Friday, February 11, 2011

The Importance of Context

The Addison has an extensive collection of images in multiple formats that document, examine, and comment on the events and narratives of the American Civil War. These objects and images are viewed regularly in the new Museum Learning Center to explore myriad topics, placing these images into varying contexts to investigate the power of the selecting and sequencing of images inherent in the curatorial process.

In each series below, the center image depicts Union officers Studying the Art of War, from Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Books of the War. How does the meaning of this image change when placed in the following contexts?

What story does each grouping of images tell?

What can we learn from images about the impact of the Civil War on gender roles and expectations?
The first series of images places the Gardner photograph between two Winslow Homer illustrations from Harper’s Weekly, the newspaper circulated in Northern states: Women Making Havelocks for the Volunteers and The Empty Sleeve at Newport. In this context, the images speak to representations in the media, forms of documentation, and the shifting roles and responsibilities of women during the war.

How is history documented, remembered, and presented?
The narrative of the Gardner photograph is immediately altered by placing it between two post-war images. On one side is an oil painting by Edward Lamson Henry, a Union Quartermaster’s supply transporter, who spent eight years compiling sketches made on site into this 1876 painting, City Point, Virginia, Headquarters of General Grant. On the right is a contemporary print by Kara Walker, who reframes and reexamines Civil War-era illustrations printed in Harper’s Weekly by overlaying caricatured silhouettes of African Americans that create a dialogue with the documented narrative. In this new context, we can explore the impact of the particular intentions and perspectives from which history is presented.

How do the intentions of Civil War photographers compare to those of subsequent and recent photojournalists?
In the final sequence, when placed between a version of Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother photograph from the Great Depression and Stanley Forman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph from a Boston bus desegregation rally, the Gardner photograph prompts exploration of the ways in which the intentions of the photographers, editors, publishers, and audiences factor into the images’ creation and selection for publication.

The Addison’s education department is creating Portfolio Guides to assist educators and students in navigating the Addison’s vast collection and suggest thematic connections between the rich collection resources and classroom curriculum. These guides can be downloaded from the Museum Learning Center website.

These approaches are not relegated to classes alone; rather, the Museum Learning Center creates the opportunity for all audiences to explore images from the Addison’s collection through teacher professional development workshops, adult group visits, and public programs open to all members of the community. Information about upcoming public programs can be found on the
Addison’s website.

Posted by:
Jamie Kaplowitz
Education Fellow and Museum Learning Specialist

IMAGES, TOP ROW: Winslow Homer, The War - Making Havelocks for the Volunteers, from Harper's Weekly, June 29, 1861, wood engraving, gift of Thomas E. Weil, Jr. (PA 1966); Alexander Gardner, Studying the Art of War, scene at Fairfax Court-House, from Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War, Volume I, June, 1863, albumen print mounted on wove paper, museum purchase, Collection Care and Enhancement Fund; Winslow Homer, Our Watering-Places—The Empty Sleeve at Newport, from Harper's Weekly, 1865, 9 3/8 in. x 13 13/16 in., wood engraving on wove paper, museum purchase.
MIDDLE ROW: Edward Lamson Henry, City Point, Virginia, Headquarters of General Grant, 1873 , 30 1/8 in. x 60 1/4 in., oil on canvas, museum purchase; Alexander Gardner (see caption above); Kara Walker, Exodus of Confederates from Atlanta, from Harper's Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated), 2005, 39 in. x 53 in., offset lithograph with screenprint, purchased as the gift of Katherine and Stephen C. Sherrill (PA 1971).
BOTTOM ROW: Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, neg. 1936, print c. 1950, 11 in. x 14 in., gelatin silver print, museum purchase; Alexander Gardner (see caption above); Stanley Forman, Soiling of Old Glory, Boston City Hall, 1976, 7 1/2 in. x 9 1/2 in., gelatin silver print, museum purchase.

No comments: