The Inclusive Object Toolkit

[Editors’ note: In addition, check out this great resource on the John Hopkins Sheriden Libraries webpage.]

[Author: Jennifer P. Kingsley, Director of the Program in Museums and Society at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD. She specializes in the arts of the medieval world, considering both the historical moment of their making and their afterlives as part of different processes and cycles of collection, interpretation, and display. Jennifer currently directs an interdisciplinary undergraduate focused program at Johns Hopkins University called Museums and Society that engages students in studying collections in their institutional contexts, and in the work of curating and interpreting them for public audiences.]

*** Please email Jennifer at jkingsley@jhu.edu with thoughts, questions, or suggestions of resources to add to the Inclusive Object Toolkit –  She would also love to hear from AHTR Weekly readers on how they pull back the curtain on disciplinary biases and silences in art history. Suggested discussion questions can be found at the end of the post. ***

A key goal of my teaching is to engage students in reading critically the processes, systems and institutional actors that produce art and art history and the ways that power has and continues to shape art history’s contours and contents.

Many resources already exist to support this work. They take many different forms however, and appear in varied places ranging from the academic to the public, the digital to the physical, and the highly contextualized to the minimally explained. Often they build on “meta” concepts familiar to academic and museum professionals but less accessible to undergraduates because they rely on deeply theoretical scholarship across a range of fields. My goal was to aggregate select materials from this corpus and stage them in formats both pedagogically provocative and accessible for undergraduates. Hence the Inclusive Object Toolkit, a web-based, open access resource built in the LibGuide platform. Libguides are a content management system most often used by libraries (including at my university) to curate information and organize class and subject specific resources.

The toolkit aims to spark conversation in collections-based teaching and learning, and to contextualize (and problematize) some of the practices that museum galleries and the university classroom take for granted.  It stages provocations around different aspects of knowledge-making in art history by three principle methods: thematic juxtapositions of scholarly literature and public work; short (200-word) ‘state of the question’ genre essays; and videos of museum galleries and visitor responses to curatorial strategies that surface assumptions and biases in how we interpret art. The toolkit also serves as a repository of lesson plans and case studies – and I welcome contributions from others.

By way of example, in 2018/19 I worked with students to craft and classroom-test five 8-minute videos about museums and their collections. The first video uses the Baltimore Museum of Art as a springboard to examine broader issues of museum location and access; architectural language and design; collection taxonomies and interpretive tendencies in art museums; as well as the practice of naming spaces after donors. It is designed to help build museum literacy and draw attention to tendencies in art-history and museology that have been naturalized over centuries of practice.

Four more videos focus on individual artworks. Students interviewed visitors about what they noticed about the artwork, the meanings they made from it, the questions they had, and their take-aways from the object label. We collectively analyzed their findings and discussed the relationship between canonical cultural narratives in art history and in the public sphere as well as the disciplinary assumptions and silences they foster. To express our findings in a usable form for future teaching, I hired an undergraduate student to creatively sample the interviews and associate them with visual content.[1]

Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, Shepherds of Arcadia, 1872

Francesco Bacchiacca, Madonna and Child in a Landscape, 1540

Circle of Niccolo di Pietro Gerini, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Two Angels and Four Saints ca. 1400

Unidentified Baga artist, Great Mother Headdress (D’mba), late 19th early 20th century

The toolkit presently supports critical pedagogy in the following areas:

  • social inclusion and exclusion in museums
  • decolonizing the museum
  • accessibility (with a focus on art access for people with low to no vision and on exercises in verbal description)
  • taxonomy and classification in art history
  • canons and canonical narratives

I hope also to create pages focused on specific art-historical sub-fields / collections. At present a content area on medieval collections and their museological positioning is fairly comprehensive.

Interrogating Museum Space video

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. Describe the spatial culture of the museum. Consider siting, architecture, the naming of spaces, organization of the collection and design choices in the galleries.
  2. How might these practices influence how people perceive art in general? specific kinds of art?
  3. How might these practices influence how people perceive themselves in relation to the museum?
  4. How might visitors experience the museum differently depending on where they live, their race or ethnicity, their gender, their educational background or whether or not they have disabilities?

Corot Discussion Questions

How did visitors perceive the image before reading the label?

How does this compare to their interpretation of the painting after reading the label?

What were visitors curious to understand about the painting?

How did visitors react to the text?

How would you describe the voice of the label? its tone, and style?

Based on visitors’ reactions, which aspects of the experience of this painting reinforced a sense of belonging? Which aspects might foster feelings of inadequacy?

Bacchiacca Discussion Questions

How did visitors react to the painting? What cultural expectations did they carry into their analysis?

How did visitors react to the colors of the painting? How did they react to the label’s interpretation of the colors?

What assumptions does the label make about visitor knowledge, background, or likely reaction to the painting?

Circle of Niccolò di Pietri Gerini Discussion Questions

How did visitors react to the painting? What cultural expectations did they carry into their analysis?

How do visitor reactions to this painting compare to visitor reactions to the later work of the same subject (Bacchiacca video)?

What do visitors think about the time period when this artwork was made? How does that compare to student descriptions of the Middle Ages and medieval art? to their descriptions of the Renaissance and Renaissance art?

What assumptions does the label make about visitor background or knowledge?

27% visitors made comments on the ethnicity of Jesus. What do you make of that?

How did visitors react to the aesthetic judgments made or assumed in the label?

Great Mother Head-dress (D’mba) Discussion Questions

How did visitors react to the African art on display? What cultural expectations and assumptions did they carry into their analysis? What terms do they use to describe Africa and African art?

How do visitor reactions to this sculpture compare to visitor reactions to the European artworks in the other videos?

Almost every visitor asked for more context for the artwork, even though the museum made available a museum catalog of the collection on the bench in front of the sculpture. What do you make of visitors expressing the feeling of not having enough context?

For both the Circle of Niccolò di Pietri Gerini painting and the Great Mother Head-dress, visitors wondered about the artwork’s journey from the time and place of its production to the present museum in Baltimore. What do you make of that interest in museum processes? Do you have any questions about the work of museums and how museums work?[1] For related discussion prompts, assignments, and activities see here.

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