December 4, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Whose Writing Is on the Wall at the Museum? It Could Be Yours.’

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Featured Article: “Whose Writing Is on the Wall at the Museum? It Could Be Yours.” by Julia Jacobs

Many museums are trying to reach broader audiences while also looking for ways to diversify, and remove cultural biases from, their exhibits. Some museums have chosen to give outside voices the opportunity to speak within museum walls.

In this lesson, you will learn about several museums across the country that are trying new approaches to curation, including inviting everyday people to write wall labels about works of art. Then, you will write a response to a piece of artwork, reflecting on your personal experiences.

Part I. Reflect on your experience at art museums.

In your journal, or in a small group discussion, discuss how you experience art:

  • Do you like going to art museums?

  • When you go to a museum, how do you engage with the art? Do you prefer viewing it with an educator or a tour guide? Do you look at the piece and then read the label — or vice versa? Do you skip the labels altogether?

  • If you do read the labels, do you find them helpful? Why or why not?

Part II. Look closely at a work of art.

Look at the painting below, stripped of its caption, and respond to the questions:

Now, read the label that accompanies this artwork at the New-York Historical Society, and respond to the questions.

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

1. Why did Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto, a curator at the New-York Historical Society, speak to a Central Park carriage driver when designing a new exhibit? What does this illustrate about changes in the world of art curation?

2. What are some of the conversations that institutions like the New-York Historical Society are having about their exhibits?

3. How did the Middlebury College Museum of Art try to diversify perspectives featured in its galleries? Would you be interested in participating in a similar project?

4. What did the exit surveys from the Danny Lyon photography show at the Delaware Art Museum reveal? What is your reaction to that data?

5. Do you agree with Swarupa Anila, an executive at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who said that museums have historically been “exclusive” places? Why or why not? Use examples from your own life and experiences in museums to explain your answer.

6. The featured article shares some “existential questions” that curators are facing related to labels. Choose one of the questions and respond to it. You can think of an artwork you’ve seen, or think more generally about labels in art museums:

Who is equipped to write authoritatively about this work?
Who is this label being written for?
And how do we give over this platform to people who haven’t previously had it?

7. Why does Ikemoto think it is important to invite Indigenous people to comment on Euro-American art?

8. The article ends with a quote from Willow Lawson, a writer, who was responding to Carlos Nadal’s painting “Columbus Circle, New York City.” How is her commentary different from “traditional” wall text. What is your reaction to what she said?

Try your hand at interpreting a piece of artwork. You can choose a painting or a drawing from a local art museum or a gallery, or search the online database of one of the museums mentioned in the featured article:

New-York Historical Society “Highlights From the Painting Collection”

Middlebury College Museum of Art Collections

Delaware Art Museum Collections

Look closely at the image you selected and consider the following questions:

  • What is the first thing your eye is drawn to? What do you notice next? What do you think is going on in this artwork?

  • What feelings or sensations do you notice in your body as you look at the piece of art?

  • Does this artwork remind you of anything else you’ve seen or experienced?

  • Is there a story or narrative that the artwork evokes?

  • What more would you like to know about the artist or the piece of art?

Then, write a label, with a personal artistic response, for the artwork. You can include some information from the digital collection website on your label, and then also include your own interpretation of the piece of art.

You can find inspiration in the labels from the featured article or take a different approach. For example, maybe you would like to respond by creating your own piece of artwork, a short poem or something else.

Once you’ve made your label, you can share the art and the accompanying label with your classmates by doing a gallery walk. After taking in the creations of your classmates, come back together as a group and share what you appreciated and noticed about how you each interpreted the artwork.

Want more Lessons of the Day? You can find them all here.

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