Art That Tells a Story

Background Information

Background Information

An art object can provide more than just a visual experience. The artist may have a particular story to convey, and the artwork can say something about the artist, the subject, and the culture in which it was made. Some objects can be sacred to the people who made them, imbuing them with a special level of meaning.

The objects in this activity, most of which were created by Native American artists of the 18th and 19th centuries, convey a range of narratives and information about identity, tradition, and place.

This activity presents three main ways that an artwork can convey a narrative:

1. The story an object tells can relate directly to the narrative that is depicted in it. This might be a historic event, a personal story, a tradition, or something else that has an explicit meaning to the creator and that is reflected in the content, form, and technique of the artwork.

2. The narrative about an object can touch on many things: Who made it? Where and why it was it made? What has happened to the object? These nine objects connect to narratives through themes related to history, geography, culture, and human interaction.

3. Art objects can become inspirations for new narratives. People respond to art objects in personal ways and create new stories that grow out of these responses. Sometimes these are imaginative stories that use artworks as jumping off points. Other stories are factual and based on research. Or these imaginative and factual approaches can be combined, as when a fictional story draws on the actual history of an object.

The closer one looks at an artwork and thinks about its meaning, its use, and its history, the greater the potential for understanding the stories it conveys.

For more information about each of the art objects presented here, please see Artscape on the Peabody Essex Museum Web site.

Looking at Objects as Stories

Looking at Objects as Stories

This interactive activity, adapted from material provided by the ECHO partners, presents images of nine artifacts from the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Many of these objects were included in "Uncommon Legacies," an exhibit of 18th and 19th century Native American art, which the museum presented in 2003. Each image relates to narratives in multiple ways.

Open the Flash Interactive Activity in a new window

Questions for Discussion

Questions for Discussion

  • How can looking closely at an object help you understand the world of the person who created it?
  • What do you need to know about each object to understand the story it embodies?
  • How or what story do these art objects tell about the people/culture? Or how/when do (everyday) objects become art?
  • What do the materials used to make the objects tell you about the climate where the artists live and what resources were available to them?

Academic Standards

Academic Standards

National English Language Arts Standards

  • Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts.
  • Standard 4: Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g. conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
  • Standard 9: Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

State Academic Standards

Each state has adapted the national academic standards to its own needs and population. To find a listing of standards in your state, visit the Education World web site.