Using Art and Artifacts to Deepen Historical Understanding
Facilitator: Sonnet Takahisa
In this exercise we practice a method -- 'Object Observation' -- by which art and artifacts can deepen students' historical understanding. Focusing on the genre of portraiture, we start by applying the method to Carl Van Vechten's photographic portraits of celebrities (Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten 1932 - 1964). Van Vechten's portraits present three decades of famous American literary figures, artists and scholars. His effort to capture the personalities of his subjects provides us with an interesting glimpse of his own preoccupations as an artist, as well as those of the larger American culture at mid-century. Following this we break into groups and investigate other historical periods and themes using portraits from other American Memory collections. Finally, we practice 'curating' our own mini-collection of portraits, as students may do, to illustrate a theme or development we have discovered.
At the end of the exercise, participants will be able to:
Tasks in brief
In this activity, participants will:
1. Introduction: Object Observation
"Object Observation" is an exercise that was developed by educators at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and refined by teachers at The New York City Museum School as a strategy for honing careful looking and gallery teaching skills. The exercise offers the opportunity to practically apply the theories of museum learning or the process of "passionate learning" embraced by museum professionals -- learning that is object-based and requires detailed observation, extensive research, analysis and synthesis of information, and the presentation of new information in a variety of formats.
"Object Observation" is designed to encourage closer looking skills, and reinforce the adage "the more you look, the more you will see"; increase articulation skills, by focusing on the use of descriptive language; give confidence in a person's interpretation skills, or the ability to discern and extrapolate information based on observation and previous experience/knowledge; stimulate one's curiosity, and the quest for additional information; emphasize the possibilities of new research, and challenge a person to begin a process of synthesizing information (from observation, research, questioning, listening to and conferring with colleagues) that ultimately leads to new understanding.
In addition, "Object Observation" serves educators by sensitizing them to the rewards of listening as a teaching and learning tool and the diversity of perspectives, interests, concerns and skills of others.
2. Searching for Portraits/Curating a Mini-Collection (45 minutes)
In pairs, search one of several American Memory collections that include portraits of celebrities or ordinary people. Some feature people within a particular category or profession (e.g. Presidents and First Ladies, baseball players, vaudevillians) and some feature portraits from a particular event or time period (e.g. mid-19th century daguerrotypes, Civil War photos, or 1890s travel photos from around the world).
Just as artists make choices in the creation of an individual image, collectors and curators make choices in the selection of images to tell a particular story. After searching one of the collections below, select 4 - 6 portraits to tell a particular story -- it could be about the changing nature of portraiture, changing images of celebrities, changes in the work of one photographer, or changing fashions. Refer to the suggested themes for ideas. Print out the images or bookmark their Web addresses.
Search tip: Try searching on terms by
which portraits are often catalogued in the collections: portrait,
group, man, woman, (men/women) girl, boy, children.
3. Analyzing the portraits (30 minutes)
Arrange the portraits to tell a story. You may wish to use the Online Exhibit Maker to do this. Apply skills developed in the object observation exercise. Discuss the photographs in terms of what you were able to determine about the purposes of the portraits, the intention/goals of the artist, and the intention/goals of the subject. You might also develop a list of the conventions or tools of portraiture (e.g. busts or half-length, full - body, pose, dress/costume, composition, lighting/light source, facial expression, hands/gesture, surroundings, props) that communicate information.
Each group will have an opportunity to view the other mini-exhibitions.
4. Presentation and Reflection (30 minutes)
Each group will present their "exhibition" of portraits, and discuss the organizing principles of their collection. As a group, participants will consider the appeal of portrait photographs, and the kinds of information revealed about the subject, the artist, the collector/curator, and the viewer themselves.
Participants will also discuss the value of understanding how choices are made - by an artist, a celebrity, and a collector/curator - to present a particular idea or image.