Training To Look Closely

In a recent professional development session, at our partner institution the National Gallery of Art, our facilitator said something along these lines:

Museums are living ideas that we can connect to and get new ideas, to look at the now and try to understand it.

Out of all the ideas she talked to us about during those two hours, these words (and the ideas that they sparked) were the ones that stuck with me. There was something very true about them, but also something problematic. Do people really connect with the ideas inside the museums? Do they really get new ideas and use them to look and understand their present? To me, this is at the core of what renders museums as key places of learning.

Living in DC, there is no shortage of museums. Yet, sometimes this same reason makes it difficult to take advantage of this. Part of living in the city is getting used to the hordes of tourists that invade the city every spring and stay until well after the leaves turn orange and brown and fall from the trees. Crowds drive me nuts, and for the many years I’ve lived here, I’ve managed to avoid them and only ventured to the National Mall and its surrounding museums whenever something noteworthy was happening. But even then, it’s hard to slow down.

So why am I going on about this? Well, now that my work with Live It Learn It takes me to museums at least a couple times a week, guiding kids through our field experiences, I cannot help but notice tourists and their presence all around us. More specifically, I can’t help but notice the way tourists interact with the artwork and other artifacts in different exhibits. To me it’s become a prime example of what not to do with my students. It definitely doesn’t lead to getting new ideas or establishing connections with our present, or getting anywhere near understanding it. So I’ve compiled a list of no-nos, as well as a list of ways in which you and your students could interact with artwork and artifacts to get closer to this goal. Let’s look at the no-nos first.

How NOT to interact with artifacts in an exhibit

  1. Do not attempt to see all the museum in one day. This is absolute bananas! There is no way you will see everything there is to see in a museum, without inducing your neurons into a coma. And if you do, I dare you to describe in detail 5 things you saw… ok, maybe you can, but your kids/students will find it extremely hard.
  2. Do not rush through an exhibit. When you do this, artifacts lose their appeal and they all start to look the same. Usually there is a reason artifacts are grouped together. Can you tell why? Can you tell the similarities and differences between them?
  3. Do not become the paparazzi! When you place a phone or camera between you and an artifact, you have lost the connection and the opportunity to really take in the details. It’s just like going on a first date and instead of finding out about the person across you, you just took pictures and moved on! Again, I dare you to describe in detail what you just photographed.

Now that we have looked at the actions we should avoid doing, let’s look at what we can do to encourage that connection to living ideas that germinate new ones. Here’s what I propose:

How to encourage the pollination of ideas in your mind

  1. Decide on one, maximum two, exhibits you want to visit. This can be done ahead of time or upon entering the museum, after securing a map at the information desk. It’s also a great opportunity to check out what’s new if you’ve been there before.
  2. Take your time. Sit if it’s possible. Take in what’s in front of you. Interact with the artwork or artifact! Approach it as if you were on a first date. Move on, repeat process, and don’t be afraid to come back to something again. More on this later…
  3. Limit the distractions. If you can’t fight the paparazzi in you, wait after you’re done taking it in, and then snap that photo for your Instagram feed. But try to fight the urge… you’ll kill the mood!

Now that we have covered the basics, how do you actually interact with a piece of artwork or an artifact in an exhibit? How do we nurture the growth of new ideas that help us understand the present? Well, half of it is diving in, building the muscle, and getting good at it. The other half lies in your desire to cultivate your curiosity and your ability to imagine different realities by asking yourself and others questions that help you get there. It takes practice, but you have to start somewhere!

As a teacher, I’ve come to the conclusion that just as we consider it a priority to help students become strong readers, we must also prioritize guiding in the art of observing, so that they can come to appreciate and learn from the world around them. Here’s one way of doing it:

How to close look?

  1. Take it in. Observe. Touch. Listen. Smell and taste if safe and possible.
  2. Describe. You can create lists with objects you see and adjectives that describe what you notice. The possibilities are up to you and your imagination.
  3. Connect. Introduce supports that provide context.

For example, if you’re looking at the painting below, here’s some examples of what you can do:

Listen to city sounds from above, especially conversations between people from their windows. Smell ground coffee (there’s a cafe portrayed). Touch a brick. Try a croissant? Again, use your imagination. The purpose is to help you step into the scene and imagine how Dubuffet was perceiving the scene.

This creates a connection between you and the artwork, as well as you and the artist, making it easier to relate to the reality being portrayed.

  1. Wonder. So now that you have personally connected, now it’s time to start the conversation. What does this remind you of? Where is this happening? What is going on? Who might these people be? What do you feel you know for sure? What makes you think so? What questions still remain? How can you answer them? These questions allow you to make interpretations based on evidence.
  2. Act on it. Now you’re ready to take it a step further. There are a myriad of activities you can do. You can sketch what you’re looking at and add other animals, objects, or people to the scene. You can write a story or poem based on someone/something in the piece. You can record a video or podcast, write a song, or create a dance. Really, the possibilities are endless. I encourage you to think outside the box and try it! Believe me, this is the fun part.

Now that you know how to become a better observer of the world around you, go out and do it! Take your students, your children, your friends and share the experience with them. Then share your impressions on your experiences with us in the comments below!


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