Object Lessons

Sarah Ganz Blythe

How does the existing play into the creation of the new? More specifically, what is the place of historical art and design objects in the education of artists and designers? These questions have been mainstays of art-school discourse for centuries. Sarah Ganz Blythe, Director of Education at the RISD Museum, revisits the long history of studying and copying museum objects as a dominant form of art and design learning and describes how RISD’s faculty and students — and the public — foster and form relationships with museum objects that are expansive and multivalent.


For an artist or designer, to be in a museum is to be in the company of fore-fathers and matriarchs, idols and rivals. Within this context, objects can operate as pedagogical models, or tools, that wrench open previously unknown life-worlds to cultivate competencies essential to artists and designers today. Indeed, works of art are the result of inquiry, experimentation, discovery, and innovation, and as such, they offer the opportunity to develop and exercise these very same skills. At the same time, it is easy to romanticize the connection between object and viewer and imagine that open lines of communication across time and place, between makers past and present, take form by simply situating artists in museums. While looking at and learning from works of art has been essential to the creative process for centuries, how such generative relationships are formed is more complicated ...

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