USF's Museum Blog

What are you looking at? Visual Literacy, Museums, and the Digital World

by Stephanie Brown

USF faculty member Stephanie Brown

USF faculty member Stephanie Brown

Surgery that reconstructs a human face damaged by war. Ceramic works that join ancient traditions with modern practices. The relationship between aesthetic perception and the healing arts. What do these ideas and practices have in common? At first glance, almost nothing—but, for members of the International Visual Literacy Association, it’s all about the glance. More than glancing, it’s about deep looking. The IVLA defines visual literacy as “the ability to derive meaning from images of everything that we see—to read and write visual language.”

Toledo Museum of Art hosted the 2014 IVLA conference.

Toledo Museum of Art hosted the 2014 IVLA conference.

In November, I attended the 47th annual IVLA conference, held this year at the remarkable Toledo Museum of Art. My colleague Judy Landau and I presented work we had accomplished in January 2014 with Museum Studies students in the online Johns Hopkins University program. Our on-line seminar focused on the collaboration that is at the heart of every successful museum exhibition. Rather than ask students to create an onsite exhibition that would disappear at the end of our time together, we asked them to create a virtual exhibition linking objects in natural history, art, and history museums. Central to the success of the project was the intersection of visual literacy skills with emerging technologies, curatorial strategies and museum education principles.

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent Van Gogh.

Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear and Pipe (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh.

As museum professionals, we use visual literacy every day. We look closely at objects. We describe what we see. We analyze what we see. We interpret what we see. The more we look, the more we see, and the more connections we can facilitate—for ourselves, and for our museum visitors. Brian Kennedy, current president of IVLA and president, director, and CEO of the Toledo Museum of Art, argues that visual literacy is critical in the digital world, where we are bombarded by thousands of images every day. We need to learn how to see, how to look closely and interpret. Visual literacy is, Kennedy argues, another aspect of critical thinking. And it’s not just about looking at art: “slowing down and understanding what we see could save a life, solve a cold case or help prepare for a natural disaster.”

Visual literacy skills play a large part in recent advances.

Visual literacy skills play a large part in recent advances.

Keynote speakers at the conference ranged from a surgeon who works with the U. S. Department of Defense on regenerative medicine to help soldiers with devastating war wounds, to an international ceramic artist who creates vessels that both echo and reinvent the centuries-old work of Nigerian potters, to a Canadian anthropologist who studies “the cultural life of the senses” in Papua New Guinea. Each of these scholars and practitioners uses the same tools in their work as we use when we stand in front of an object in a museum collection: we all look, we observe, we describe, we analyze, we interpret. Visual literacy emphasizes the work we do in museums by identifying that close looking as a critical thinking skill that’s central to success in this brave new world of digital media.   The IVLA conference, with panels exploring visual literacy’s uses and applications in venues ranging from elementary schools to virtual reality labs to hospitals, afforded an opportunity to think about our work in a new, broader, exciting context.

For more information on the University of San Francisco’s museum studies program, please click here.

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