Sunday, October 12, 2003

Art enlivens past, adds personal meaning

I am Curator of Education at the Cincinnati Art Museum. One way to change the way we teach history in this country is to engage teachers and their students in the use of art collected by museums such as ours.

Artworks reflect the quality and essence of a particular era or individual from the past, and, yet, they also have universal meaning and relevance to human life. A teacher friend of mine once said that art objects are like "freeze-dried" history, but instead of adding water you add imagination.

Art museum collections can make connections to the real world that textbook-based instruction cannot do alone. Learning with art museum objects strengthens skills of perception and analysis - important in the study of history and other disciplines. Studying works of art also enables the student to recognize the value of community and diverse cultures. Art history respects and encourages different points of view. Using the art in a museum to study history brings a joyful spirit to the experience - learning about the past should be enjoyable and not seen as a burden.

A single example might be worthwhile. A painting in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum titled "Underground Railroad" can be approached as an art object, historic document, or an illustration of a great American story. Painted by Cincinnati artist Charles T. Webber in 1893, the painting depicts the notable Cincinnati abolitionists Levi and Catherine Coffin and Hannah Haycock leading a group of blacks to freedom at dawn on a cold wintry day. The painting was created for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, but represents an event that would have occurred much earlier. It makes history come alive and can serve to motivate students to see the history of the underground railroad as being the stories of real, flesh and blood people.

I strongly believe that art can be used to enliven the study of history and encourage students to find personal meaning in the past.

Ted Lind, Cincinnati Art Museum

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