Not too long ago at MMFA, an American history teacher had each of his students write about an era of our nation’s past as represented in a work of art in the Museum’s collection. Each year countless students of all ages write about works of art on view. Earlier this week on Pi day, a group studied connections between math and architecture and works of art. We invite all teachers to reflect on how our collection can enrich their classroom goals.
Schools and educational institutions all over the country are working to follow both the Common Core Standards set at the national level and their respective state standards in an engaging way that will lead to student success. These efforts of teachers go hand in hand with the goals of Museums – to develop programming for students that not only meets, but exceeds these standards inviting students to connect to a larger world, the fabric of history, and many perspectives at the art Museum. The Museum hopes more teachers will take the opportunity to use paintings as texts in all of their core subjects. One of my primary goals as a Museum Educator is to support teachers by ensuring that our programming is aligned with the standards the state of Alabama is currently using.
For those not familiar with Common Core State Standards they rely heavily on non-fiction texts and primary sources to teach reading and comprehension skills. While creative writing is beyond the scope of the standards, the core focus on primary sources such as newspapers, journals, and formal documents fit easily with history museum programming. You may wonder how art museums fit in? As an art museum educator I use artworks in two ways that coincide with CCSS. One is a more obvious way and the second is maybe not so apparent.
The CCSS emphasize skills such as deductive reasoning, context clues, and inferences. The visual arts are great for honing all of these skills. Our docents here at the MMFA are trained to guide students through a discussion that gets them to really look at an artwork and derive meaning from what they see. By allowing students to take time to observe and find their own meaning, this encourages further exploration and naturally creates opportunities to solidify comprehension skills such as those mentioned above. Taking this idea one step further is using visual works of art as primary sources such as in the history class mentioned earlier.
Primary sources are by definition artifacts that were created during the time period being studied, whether the source is a document, diary, recording, or an artwork. Take for instance the painting by John Kelly Fitzpatrick called Saturday Morning. Created in 1935, it depicts a ‘snapshot’ of life in a small Alabama town. The artist, we know, was hired to paint regional scenes by the Works Progress Administration, during the Great Depression. Armed with that bit of knowledge we can infer that the artist was most likely painting from his own experience of being in this particular small town and recording what he saw. Now, while the artist may have taken liberties with color and composition we can still derive useful historical and contextual information from this painting by looking at it more closely, for example the juxtaposition of the automobile and smokestack with a mule and cotton cart. Similarly, one can have the same kind of conversation with a portrait. Inferences can be made about the time period by exploring the objects included in the painting as well as clothing, accessories and background features. The sitter’s wealth and fashionable taste is being celebrated in clothing, jewelry, and surroundings in the belle époque portrait Mrs. Louis E. Raphael by John Singer Sargent.
While our educational landscape continues to evolve, museums will continue to engage students in worthwhile programming that will help with skills of comprehension, observation, and critical thinking using myriad connections to all core subjects. As museum educators we strive to create experiences and resources that enrich the lessons in the classroom. The MMFA will continuously adapt our programming to meet the needs of the students to ensure they are given the tools to make connections between what they are learning in the classroom and what they see in our galleries.
Assistant Curator of Education
Youth, Family, and Studio Programs
Figure 2: John Kelly Fitzpatrick (American, 1888–1953), Saturday Morning, 1935, oil on masonite, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Works Progress Administration, 1935.7
Figure 3: John Singer Sargent (American, 1856–1925), Mrs. Louis E. Raphael (Henriette Goldschmidt), ca. 1906, oil on canvas, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Alabama, The Blount Collection, 1989.2.3