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  • Main Street as Art Museum:Metaphor and Teaching Strategies
  • Elizabeth (Beau) Vallance (bio)

In truth, walking down Main Street in many American small towns today is rather like walking through an art museum whose walls have mysterious gaps where paintings have been removed for cleaning. Maybe more accurately, walking down Main Street can be rather like walking through the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston after a Vermeer, two Rembrandts, and eleven other artworks were stolen in 1990: since the Gardner's charter does not allow it to rearrange its holdings, the resulting gaps remained with only explanatory notes in their too-large spaces on my last visit there. A town I know well has a disturbing number of empty storefronts, identified with only the faint outlines of their former names, their windows holding explanatory notes in the form of signs proclaiming that they are for sale or rent. Thanks to Wal-Mart and other big-box stores thriving in a distinctly nonpedestrian strip north of town, the commerce that once thrived on Main Street has died or been removed to new locations, and the once-lively street-level shop windows that testified to downtown liveliness for foot traffic are now empty, awaiting new life as, very likely, antique shops or restaurants.

But in principle, a walk down Main Street can be very much like a stroll through a museum gallery—visually rich, inviting unexpected choices, aesthetically rewarding. This article explores the concept of shop windows as visually ordered compositions much like paintings and other art objects and suggests some approaches to applying this concept in teaching a range of subjects and styles of art in both classrooms and actual museums. For the purposes of argument, we will assume that our mythical Main Street is alive [End Page 25] with businesses of many kinds, with the old-fashioned windows open to the street that allow us to "window shop" for many blocks. Some of my examples are drawn from the very enjoyable experience they still offer, of wandering from image to image, commenting as we go.

Museum Visitors as Window-Shoppers

Consider the behavior of the average museum visitor, a composite characterization drawn from my years as a museum educator and augmented by a few statistics on how people comport themselves in museums and other public places. The behavior of visitors in art museums is an especially clear case of how people observe deliberate compositions, for in art museums objects are typically arranged fairly sparely, with minimal crowding of the objects themselves, small labels that may or may not explain much about the painting or sculpture or silver tureen, good lighting, and a fairly hushed atmosphere, unless a crowd has gathered for a family festival or a major exhibition.

Generally, people come to museums in pairs or small groups and not necessarily with a clear plan beyond perhaps seeing a particular favorite work of art or generally catching the highlights of the collection. Their purpose may be social as much as specifically educational, and those who come with companions tend to chat a bit as they walk through the collection. Generally, other things being equal, they turn to the right on entering the building.1 After that, however, visitors become unpredictable, and they meander among the objects in ways the museum cannot control unless visitors are following a live tour guide or a printed self-guiding tour that recommends stopping at selected objects in a predetermined order. Visitors may move to a large object located in the center of the gallery (such as a medieval suit of armor, an Egyptian mummy case, or an enormous painting on a freestanding wall partition), or to a case filled with many small precious-looking objects (such as pre-Columbian gold jewelry from Peru, or the tiny bass sculptures that are gold weights from the Ashanti culture in Ghana). They may be drawn to something in a familiar style, such as a large Impressionist painting or a Rembrandt-looking portrait. They may gravitate to a favorite object in the collection, or they may be attracted by a new acquisition or a work recently installed after many years in storage. At all these stops, they...


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