By Danae Hutson—When I stepped into my new job at the Portland Art Museum as the School & Teacher Program Specialist in September 2011, I was tasked with helping create a program that would strengthen the relationship between classroom teachers, students, and the museum around the recently landed Object Stories Initiative.
Almost everyone, at every age, has a relationship with an object—whether it is a memento, a saved keepsake, or a work of art, and the act of sharing such objects and telling their stories is empowering. The Portland Art Museum education staff, teaching artists and museum docents worked with classroom teachers to integrate Object Stories—From the Middle into middle school curriculum using classroom artists and study visits at the Museum. Together we experimented with frameworks for using students’ interest in their personal objects to emphasize and expand upon the meaning and stories that objects carry.
As a former middle and high school teacher I realize the challenges inherent in exploring ideas of identity and personal significance with middle school students, students in the heart of adolescence. But by guiding students to share the objects that matter in their lives we give them a chance to use their voice, an opportunity to be heard.
Object Stories—From the Middle was funded by a three year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The Museum collaborated with classroom teachers, docents, and artists to shape this pioneering multi-stage program that emphasizes the connection between art and the students’ own lives. With Object Stories—From the Middle we facilitate student participation both in the classroom and the museum through looking, movement, writing, storytelling, and conversation.
The Museum, in close collaboration with teachers, sent teaching artists and Museum docents into the classroom to develop and hone students’ stories. Artists used their media to engage students with brainstorming activities and exercises that encourage them to think about objects of significance and the meanings and stories that surround them. Classroom teachers deepened student stories by developing and writing personal narratives as part of their curriculum. Students also looked, wrote, and explored museum objects and their stories during multiple gallery visits.
Museum educators use students’ interest in their personal objects to emphasize and elaborate on the intrinsic meaning objects carry, then students select a work of art to write to and about. One Clear Creek student wrote about Judy Cooke’s Semaphore, 1990:
The work is a reminder of symbols that have meaning in life. The cross is a symbol of life when people need help in the time of trouble. The circle means opening up to people and not being so alone, but not too crowded either. One is a symbol of stairs that means they will let you climb to the top and be more confident and strong. The broken heart means life isn’t always easy and you need a little push here and there. The shovel means you can dig out of any situation you are in.
Over the past three years the Museum has used this project as an opportunity to work on a deeper level with teachers and artists to support student learning goals. We have found an incredible power to foster understanding and exploration using objects from students’ own lives as a starting point. The project will continue to forge connections based on participation and dialogue about objects, art, and the meanings of things. With this novel program we are challenging ourselves and the traditional avenues of Museum interaction with students. In Object Stories—From the Middle students gave back to the institution, contributing stories, leaving their thoughts and understanding in the Museum’s permanent digital gallery. I hope that this site becomes a dynamic resource and supports educators in their exploration of the things that matter. The activities and content we provide from the project are tools that work, and they work because they put the students—their interests, their values, their most treasured objects and memories—first. We hope to have opportunities to collaborate and continue to explore the meanings of things.
Challenge: Brainstorm a list of ideas for the following prompts
- What is art?
- What can we learn from art?
- What kinds of things can art teach us?
Listen to a few Object Stories:
- What did you learn about the object?
- What did you learn from the storyteller?
- Why is this an important object?
Reflect: What similarities and differences are there between your two sets of answers?
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