Community of Learners: Learning to "Read" Art

Posted on June 01, 2007 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, summer 2007

A work of art is a form of communication that employs a visual language,rather than words, to express its meaning. But can this language help students improve their critical interpretation skills? Carl Thum, director of the Academic Skills Center at Dartmouth, wanted to know, and he and Lesley Wellman, curator of education at the Hood, added the exercise of "reading" a work of art into Thum's Writing 5 course curriculum, which is crafted to develop students' analytical thinking,reading, writing, research, and presentation skills.

The goal of the class's museum visit was to help students learn to analyze a work of art just as they might analyze a novel, play, movie, or dance performance. Wellman used the ancient Assyrian reliefs to lead eighteen students through a fourstep interpretation process. The group began by looking at a distance, so they could observe all six panels at once and describe their largest components, such as figures and trees. Gradually students moved closer, continuing their visual inventory down to the smallest details, such as the decoration on the hem of the Assyrian king's robe. They then analyzed this information. Who are these figures? What is going on here? Where might this object have been displayed originally? Every speculation had to be backed up with visual evidence.

Finally, fortified with their analyses, the class arrived at an interpretation of the work of art, a summation of the primary message it is trying to convey. As one student commented about the process afterward,"By systematically observing every detail both large and minute, I became increasingly fascinated with what the stone tablets had to offer."

As a teaching museum, the Hood seeks to continually explore and capitalize on the interdisciplinary nature of art to connect to the curriculum in meaningful and effective ways. From Carl Thum's perspective, this collaboration with the Hood will be a part of his future Writing 5 courses. "It gets them into one of best college art museums in the country, and it helps them to understand that critical thinking and analysis will be at the heart of much of their educational experience at Dartmouth."


Written June 01, 2007 by Kristin Swan