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Finding Connections

Comparison as an interpretive learning tool
Jennifer DePrizio, Chief Learning Officer
March 2, 2022

Shadows of Liberty 2016. Titus Kaphar (American, b. 1976). Oil and rusted nails on canvas; 274.3 x 213.4 cm. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from Ellen and Stephen Susman, BA 1962, 2017.67.1. © Titus Kaphar

Interpretation is both a planning framework and a communication strategy that results in the text panels, labels, and gallery guides you encounter throughout the museum and the content in the ArtLens App. These tools aim to enhance understanding of art and spark curiosity. Because visitors bring their whole selves to the museum experience, naturally there are many ways to understand a work of art. Good interpretation strategies provide multiple entry points and expanded perspectives, allowing each visitor to dig deep into issues of our shared humanity. 

Instead of focusing on acquisition of facts, the education experience at an art museum helps visitors consider different perspectives, increase awareness, and gain a better understanding of one’s place in the world. In our interpretive texts, we strive to share our expertise while leaving space for discovery and control of one’s own learning. We think of visitors as curious companions who have different questions based on their individual motivation, life experience, and art knowledge. The content that we share should be the beginning of a dialogue. It should spark closer looking, recognize relationships, navigate multiple meanings, and demonstrate curiosity.

According to neuroscientific research, new information cannot enter the long-term memory unless it relates to prior knowledge or experience. As we encounter new information in the galleries, our brains are unconsciously trying to find connections. When content is relatable, not only is the potential for learning new information greater, but there is also increased possibility to gain new perspectives on something that is familiar.

Comparison is an effective learning tool for fostering connection. When encountering a juxtaposition of the familiar and the unexpected, we think more deeply and critically about what we already know. The exhibition Currents and Constellations: Black Art in Focus (see page 12) offers such an opportunity. Extending beyond the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery, this exhibition includes four “constellations” in the permanent collection galleries, creating juxtapositions that encourage us to reconsider artworks in a continuum of knowledge and experience across time and place, with Black art at the center of the discussion.

George Washington at the Battle of Princeton c. 1779. Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827) and Workshop.Oil on canvas; 131 x 121.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Membership Income Fund, 1917.946

For example, by placing Titus Kaphar’s painting Shadows of Liberty alongside the CMA’s George Washington at the Battle of Princeton by Charles Willson Peale and workshop, we are confronted with the history and visual representation of American colonialism. Kaphar’s portrait of Washington includes 300 strips of tea-stained canvas obscuring our first president’s face and body. On each strip is written the names of the more than 300 people he enslaved, forcing us to consider the traditional narratives of our country’s founding and what stories have been omitted. As an interpretive tool, comparison is a powerful way to reflect on what we have been taught and, perhaps more importantly, not been taught.

We invite you to explore Currents and Constellations and consider these comparisons as a way to rediscover works in the collection and to expand and enhance your understanding of our collective history as illustrated through art.