apply more widely to society.” 

The initiative will also seek to improve visual literacy among the general public, with a podcast that will feature scholars and experts discussing and decoding widely distributed images, such as memes and advertisements. 

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