Photography lesson

Lesson for the day: “Whose handwriting is on the museum wall?” It could be yours.


Featured Article: “What writing is on the wall of the museum? It could be yours.“by Julia Jacobs

Many museums try to reach a wider audience while looking for ways to diversify and remove cultural biases from their exhibits. Some museums have chosen to give outside voices the opportunity to express themselves within the walls of the museum.

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

Part I. Reflect on your experience in art museums.

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

  • Do you like going to art museums?

  • When you go to a museum, how do you get involved in art? Do you prefer to watch it with an educator or a tour guide? Do you look at the play and then read the label – or vice versa? Are you completely skipping labels?

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

Part II. Look closely at a work of art.

Look at the table below, stripped of its caption, and answer the questions:

Now read the label that accompanies this work to the New-York Historical Society and answer the questions.

Read the article, then answer the following questions:

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

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

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

4. What do exit polls reveal from Danny Lyon’s photographic exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum? What is your reaction to this data?

5. Do you agree with Swarupa Anila, executive at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, who said that museums have always 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 Conservatives face when it comes to labels. Choose one of the questions and answer it. You can think of a work of art that you have seen, or more generally think of labels in art museums:

Who is equipped to write authoritatively on this work?
Who is this label written for?
And how do you give this platform to people who haven’t had it yet?

7. Why does Ikemoto think it’s important to invite indigenous peoples to comment on Euro-American art?

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

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

New York Historical Society “Highlights of the Painting Collection”

Middlebury College Art Museum Collections

Delaware Museum of Art Collections

Look carefully at the image you have selected and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s the first thing that catches your eye? What do you notice next? What do you think is going on in this work of art?

  • What feelings or sensations do you notice in your body when you look at the artwork?

  • Does this work of art remind you of anything else that you have seen or experienced?

  • Is there a story or a story that the work evokes?

  • What more would you like to know about the artist or the artwork?

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

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

Once you’ve created your label, you can share the accompanying art and label with your classmates by making a gallery walk. After viewing your classmates’ creations, come back as a group and share what you liked and noticed about how everyone interpreted the work.

Want more lessons of the day? You can find them all here.