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Using Art and Artifacts to Deepen Historical Understanding

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Overview | Facilitator's Framework | Exercise | Object Observation Sheet


In this workshop, we practice a method, 'Object Observation', by which art and artifacts can deepen students' historical understanding. Focusing on the genre of portraiture, we start by applying the method to Carl Van Vechten's photographic portraits of celebrities (Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten 1932-1964). Van Vechten's portraits present three decades of famous American literary figures, artists, and scholars. His effort to capture the personalities of his subjects provides us with an interesting glimpse of his own preoccupations as an artist, as well as those of the larger American culture at mid-century.

Following this workshop we break into groups and investigate other historical periods and themes using portraits from other American Memory collections. Finally, we practice 'curating' our own mini-exhibition of portraits, as students may do, to illustrate a theme or development.


At the end of the workshop participants will be able to: 

  • Demonstrate improved observation and questioning skills in regard to historical art and artifacts; 
  • Formulate thoughtful questions about the relationship between the subject of a portrait, the artist, the historical climate, and the contemporary viewer. 

Tasks in brief 

  • Practice an "object observation" exercise and provide objective and subjective descriptions of a photographic portrait; 
  • Determine the kinds of information that a portrait reveals and the "tools" of a portrait artist; 
  • Search for portraits contained in several American Memory collections and articulate questions about the subject, the artist, and the historical period; 
  • Reflect on the nature of portraiture; 
  • Choose a small collection of portraits to tell a particular story. 


  1. Portrait of Billie Holiday (Carl Van Vechten, 1949)
  2. Object Observation sheet
  3. Carl Van Vechten Biography and Chronology
  4. Occupational index of Van Vechten's subjects
  5. American Memory Collections:
    1. America From the Great Depression to World War II: Color Photographs from the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information (1938-1944)
    2. Around the World in the 1890s: Photographs from the World's Transportation Commission, 1894-1896
    3. Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964
    4. Jackie Robinson & Other Baseball Highlights
    5. Selected Civil War Photographs from the Library of Congress, 1861-1865
    6. The South Texas Border, 1900-1920: Photographs from the Robert Runyon Collection

NOTE: This workshop was developed by Sonnet Takahisa, Director of the New York City Museum School, New York, NY 10028.

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Last updated 09/26/2002