Tag Archives: museum education history

Tableaux Vivant: History and Practice

Students creating a tableau at the Met. Photo by Don Pollard.
Students creating a tableau at the Met. Photo by Don Pollard.

With the growing popularity of kinesthetic teaching strategies, I frequently hear the term ‘tableaux vivant’ thrown around. How does the activity actually work, and where did it come from? A close look at the history of the practice illuminates this powerful tool for education and community building.

Tableaux vivant is often referred to as a playful pastime, but it has also provided a great amount of purpose in the cultural history of the United States. Translated from French, tableaux vivant means ‘living pictures.’ The genre peaked in popularity between 1830 and 1920. During a performance of tableaux vivant, a cast of characters represented scenes from literature, art, history, or everyday life on a stage. After the curtain went up, the models remained silent and frozen for roughly thirty seconds. Particular emphasis was placed on staging, pose, costume, make-up, lighting, and the facial expression of the models. Sometimes a poem or music accompanied the scene, and often a large wooden frame outlined the perimeter of the stage, so as to reference the frame of a painted canvas.

In Victorian England, people used tableaux vivant as a parlor game to amuse guests and engage them in a deeper appreciation of art. The initial interest in the genre in the United States teetered between the desire for aesthetic entertainment and the desire to catch a glimpse of the female nude. The historian Jack McCullogh researched the popularity of tableaux vivant on the stages of New York City. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, for example, was a famous tableau that fell somewhere between artistry and indecency, so much so that models were occasionally arrested if they revealed too much skin. Even with the controversy, many critics hailed the performances for their skill and value:

It is a pleasure to find that, although many nude pictures are realized, there is not a suspicion of indelicacy about the entire show… These pictures, besides affording pleasure to the public, are calculated to educate the public taste. (as cited in McCullogh, 134)

Actress Hedwig Reicher as "Columbia" with other suffrage pageant participants, 1913. Library of Congress.
Actress Hedwig Reicher as “Columbia” with other suffrage pageant participants, 1913. Library of Congress.

During the later part of the 19th century, tableaux vivant spread throughout the United States via the publication of how-to manuals. The genre was primarily used by youthful Americans as a way to discover their group and individual identities. The historian David Glassberg wrote about how tableaux vivant was used in local pageantry. Small towns and cities would often host parades featuring floats carrying women in tableaux vivant, reenacting pilgrim scenes or allegorical scenes such as “Columbia,” or “the Thirteen Original States.” Monika Elbert focused on how the growing middle class of women used tableaux vivant to alter their personal identities. She explored how women used the genre privately to try on new costumes and characters, some of which were controversial, as a way to merge their public and private self. In both cases, the action of creating tableaux vivant allowed people to explore new phases of their identity.

During the early 20th century, tableaux vivant was used as a form of protest. It was an especially fitting genre for women to use during suffrage protests because it was a familiar form of expression for them. They took on many poses from art including Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc and Raphael’s Madonna to symbolically convey their desire for women’s right vote. Other minority groups used tableaux vivant as a form of protest. In 1913 textile workers from Patterson, New Jersey protested poor working conditions in a pageant at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Also in 1913, W.E.B. DuBois directed The Star of Ethiopia, a pageant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. A still and quiet performance might not seem like a choice activity for a protest, but it likely etched a lasting impression in the minds of audiences and performers, an impression that could inspire change. When cinema became popular, the heyday of tableaux vivant ended. In many ways, though, the genre has found its way into modern photography and performance art.

Teaching in the Galleries with Tableaux Vivant

Tableaux vivant is a terrific tool to engage students during a museum tour. I’ve found that the activity not only speaks to kinesthetic learners, but it activates the imaginations of everyone involved. During a recent tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I brought a group of students to Gustav Courbet’s Young Ladies of the Village. I had volunteer students freeze in the scene, and the other students help them find their positions with greater detail. The activity brought exactly what I wanted: more details. We engaged in a lengthier discussion about the peasant girl and her relationship with the well-dressed women.

Here are some of the basics to keep in mind when developing tableaux vivant activities during your museum tour with students:

  1. Identity: In front of a sculpture or painting, invite your students to slowly take on the pose and facial expression of the subject. Have them freeze for a few seconds and guide their awareness to various parts of their body to make adjustments based on what they see. Break from the pose and look back at the painting or sculpture. Discuss how the pose and facial expression reveal clues to the subject’s identity. Try another tableau vivant, but this time, have students change their pose and facial expression. What would they change or do differently?
  2. Character: The addition of props and costumes can instantly help a student take on a character. Split your class up into actors and directors. Have the actors freeze in a scene from a painting or sculpture, while the directors instruct their poses and facial expressions using the work of art as reference. While the actors remain frozen, have the directors discuss new aspects of the work of art that were revealed to them in the process of creating the tableau vivant. Have the actors break their pose and share their new insights about the work of art now that they’ve become the character.
  3. Narrative: Break students up into small groups. Invite each group to create a tableau vivant (perhaps using directors and actors depending on numbers). Then, ask each group to create a before and after tableau vivant scene. Have each group share their three tableau vivant scenes and then discuss which parts of the painting or sculpture influenced their narratives.
  4. Politics: Briefly describe the genre of tableaux vivant to students and explain how a piece of literature was often read to an audience during the performance. Invite students to create a tableau vivant of a painting or sculpture. While students remain frozen, read a text that provides contextual information for the work of art, such as a historic speech or a quote from the artist. Look back at the painting or sculpture and discuss their new insights.
  5. Abstraction: While not a conventional tableau vivant, providing students an opportunity to take on shapes of an abstract painting or sculpture can help them look closer at forms and composition. Twists and turns of the body, or spatial relationships between students can invite new insights into the work of art.

Are you using tableau vivant or related kinesthetic strategies at your museums?  If so, let us know your tips and techniques.  If not, try this out, and let us know how it works. Add to the conversation and share your thoughts below.

Works Cited:

Elbert, Monika, “Striking a Historical Pose: Antebellum Tableaux Vivants, ‘Godey’s’ illustrations, and Margaret Fuller’s heroines,” The New England Quarterly 75 (2002): 235-75.

Glassberg, David, American Historical Pageantry (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 106-56.

McCullough, Jack, Living Pictures on the New York Stage (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981).

Opportunities for Advocacy: Strategic Steps for the Future of Museum Education

Co-authored with Scott Winterrowd, Curator of Education, Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, and co-guest editor of the summer 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education.

What a difference a few months makes!!! In February of this year we sent off the final drafts of essays for the upcoming issue of the Journal of Museum Education (JME). The 2012 summer issue, “Professionalizing Practice: A Critical Look at Recent Practice in Museum Education,” looks at the development of the field of museum education since the late 1960s, and poses strategic questions for the future of the profession. This issue contains essays and reflections by Elliott Kai-Kee, Marianna Adams, Jim Angus, Ben Garcia, and Ken Yellis. A few months ago we felt confident about the growth of the field and cautiously optimistic about the path for the future we were proposing.

The impetus for this issue of the Journal of Museum Education was a series of conversations about the history of museum education in the United States, and in particular, how this history seemed little known and even less sited in current practice. While we both explored the history of the profession as a means to inform and give a conceptual framework to our present work, a frustration grew with the realization that the dialogues we were having with colleagues at conferences, seminars, and online seemed redundant. These contemporary conversations seemed unaware of the work that had come before, and thus not profited or advanced as result of it.

We began this project in an effort to spark interest in exploring recent professional history to better inform our present practice. We came to understand that there was dual purpose to this project—to examine the recent past to inform the present, and to assess progress and propose a moment of renewed strategic visioning for the profession.

The recent cuts to education at the J. Paul Getty Museum have certainly raised the level of uncertainty as to the position of education in museums. Our concerns have been bolstered by reports of further cuts to education programs around the country, including key leadership positions. But, in these moments there are also strong and clear voices. The powerful letter written by Robert Sabol, National Art Education Association President, was inspiring and made me proud to be an art museum educator and member of NAEA. However, the power of our collective professional voice is needed in this situation. We need to hear from all museum education advocacy organizations and their members.

The actions and events of the past few months are opportunities for us as museum educators to ask ourselves what we stand for, what we believe in, and what we want the future to be. We believe that this issue of the JME could not have been better timed had we been able to plan it. An examination of our history can reveal how our profession has grown as the result of setbacks, challenges and the work of dedicated, articulate practitioners. It also reveals how our field has developed and deepened the thinking and rigor of our work.

Teacher leading thinking activities in the galleries. Photo by Mike Murawski.

Are we saying the sun is shining; everything is fine, soldier on? Absolutely not! These moments make clear that we must be strong, articulate advocates. While we have spent many years advocating for our collections and our audiences, did we forget to advocate for ourselves? Our strongest advocacy tool is smart and rigorous work. We must examine our practice and demand innovative, and quality thinking and programming. These are opportunities to reach out to our colleagues within our museums and our communities, confident in what are are about and we can do and be.

Ben Garcia’s compelling essay for the JME titled “What We Do Best: Making the Case for the Museum Learning in its Own Right” (available for free download) is premised on the notion that museums are unique environments and we should be focused on doing the work that museums do best. This idea is certainly shared by many others in art museums.

James Cuno, CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, has premised his thinking on this very notion (See “The object of art museums” and Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust). However, unlike Cuno’s policies, Garcia advocates for a progressive understanding of the unique “learning power” of museums and museum collections. At the core of Garcia’s proposal is our role as museum educators to advocate for museum education.

Colleagues, what is your vision for the future of museum education? How can you be an advocate for this future? While the sky may not be falling, we must always remember that as museum educators we must educate about our work, as well as about our collections.