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Object Literacy

Although “reading, interpreting, and discovering meaning” is an acknowledged goal in all teaching, object literacy (a.k.a. visual literacy) may not be as readily understood or embraced. Even experienced educators are sometimes uncertain about the importance of object literacy. What does it mean? Is it essential? Will it advance my curriculum? How do I teach it?

Object literacy is a special skill gained through the process of discovery and discussion about original objects. It is a skill which, like others, must be learned. Museums have original objects, artifacts, or works of art. Therefore, museums are logical places in which to teach people to become object literate.

Museum objects are great resources. They are rich in meaning, both alone as primary sources and in context with others of their time and place. Recognizing the need to show teachers how museums can be used to complement classroom instruction, we designed a workshop that is relevant to all who teach within a museum setting, including docents.

We created four categories of workshop, each one with a specific discipline in mind. To meet the needs of teachers of social studies, writing, science/math, and art, we used the same basic outline but choose different types of objects and focused on different aspects of the objects selected.

Social Studies. The aim was to demonstrate how to learn about culture from objects. A seventeenth century American chest, for example, speaks eloquently about life in Colonial Boston. The materials from which it was made, the way it was put together and decorated, how and where it was used and by whom, all are clues that lead to a better understanding of its time and place.

Writing. Portraits are used as an aide in the process of understanding and writing about people. Comparing two similar types of portraits from two different periods, such as Vincent Van Gogh’s Posttnan of 1888 and John Singleton Copley’s Paul Revere of 1768, reveals how each sitter’s expression, pose, and dress tell much about them, as well as about their relationship to the artists and the time in which they lived.

Science/Math. The materials, compositions, and patterns of objects are the focus and source of discussion for this unit. Bronze vessels made in ancient China provide a rich resource for investigation. How and why they were conceived and executed, the evolution of the technology of bronze casting, their scale and shapes, and the surfaces covered with intricate designs and intriguing symbols are all matters for scientific and mathematical (as well as artistic) analysis.

Art. Emphasis is on the product and how it was created. Looking at a view of Boston Harbor in 1850 as painted by the American artist Fitz Hugh Lane and at another seascape of ten years earlier by the English artist J.M.W. Turner raises questions and provides answers about artistic techniques and traditions, stylistic differences, and personal communication and messages.

Viewers encounter an object with a task to perform, responding to a discovery worksheet. In this way, the object itself presents problems for viewers to solve. The social studies worksheet, for example, might ask:

  • What is it? (describe the object using the information found on its label)
  • What do you see? (note the materials, decoration, size, appearance, etc.)
  • What can you infer? (based on what you see, consider how this object might have been used, who might of owned it, etc.)
  • What more would you like to know?

As viewers learn to look for meaning in, and collect data from, an original object, they begin to understand how an object communicates its many messages. Directed looking at, or “reading,” an ancient Greek vase, for example, rewards the viewer with insights about the techniques used by the potter and the painter who created it; the patron for whom it was made; and can also generate thought and lively discussion about cultural practices, use and purposes, and other aspects of the time and place of its manufacture.

When viewers encounter an object with a task to perform they find, much to their delight, that they can extract information with ease. And, as they learn to become object literate — reading, interpreting, and discovering meaning — we fulfill our mission and our purpose.

Sally Leahy is the Coordinator of the Gallery Instructor Program in the Department of Education at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She is responsible for recruiting, organizing, training, and supervising approximately eighty volunteer Gallery Instructors who teach school children of all ages about the collections of the Museum. She is also extremely interested in helping teachers take better advantage of the Museum’s resources.

Leahy, Sally. “Object Literacy,” The Docent Educator 4.3 (Spring 1995): 17.

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