"Object Lesson": Using Family Heirlooms to Engage Students in Art History

By Rose, Marice | Art Education, July 2012 | Go to article overview

"Object Lesson": Using Family Heirlooms to Engage Students in Art History


Rose, Marice, Art Education


After having engaged with an object close to their and their families' lives, students become sensitive to the connections that people and communities make with works of art of all different types.

"My English great-grandfather was captured in the Mediterranean during World War Il and was taken to Germany, where he was imprisoned. The British RecTCross was allowed to enter the prison to give the men things to do to keep themselves busy. My great-grandfather chose embroidery as something to do during the long days, even though he had no idea how to sew. The days had become quite long because he had been in the camp for over two years. He created a circular embroidery of an English garden. This is the object which I chose for this project (student essay, Fall 2009).

The excerpt quoted above is from a student essay written for an undergraduate introductory art history class I teach every year. This first written assignment of the semester- an essay where students describe and reflect upon the significance of a family heirloom - is instrumental in meeting class objectives. My objectives in this class are for students (a) to broaden their conception of what art is while being able to explain it, (b) to understand the importance of context when studying art, and (c) to consider works of art - in their creation and reception - as important parts of real peoples lives. Evidence within the class as well as pedagogical research support that the assignment's qualities promote student motivation within the class. Ultimately, I hope that students will continue to be motivated to learn about art in its infinite variety, and why it matters.

After having engaged with an object close to their and their families' lives, students become sensitive to the connections that people and communities make with works of art of all different types. Students maintain the understandings they gain through this assignment throughout the rest of the semester. This article describes the details of this first assignment, highbghting how it helps meet class objectives and how it can inspire students to learn about art and its history.

OBJECTIVE: An Articulated, Expansive Conception of Art

The student quoted at this article's beginning chose her great-grandfather's embroidered garden scene as her essay's subject after the course's first meeting. On the first day of class, I ask a big question: "What is art?" and initiate a dialogue in which students suggest adjectives that one can use to describe works of art Typically, words such as "creative," "expressive," "individual," and "aesthetic" are recorded on the board. The words are ones we return to in our analyses of art over the course of the semester. During the discussion, I underscore that definitions of art can change in different contexts, and are never simple or tidy. At the end ofthat first meeting, I assign a two-page essay on a family heirloom: an object in the student's own or a relative's household, that is meaningful in some way to his or her family and can be considered a work of art (following parameters established in our class discussion). The final qualifier is important, and I learned to clarify the instructions after receiving essays on a majestic oak tree in grandma's back yard, and a thermos that an uncle brought to a construction site every day. Such subjects can provide interesting stories, but they only provide the necessary links to my course objectives and class content if the student is able to present the objects as artworks. The tree, as discussed by the student, was not an example of human creation or expressionthere was no mention of trimming it or planting it in a special location for a specific aesthetic. In the thermos essay, the student did not describe the object's formal design qualities, or decorations her uncle may have added to it, as examples of its aesthetics or expressiveness. If she had, it would have connected to the class better. …

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