Educators and Art Museums: Doing Social Studies Together

na art museumThe following is a guest post written by Bonnie Thomas.  Bonnie is the Manager, Education Programs and Resources at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO.

“School subjects are like individual rectangles, the teacher explained. And this long, curved line represents the arts and humanities, linking concepts and modes of thinking across disciplines.”

nelson atkins painting

painting creditsThis teacher, speaking in front of a vibrant geometric painting by the artist Robert Mangold, was one of 15 participants in a partnership project dedicated to exploring how art museums can support humanities education in public schools. Her comments emerged during a reflection activity in which teachers chose an artwork to represent their experience in the partnership project. Many other participants made similar comments, pointing out newly recognized connections between classroom subjects and visual art.

These teachers had first gathered several months previously at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, an encyclopedic art museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The Nelson-Atkins, with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, was seeking teachers’ input on how its strong collection of American art could be leveraged to strengthen student learning in American history and related social studies topics.

As part of the Nelson-Atkins’ Education department, I was able to follow these teachers throughout the partnership project, watching as they both learned from the museum and its collections and taught museum staff about their students and their curriculum. This exchange of information helped open everyone’s eyes to the realities of social studies education as it currently stands and to the rich opportunities that exist for collaboration among schools and arts organizations.

So, what surprising things were learned along the way? For the teachers involved, many ‘a-ha!’ moments had to do with just how closely a concept or thinking skill used in the gallery paralleled what students are asked to do in social studies. Participants noted that the museum’s collection of 18th-century American portraits could give students vivid visual reference points and a broader contextual understanding of Colonial America. They realized that the process of analyzing a Depression-era photograph as both a work of art and a primary source could help students practice critical and historical thinking skills. They got excited about works of socially conscious contemporary art, envisioning ways they could spark classroom conversations about global events and civic values.

For the Nelson-Atkins, hearing input directly from teachers was invaluable. We learned about the difficulties involved in keeping social studies learning front and center when other, more heavily tested, subjects threaten to crowd it out. We learned that teachers are hungry for resources that are authentic, adaptable, and engaging – and that, all too often, they are left to hunt down those resources on their own. We heard that many students in our area have limited experience visiting museums and that, if we don’t make efforts to the contrary, they may feel intimidated or disengaged when entering a space that has seemingly little relevance for their lives.

Armed with this new information, both the museum and the teacher participants are eager to continue our work. Nelson-Atkins staff are currently exploring ways to translate what we have learned into teacher resources, professional development opportunities, and student tours that will integrate visual art and social studies learning in ways that meet students’ needs.

For any social studies teachers who may be reading this with piqued interest, I invite you to visit our website to learn more about the programs and resources currently available for teachers and students at the Nelson-Atkins. Check back regularly, too, as we’re sure to expand our offerings as the ideas formed during our partnership project come to fruition. 


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