Learning History Through Art

14 Apr

by Diana Yost-

Scene inside Met MuseumOver the course of the semester, our class has ventured into several different realms of public history, from podcasts to documentary films.  One sphere of public history that we didn’t have a chance to cover in this course is that of art museums. As an undergraduate, I dedicated a great deal of my time to studying art history as well as studio art, and even though I am obtaining my Master’s degree in Historical Studies, the influence of art is still in the foreground of my thoughts.

I have unfortunately heard some of my classmates say you can’t learn as much from visiting an art museum as you can in a history or science museum. I could not disagree more! There is so much more to an art museum than looking at oil paintings and thousand-year-old clay pots. Art museums are an excellent way for the public to understand cultures of the past because they display pieces of art that are not only worthy of technical artistic talent but also because they are infused with meaning from that time.

Egyptian Tomb at Met Museum

Tomb at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a perfect example of history (even if it’s not technically a history museum!) Inside the museum visitors, can walk through a real Egyptian tomb, or an abbey of a medieval church, or even the living room of a Frank Lloyd Wright house. These visual and physical experiences engage the visitors with the objects, allowing them to feel like they are actually in that time period.  This is a way the museum brings history to life; instead of reading what it’s like, visitors get to experience it first hand.

Another example can be found in our own backyard at the Saint Louis Art Museum (SLAM).  While there is not an ancient palace room to walk into, SLAM’s current special exhibit, entitled Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea, teaches the history of the Mayan culture through art and artifacts. For instance, visitors learn that the ancient Mayans believed that water, and therefore rain and the ocean, was the source of life, and they illustrate the symbolic power that they believed water had on the objects they used in day to day life. Through this exhibit, the museum offers the public an insight into an ancient culture by means of connecting everyday objects and ornamentation to their belief in life-giving water.

Exterior view of Met MuseumWhile art museums are sometimes clustered into their own category of fine arts, I believe they are an integral part of public history. They provide the public with a different perspective on history by telling a story through art and material culture.  While art museums are a great resource on artists and artistic styles, they are also another avenue to explore history.

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One Response to “Learning History Through Art”

  1. Christina April 14, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    Great post! I agree, and think art can often tell us more about history than other artifacts. Even in more modern art we can see the effects of historical events on artistic style and subject matter; definitely something a public historian should not forget!

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