A Peace of Art

Roger Shimomura

While field trips are not always accessible for every classroom, one of the many nice things about living in Washington, DC is the plethora of free museums and art galleries around the city. One of those free venues is the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), a museum which, “through the visual arts, performing arts and new media…portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, actors and activists whose lives tell the American story.”

NPG offers guided, interactive themed tours for school groups, several of which address marginalized societies in America. These tours are standards-based and fit into many art, history, social studies and language arts curricula. For instance, teachers can select “The Struggle for Justice” tour, which “showcases major cultural and political figures—from key nineteenth-century historical figures to contemporary leaders—who struggled to achieve civil rights for disenfranchised or marginalized groups.” Students can view portraits of Susan B. Anthony, César Chávez, Leonard Crow Dog, Ellen DeGeneres, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Larry Kramer, Rosa Parks, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and others. Seeing these portraits up close offers students the opportunity to make visual and artistic connections with the historical and literary figures they have learned about in the classroom and in texts.

Currently, there is also a temporary exhibit at the NPG dedicated to contemporary portraiture entitled “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter.” The exhibit features seven artists showcasing Asian American portraiture and helps to enlighten viewers to the Asian American experience, offering “representations against and beyond the stereotypes that have long obscured the complexity of being Asian in America.” Teachers can also arrange for a guided tour of this and other contemporary portraiture exhibits at the gallery. This exhibit gives students a visual tool for relating to and understanding the Asian American culture and experience, helping them identify and break down stereotypes of a marginalized group in our society.

While seeing these portraits and exhibits up close can be a powerful experience for students, the great thing about these tours is that they are also offered online, along with lesson plans and materials for teachers to use if they are not able to take a field trip to the gallery. The tours mentioned above are suggested as suitable for grades 6-12. And even if you are not in the classroom, these are terrific exhibits to explore on your own or with a family, some friends, or a community group.

One other exhibit worth mentioning is “30 Americans,” a showcase of works by many of the most important African American artists of the past 30 years. The exhibition is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and “focuses on issues of racial, sexual, and historical identity in contemporary culture while exploring the powerful influence of artistic legacy and community across generations.” The Corcoran does charge for admission of visitors over the age of 12, however – tickets are $8 for students and seniors, and $10 for adults. Nonetheless, the exhibition has already garnered praise; The Root calls it “massively ambitious” and says “the artists featured in the exhibit provoke, disturb, enlighten, inspire.”

These various exhibitions seek to give a voice to marginalized groups and bring attention to justice and peace in our society. Anyone viewing these collections, whether a student or an adult, is afforded the opportunity to practice community building by taking into account others’ experiences and noticing and appreciating their differences. The powerful nature of the exhibits and tours might also channel empathy and compassion, allowing viewers to nurture emotional intelligence. Viewers are given the opportunity to utilize other intelligences as well by combining what they have learned in the classroom or in texts with visual and verbal information about the subjects in the artwork, obtaining new knowledge along the way as well.

Important Info and Dates:

Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter
August 12, 2011 – October 14, 2012

30 Americans
October 1, 2011 – February 12, 2012

National Portrait Gallery Resources

Info about school programs: http://www.npg.si.edu/education/schoolteach.html

Online exhibitions and lesson plans: http://www.npg.si.edu/education/resource2.html

Professional Development Programs for teachers: http://www.npg.si.edu/education/teachprog.html

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