We all know that how we interface with each museum is a little different. Most often students interact in a gallery experience with a volunteer or possibly a paid gallery teacher. The teacher in the museum experience will most likely provide information about a set of objects, sometimes through questioning strategies, or possibly activities. While for many years, educators in museums crafted questions to investigate a work of art, today many in the art museum education field approach teaching with works of art through a facilitated discussion. In this entry I will discuss some ways to begin thinking about opening up the conversation and making a level playing field for talking about a work of art in your classroom.
You will want to select the work of art that will be discussed. It should be a work that you are familiar with and know a good bit about. A work I often use for this purpose in my own museum is Juan Carreño de Miranda’s Portrait of King Charles II, ca. 1675.
Juan Carreño de Miranda (1614-1685)
Portrait of King Charles II, c. 1675
Oil on canvas
Museum Purchase Thanks to a Gift from Jo Ann Geurin Thetford in Honor of her Sons, Garrett and Wyatt Pettus. MM.2010.02
Begin by giving students time to examine the artwork in silence. It may seem like a long time, but give them about three minutes. After a minute or so they will most likely give you a questioning look, but direct your attention to the work of art and generally they will also.
Following looking time, if you think you might have difficulty getting students to talk about the work ask them to turn to someone close by and discuss something they noticed in the work, or something they have a question about. Give students about five to seven minutes to discuss with their partners, or wait until the discussion dies down and then invite the group to share what they were discussing about the work. This is a great ice breaker for warming up the group for discussion.
When students give observations about the work respond by paraphrasing what they have said back to the whole group - such as in the case of the Portrait of King Charles II, students often say, “I noticed a young girl dressed in black in an elaborate setting, and I want to know what she is holding in her hand.” A good response to this is “You noticed that there is a young girl who is wearing all black and standing in a richly decorated space, and you have a question about what she is holding in her hand.” Rather than offering an answer to the question this poses the question back out to the group. Also this type of response validates the student’s observations by not correcting about the gender of the individual in the painting. Generally, the group will begin to question whether the sitter is a boy or a girl, and will begin to notice other features about the person in the portrait.
Continue to allow for student responses, and make paraphrasing a habit in how you respond to their observations. Paraphrasing is key to the process because it requires the facilitator to listen and process what an individual says. It validates the response and allows for clarification of what was said for the entire group.
Avoid responding to students with phrases like, “That is a good observation!” or “I am so glad you noticed that.” Responses like these set up the idea that you are looking for a correct answer.
When opening up the conversation about the work give a good bit of time to listening and paraphrasing before introducing content. When students begin to make observations that lead to an interpretation of the work of art, then you can begin to provide information that is relevant to the observation. For example, in relation to the Portrait of King Charles II, once they have established through their own observations that he is a person of importance, some often speculate that he may be a prince or a king. Once the idea is brought up by someone in the group it is fitting to introduce that he is in fact the last Spanish Hapsburg King and that the letter in his hand is a paper of authority and symbolizes his administrative duties.
Don’t feel like you have to tell them everything you know about the work. Only provide information that is relevant to the observations made by the group.
Allowing for an open discussion about a work of art as a group will result in rich and interesting ideas to explore with your students. Introducing class discussions of works of art will also help to spark ideas in your students’ own art making.
-Scott Winterrowd, Curator of Education, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University