Dangerous Liaisons - UW Libraries

July 26, 2017

Teaching with Primary Sources: an unconference recap

Laura Dimmit

While I’m not an archivist, it is not uncommon for me to work with a class whose assignments require, or would benefit from, some level of primary source literacy. In light of this, I was excited to attend the Teaching with Primary Sources Unconference, offered in conjunction with this week’s Society of American Archivists conference in Portland.

(Luckily, detailed notes are available from all the day’s sessions–you can browse through those here, if you are so inclined.)

Rather than taking you all through the whole day, I want to focus in on a single session, “Teaching Social Justice through Visual Art,” which was facilitated by Hana Layson, the Manager of School and Educator Programs at the Portland Art Museum (PAM).

Art Museums + Social Justice = ?

Hana began the session by prompting us to think about the connections, ideas, or differences in the two phrases “art museum” and “social justice.” What followed was a wide-ranging discussion that surfaced several big themes:

  • Repatriation: where are art and cultural objects from, who do they belong to, what has the chain of ownership been?
  • Artistic perspective: what are the boundaries and rules when representing cultures that are not your own?
  • Inclusivity: museums can be a site of exposure and cross-cultural learning, and can provide voice to underrepresented groups; museums can also consolidate power and reinforce dominant narratives–both of these things can be true within individual institutions.

Equity and Inclusion at the Institutional Level

We then moved through a series of questions that PAM uses to think through “What are the ways that equity and inclusion play out at this institution?”

Some of these are practical questions about the physical experience of visiting the museum:

  • What are the barriers to access? (i.e. location, cost of admission, etc.)
  • How do people feel when they walk through the doors?
  • In what ways are visitors expected to modify their behavior while they’re here?
  • How are they greeted? How does security respond to them?
  • Does the staff composition reflect the city’s/region’s demographics?

And others are about the exhibits and collections of the museum:

  • Do people see themselves in the artwork that is on view?
  • How was the artwork acquired?
  • How is it displayed and interpreted?
  • Who decides value?

While these questions were designed with a museum in mind, I think that many of them could be applied to our library setting. Issues of representation, transparency of process, and value are all relevant to our collections, different as they may be from those at PAM or another museum. I think it could be fascinating and instructive to have conversations about the value and interpretation of our collections with students. What do they interpret about the work we do, based on what is available to them and how they are able to interact with it?

Engaging with the Art Itself

Finally, we took some time to look at some items from the PAM collection, with Hana guiding us through observation and reflection. Some questions and ideas we explored:

  • What do you see? What are you looking at?
  • What is the relationship between the craftsmanship and the subject?
  • Where or how might this object have been originally used?
  • Why was this object created? Why was it wanted?

Hana also shared a second structure for starting a conversation with groups about a specific artwork:

  • Give participants 30 seconds for silent, close observation.
  • Prompt them to write down 5 descriptive words about the object.
  • Have them share with a partner.
  • Prompt them to write 2 questions about the object.

I am eager to try both of these methods with classes in the fall, whether in a discussion actually about visual art, or a different type of primary source. Attending this session reminded me that, especially given the increasing number of digitized museum objects, classroom connections can be made between art and a variety of subjects and disciplines. Incorporating visual art into our teaching can provide news ways to facilitate discussions about social justice, and can provide additional entry points into conversations about challenging, sensitive, and emotionally charged topics.