How can educators use dialogic teaching strategies to build connections between artworks and life experiences of students in a survey art history course? Can stories represented in one's family snapshots facilitate dialogue about formal content and conceptual issues present in works of art in museums? My interest in understanding if discussions of snapshots could facilitate students' insights into works of art was prompted, in part, by the work of historian Julia Hirsch (1981). She investigates meanings of family photographs by comparing twentieth-century snapshots of mothers and children, weddings, and homes to works from art history, such as a fourth century B.C. Roman marble stele depicting a wedding ceremony, Robert Campin's Annunciotion triptych Merode Altarpiece) (1427-32), and a documentary photographic portrait from 1 866 by Solomon Butcher depicting Nebraska homesteaders. Hirsch argues, "we still treasure paintings and create photographs which relate, no matter how tenuously, to ancient metaphors of family unity and cohesion: we still seem to acknowledge the values we haveshed"(1981,p.28,32).
Studying images of families in works of art and in snapshots is compelling, and I further wondered if looking at both types of images side by side might help students understand both kinds of images more fully. Snapshots often prompt detailed and vivid stories among family members and friends. Therefore, I wondered if dialogue about snapshots could be used, in an introductory art history course, as a springboard to discussing related works of art with students who are sometimes reluctant to fully participate in group discussions.
Other researchers argue that family photographs and the stories associated with them are primary sources of information about cultural systems, social practices, and family/community histories (Akeret, 1991; Barrett, 1996; Cronin, 1996, 1998; Geffroy, 1990; Lowenthal, 1985; Walker 8c Moulton, 1989). In addition, researchers maintain that family photographs and associated narratives reveal interconnections between public historical events and personal memory, have communal and personal purposes (Blomgren, 1999; Kuhn, 1995; Zelevansky, 1998; Zuromskis, 2006), and show potential for improving family functioning if used in therapeutic settings (Kobbe, 1993). At the same time, by imagining what cultural practices are not represented in a collection of family photographs, one can speculate what is considered culturally taboo or mundane (Beloff, 1985; Duncum, 1996; Holland, 1991).
The ubiquity of snapshots in daily life, the cultural value they hold, and my own studio art practice that incorporates the use of these images (Baxter, Lopez, Serig, & Sullivan, 2008) prompted my dissertation research on the educational potential of family snapshots, particularly for art education (Baxter, 2009, 2005a, 2005b). This research explored how individuals organized, coded, and made meaning of experience through material/ visual culture, especially family snapshots. Though I propose a theoretical rationale for using family snapshots within a visual culture approach to art education, putting theories to practical use in the classroom lay outside the scope of this earlier research. Therefore, this current research addresses that limitation.
This article presents evidence that dialogue is essential in the creation of meaning, as students make critical observations between works of fine art and their personal family snapshots. In doing so, students internalize and construct personal meanings about works of fine art, using family snapshots as vehicles. Similarly, they internalize and construct personal meanings of their family snapshots using works of fine art as the vehicles.
Exploring the Great Museums of New York
"Exploring the Great Museums of New York" is an introductory level, museumbased art history course that I taught at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ. The course meets six times in total, including three classroom sessions and three all-day meetings at museums. It is a survey of art history, beginning with the study of Ancient Egyptian art through contemporary American art. In the spring of 2008, we visited the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Newark Museum. Through PowerPoint slide presentations during the classroom sessions, we studied the historical and cultural significance of the works of art we would be viewing the following day in the museums and considered related snapshots from my own and my students' collections. Students were instructed to bring in snapshots that had conceptual and/or compositional connections to the works of art that we studied in class and would be viewing the following day in the museums.
Prior to taking my class, I visited each of the museums on my own to select the works of art that we would be studying. The rationale for selecting the works of art was to provide students with a survey of the history of art focusing on iconic works in each museum's collection. In addition, I selected works that represented familiar themes or activities, such as family portraiture, travel, people at work, homes, and funerals. Table 1 was included in the syllabus and indicates the works of art that we studied at each museum, along with the kinds of photographs that students were to bring to class and to the museums. Students brought framed pictures that they took right off their dorm room walls; others were digital photographs that the students printed off on copier paper; still others were traditional snapshot prints.
Class discussions both on campus and in the museums were tape-recorded and transcripts were made. After reviewing the transcripts and reading reflective papers the students wrote after each museum visit, I identified two outcomes of using family snapshots in a dialogic pedagogy. The first outcome is that students connect ideas generated by the works of art to experiences with family members. The second outcome of this approach was that students drew parallels between the formal qualities of works of art and snapshots. A discussion of these outcomes follows a description of how dialogue was used in the museums to foster students' meaning-making.
While in the museum galleries, a series of dialogic questions were posed about the works of art. Dialogic questioning was inspired by what McKay and Monteverde (2003) call "dialogic looking." By this they mean, "viewers consciously articulate the questions that arise while they look" (p. 42). Dialogic questions have three parts, each part based on observations and each part building on the next. They are grounded in formal analysis, they ask viewers to create meaning based on visual evidence, and they connect to viewers' life experiences. Students are first asked, "Describe the image. What do you see?" In doing so, the group acknowledges formal qualities of the work of art, allowing each person to point out things he or she sees. Dialogic questions, based also on the visual thinking strategies developed by Housen and Yenawine (2001), then asked students to probe for meanings and make interpretations, such as "What's going on in this picture?, What do you see that makes you say that?, Why do you say that?, and What else do you see?" Finally, questions were posed that asked students to make connections between the work of art and students' life experiences, such as "When have you found yourself in this situation? If you were the artist, how might you have responded to this idea? What would you add or change?"
After discussing these questions while viewing works of art in the galleries, I then asked students similar questions in relation to their snapshots. Students were asked to describe their snapshots and the personal meanings they hold. Then they were asked what formal or conceptual characteristics were shared between the work of art and snapshot. Finally, I asked, "How might understanding your snapshot help us understand the work of art?" The purpose of using snapshots with conceptual and/or compositional connections to works of art was to encourage dialogue in galleries and to build connections between artworks and the life experiences of the students.
For instance, while in the gallery viewing Judy Chicago's, Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, a student brought in a snapshot of a Christmas dinner and made connections between the order of the imagined attendants at Chicago's dinner table and the order that her family appeared in the photo. The student explained,
There's no order to where we sit and we all just get up and move around at the table. I guess we all come together on Christmas Eve all the time and so its kinda like how. .. they all came together for the party [the women represented at the Dinner Party], they're all different people and they all bring something different to the table but they still come together for joint purpose. We're all really different people but we all come together, (excerpt from transcript, discussion at the Brooklyn Museum, February 2, 2008)
Another student brought in a photograph of the elementary school classroom where she completed her student teaching. She explained that the women represented in Chicago's Dinner Party, "were all making a difference in the world that they were living in. So I feel like that's what I want to do. I want to teach and make a difference in the world" (excerpt from transcript, discussion at the Brooklyn Museum, February 2, 2008).
Using dialogic questions to stimulate meaning-making led to a discussion of why Chicago placed the women in the order she did at her table and why she selected the women she did. Students also suggested that if all of the historical women were indeed present at Chicago's Dinner Party, they probably would not have gotten along. This conversation then led back to the students' snapshots. Having the snapshots allowed a 'way in' or an introduction into a discussion of Chicago's conceptually rich and multi - layered installation. The snapshots and the work of art stimulated discussion of one another. The discussions with students in the museums and in the classroom, as well as their written reflective papers, were analyzed and two outcomes emerged.
Connecting Art to Experiences Shared by Family Members
The first outcome is that students connect ideas generated by the works of art to experiences with family members. At the Brooklyn Museum, we discussed Miwa Yanagi's, Yuka, from My Grandmothers series (2000) (Figure 1). This Chromogenic print depicts a woman with shocking red hair holding a cigarette in one hand and riding in a sidecar of a motorcycle. The motorcycle is soaring across a bridge, which recedes deeply into the background. Both the woman and the driver of the motorcycle, a man appearing much younger man the woman, smile broadly as they whisk across the frame. For the My Grandmothers series, Yanagi asked young women to describe the types of women they might become in the next 50 years. Inspired by the women's descriptions, Yanagi created photographs of fictitious grandmothers. In that sense, the photographs illustrate imagined, future biographies.
During classroom discussions in preparation for our visit to the Brooklyn Museum, we studied the formal content and conceptual concerns of Yanagi's photograph. I invited them to bring a snapshot to the museum that represented something they hoped for themselves in the next 50 years. The snapshot need not have compositional connections to Yanagi's, but it might have similar conceptual interests, such as the representation of a wish for one's future. One student brought in a picture of herself at the age of two (Figure 2), standing and looking squarely at the camera; its composition and formal qualities are much different than Yanagi's photograph. Yet they do share conceptual connections. The student described how the photo not only documents a past, but also implies a future, as does Yanagi's image. While in the galleries, Danielle explained.
You were talking about the future. And this was nostalgic when I looked at it and the memories from the summers I spent [at my summer house in Ocean Grove, NJ]. Every day I would go to the beach. And the friends that I had there, I still keep in touch [with friends] that I've known since I was two, three years old. We grew up on the same block and we still keep in touch. And I just see myself going back there in the future and that still being part of my life. It was part of my life, and I look forward to it being part of my future. Ana when I looked at this, I was like'Wow,'all these memories automatically came back, (excerpt from transcript, discussion at the Brooklyn Museum, February 2, 2008)
Yanagi's image represents a future based on imagination and fantasy. Danielle's snapshot represents a hoped-for future, but that future is based on real memories of the past. The student recognized, through dialogue, that experiences as a child, "were part of my life and 1 look forward to it being part of my future." Dialogue is essential in the creation of meaning, as the student saw conceptual connections between her snapshot and Yanagi's photograph. In doing so, the student has internalized and constructed personal meanings about the work of fine art, using her family snapshot as a vehicle. Similarly, she has internalized and constructed personal and rich meanings about her snapshot, using the work of fine art as a medium. Therefore, the act of creating meaning from the work of fine art through the discussion of snapshots is a reflexive act (Dewey, 1934; McKay & Monteverde, 2003). Through this act, the individual's method of meaning-making is revealed.1
Parallels between Formal Characteristics of Works of Art and Snapshots
The second outcome of this approach was that students drew parallels between the formal qualities of works of art and snapshots. For instance, in studying an Old Kingdom limestone sculpture of a family group from Saqqara, Egypt (Figure 3), we discussed the postures and poses of the figures, the proportions of their bodies, and their garments, and what these formal qualities may say about the work's meaning. For instance, curators Fazzini, Romano, and Cody (1999) suggest that in sculptures like this family group, the father's large size indicates his dominance; the woman's small size and her embrace suggest her loving support; the boy's nudity, his hair pulled up on one side, and the gesture of his finger to his lip, indicate his youth.
After discussing the ancient Egyptian sculpture of the family group, a student shared a story in the galleries about her family portrait from the early twentieth century. She later further explained her narrative:
[In] this snapshot [Figure 4], taken in 1911 of my great grandmother and her parents, ... one smile is shown, my great grandmother, Elsa's. In 1911, photos were taken without "attraction" allowed. In this photo, I see myself, a woman who sees society as a whole, but knows there are ways to show individuality. If I learned anything from my great grandmother it would be to express myself in this ever-changing world, because no one can take away your smile or your heart, (personal communication, September 16, 2009)
Discussion of the formal characteristics of the Egyptian sculpture allowed students to see and consider how a figure's attributes, pose, and gestures all shape meaning, such as the recognition that men were "supposed" to stand, and women "did not typically smile" in early twentieth century portraits. Another student suggested that the standing male figure in both the snapshot and the sculpture "signifies how significant the male role was and how it is carried on through thousands of years" (student written reflection, February 2, 2008).
Implications for Art Education
Students expressed willingness to deepen their understanding of works of art through discussion of snapshots. For instance, one student echoed Hirsch's (1981) claims when he wrote that this process "helped show that we're still the same. Even though things are different now, we may have different symbols, but we still have the same tendencies" (student written reflection, February 29, 2008). Another student wrote,
I think snapshots allow us to open up our imaginations more than we ever could because we all imagine things very differently from one another. By looking at any picture we already formulate a story to go along with it. I think it takes the [art] object out of context and enlarges all the possibilities and meanings behind the relevance of the artwork, (student written reflection, February 4, 2008)
Though the students responded favorably to this investigation, there are criticisms to consider. For instance, some students simply do not own a collection of family photographs. Other students may have a limited number of photographs or have family members reluctant to describe painful memories associated with images. Another shortcoming of this approach to teaching art history is that for seasoned museum-goers, talking about snapshots in museums can be cumbersome and interfere with a more purist interaction with the works of art. Despite these limitations, art educators may consider expanded possibilities of using snapshots in their own teaching contexts and consider these points in doing so:
* Once you have selected the works of art that you will study at the museum, give students a list of the kinds of photographs they should look for that will relate to the works of art. This will help focus their ideas. Give students time to locate the images on their computers, in shoeboxes, or in attics. The excavation is part of the experience. Where were the images stored? What other things were stored with them? How do these contexts shape meaning of the images?
* Ask students to create a list of themes present in their collection of family photographs. Working in groups in a museum, have students review their list of themes and examples of snapshots and ask them to identify works of art in a museum that embody similar themes. What are the similarities and differences between the way the theme is presented in a snapshot versus a work of art?2
* Important human issues, or big ideas (Walker, 2001), generated from discussions of snapshots and works of art can be the source of ideas for students' studio practice. Exploration of important human issues, or themes (Anderson 8c Milbrandt, 2005), are vital if we want experiences in art education to be a "meaning-making endeavor rather than simply the crafting of a product" (Walker, 2001, p. 1). Invite students to interrogate the themes and issues evident in their snapshots through art- making activities.
Expanding understanding of snapshots is important because snapshots are tangible, personal memory prompts that often provide a sense of comfort and familiarity when viewed by family members and friends. Analysis of the discussions that emerged from my students' familiar family snapshots yielded two outcomes. The first outcome is that students connect ideas generated by the works of art to experiences with family members. The second outcome of this approach was that students drew parallels between the formal qualities of works of art and snapshots. Moreover, there is evidence that dialogue about works of art and family photographs is a reflexive act; the images and the viewer generate and exchange ideas in a dynamic act of meaning-making. Snapshots can also be the scaffolding on which new ideas about works of fine art can be constructed. This scaffolding would make unfamiliar concepts or forms within works of fine art seem less daunting, and meaning-making attainable.
This article presents evidence that dialogue is essential in the creation of meaning, as students make critical observations between works office art and their personal family snapshots.
The student has internalized and constructed personal meanings about the work of fine art, using her family snapshot as a vehicle. Similarly, she has internalized and constructed personal and rich meanings about her snapshot, using the ivork of fine art as a medium.
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The author wishes to thank Elizabeth Vallance, Clare Humphries, Chizuru Kaplan, and Jan Ciganick for their support in the preparation of this article, and the students in the spring 2008 course, "Exploring the Great Museums of New York," at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Kristin Baxter, EdD, is Assistant Professor of Art and Coordinator of the Art Education Program at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org…