The Adventures of Artemis and the Llama: A Case for Imaginary Histories in Art Education

By Vallance, Elizabeth | Art Education, July 2004 | Go to article overview

The Adventures of Artemis and the Llama: A Case for Imaginary Histories in Art Education


Vallance, Elizabeth, Art Education


Artemis and the llama could conceivably meet at last, though that would be another story.

She is a late Hellenistic Greek marble sculpture of the huntress, running in a flowing garment, now lacking arms, legs, and head, about threequarters life-sized (Figure 1). he is a hollow figure of smooth thin gold, about two inches tall, plainly male and with remarkable detail in feet, ears, and eyes, made by the Inca before the Spanish conquest in 1532, and survived the meltdown that befell so much pre-Columbian gold (Figure 2). The two objects originated oceans and centuries apart from each other; now both reside on protected pedestals in separate galleries of an American art museum. In this article, I explore the use of fictional narrative in working with art objects, introduce themes that can be developed by art novices in making meaning of these objects' histories, and suggest ways that teachers can use this narrative potential in art lessons, and in language arts and social studies applications of art study.

How these two objects arrived at the museum are stories that are documented in museum provenance files. The true stories of their travels, from their creation to their present quiet lives, are tales whose elements emerge selectively in labels, audio and docent tours, gallery talks, and family guides. These stories answer frequent visitor questions: whether an object is "real" and not a reproduction; what its original purpose was; who made it; and how. The true stories behind museum artifacts can help viewers to understand why an object is special in social, historical, and formal terms; the artistic processes behind it; and the cultural meanings it embodies. The actual histories of objects-from complex tales of rediscovery and restoration to simple tales of purchase directly from an artistare also reminders that museums themselves, and their careful cherishing of objects, are artifacts of their cultures' values in the selection and exhibition of artifacts from elsewhere. Museum educators regularly work to counteract what I call the "enshrinement" effect that results from moving objects from their original contexts to protected spaces in museums. Many museum programs and classroom art lessons attempt to help these objects come alive as artifacts of cultures and artistic processes that we deem important to learn (Vallance, 1995).

Artemis and the llama are now safe in a modern, climate-controlled museum, a shared ending to their quite different true stories. This quiet ending can become the starting point to flashback tales of adventure and intrigue.

Story-making from Art Objects

The importance of story-making in responding to art objects seems clear from research and from my own art-museum experience. Housen's research confirms what museum educators know from working in the galleries with visitors of all ages. A first kind of response, the accountive and constructive stages of aesthetic development, is concerned with the stories that seem to be told by an image, or to call up personal stories that an object might inspire (Housen, 1987). Thus, we can look at Edward Hopper's Nighlhawks, with its isolated people in a brightly-lit diner late at night, and deduce what is happening in this scene, imagine dialogues among the characters, or connect this scene to a personal memory. Strong visitor response to genre pictures depends largely on this potential for calling up a narrative, even if it is a narrative of "an everyday life that was someone else's" (Johns, 1991, p. 3).' Decoding such stories is an accessible way to respond to representational images. However, visitors also ask about the hidden stories of artifacts when they inquire whether a painting or sculpture is real, whether something old has been "dug up," and ho w an ornate piece of silver was made or what it is worth now. They want to know that the artist actually touched the object, and why it is protected now. The actual histories of objects as artifacts can matter greatly to visitors of all ages. …

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