Teaching about and with Monuments

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Teaching about and with Monuments

2017-10-10 13:27

We are pleased to bring you a guest-blogger, Katie Samson, who is Assistant Director of Museum Education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

It was wonderful to spend time with school teachers on Saturday, September 23, 2017 for thesecond collaborative Educator’s Workshop with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Both institutions share an incredible amount of primary source material for teachers, and we often find it challenging to share this vital tool with our school communities. 

The impetus for this workshop was a combination of the Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project as well as events that unfolded, in multiple cities over public monuments to confederate soldiers.  Here in Philadelphia, the polemic over former Mayor Frank Rizzo’s statue comes a crucial time. The statues public location remains at the center of a city whose black community still remembers Rizzo as a catalyst for increasing racial divide in the 1980s. With such a topical subject, educators came ready for discussion, dialogue and great ideas in how both the contemporary citywide exhibition and the historic monuments can work well in their classroom for many disciplines.

Counter-monument is a term used for a monument that is erected (either permanent or temporary) purposely next to an existing monument that represents another point or view or historic perspective.  One question that was posed to engage students was whether counter-monuments, like Hank Willis Thomas’ All Power to All People (a.k. Hairpick) help create a dialogue with the Frank Rizzo statue or distract.  An important element to the Common Core standards in education and a vital 21st century skill is for students to use visual evidence to support their argument.

In art museum education, we look at monuments through a visual vocabulary in which complex ideas can be broken down in a visual language.  At the workshop, I invited teachers to explore eight key visual elements and how they work when comparing and contrasting the Frank Rizzo statue and All Power to All People.  There are many elements that can be explored beyond what is listed, but consider this exercise as a jumping off point and one we encourage educators to use often.

  • Shape- Is the shape representative of the actual object or person it represents, or is it abstract? Can the shape be identified “in the round” or 360 degrees?
  • Mass- What is your best estimate of the weight of the object? Does the weight hold meaning? Can the mass hold up against the elements of nature?
  • Material- What is the object made of? Does the material reflect the permanence of the object? Is the material significant to what it represents?
  • Image- Can you see an image or an object as opposed to a simple shape or form?  Consider an obelisk versus a figure?
  • Locations- Where is the object located? Inside or Outside? Public land or private land? What stands nearby? Would the object represent something else entirely if it was located in another place?
  • Words- Are there any inscriptions on the object? Is there a quote?
  • Names- Whose names appear on the object
  • Dates- When was the object created?  What happened during the time it was created to allow it to be there? Do other dates appear on the object?

Once students have identified these elements, they are asked to use this as evidence to support their argument in regards to counter-monuments.  Taking a visual inventory of many of the Monument Lab sites is an engaging exercise, and one that can act as a warm up or informal activity to help students collect evidence on complex issues such as climate change, immigration, and gentrification.  As this contemporary exhibition moves into October, we encourage the public to engage with the monuments, collect information, and remember the context of where we are in the 21st century. The challenges of inequality and violence continue to plaque our nation, and if one thing is certain in the city of Philadelphia, the arts and cultural sector will continue to give platforms for people to engage and to be informed.  We thank the teachers who participated in this workshop, and we look forward to hearing how they engaged their students with this project.

To contact the author Katie Samson - csamson@pafa.org


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