For those of us who are visual learners, one of the easiest ways to retain information about history is through images. Whether those images are sepia-toned photos or medieval paintings, they are vital to many of us, enabling us to better viscerally understand history.
The objects found in museums vary depending upon the type of museum and the funding available. What you find at a local historical museum will differ from what is available at the Louvre. If the purpose of your visit is to learn something, then each experience will be valuable in its own way.
Lyre Guitar ca. 1805 France, possibly made by Joseph Pons. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art Collections.Some of the things you can find at museums are paintings, sketches, clothing, sculpture, shoes, furniture and jewelry. These items can all tell you something about the era in which it featured. The composition of a piece can tell us what tools and natural resources were available at that time. What the artist chooses to depict can teach us about their culture.
Certain norms haven’t changed much over time. The rich had more stuff, and stuff that lasted longer, than did poor people. Therefore, many of the pieces that have survived are not indicative of all parts of society. We can’t change that, but we do need to be aware of existing biases.
One of the things I’ve always found interesting is the number of painted portraits available throughout history. This certainly makes sense in the time before cameras. These portraits were the selfies of their time, although they took a lot longer to complete and you had to sit or stand really still for a long time. Also, unlike selfies, the portrait artist may be required to use a little flattery in their portrayal of their subject.
Along with cameras for selfies, we can use new technologies to access museum inventories. Most museums have at least a portion of their inventory digitized and available online. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced in February that they would not only digitize many of their works of art, but that they would also make about 375,000 of those images freely available to the public.
For these images in the public domain, anyone can use them for any purpose (like I am using them in this blog post). This is a huge deal for teachers, writers and bloggers. You may spend hours to find just the right image you need, but those hours are time so well-spent.
For someone like me, who uses art to understand history, I simply appreciate that these images are digitized and available to me. After all, not all of us have daily physical access to the Louvre. If you want to know about clothing, food, housing or transportation during a particular period in history, check out a museum online.
In the meantime, please enjoy the photos from the Metropolitan Museum of Art included in this post.