The Role of Family Snapshots in Teaching Art History within a Dialogic Pedagogy

Article excerpt

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. …