Lesson Plan 1: Collections, Museums & Portable Art

The Thomson Collection of boxwood carvings immerses students in tiny narrative worlds that are crammed with details and surprises. These sculptures (prayer beads and altars) were personal devotional art objects, commissioned and collected by private patrons, later inherited by or sold to collectors, and eventually ended up in the collections of public museums or galleries.


Learn about collections, collecting and objects

This first series of learning activities focuses on learning from actual objects, by speculating and researching about their place in history and significance in people’s lives. These activities will help students to understand and question the reasons for collecting objects, displaying them in public collections, and the associated efforts of museum employees in making this happen. Students will also delve into the historical context of these boxwood carvings, early sixteenth-century Western Europe, in an attempt to understand where they came from, who made them, and why.



Learning Strategies

“What’s That?”  – Learning from Objects

Ask students to bring to class , with permission, a personal object that has significance for them, or an unusual object. Alternately, the teacher can assemble a variety of historical, vocational, or culture-specific artifacts. Use one or more of the following exercises to investigate these objects:

  1. Look at an object for a specified amount of time. Remove it from sight and attempt to draw it from memory. Re-examine the object, remove it, and add to the drawn record. Repeat several times to underscore how time and focused attention can reveal information and additional details that at first glance may not be apparent.
  2. Each student is given an object for which they must write a description on a recipe card. Don’t allow others to see the object right away. Collect all cards, shuffle, and redistribute to others. Have them read the description and attempt to match their card with the assembled objects.
  3. Ask student pairs to sit back-to-back. Person A is given an object, and only offers “yes” or “no” responses about its identity to person B, who can only ask fifteen questions. Person B will have to pose questions in a structured way and think carefully about the affirmative or negative answers.
  4. Working in pairs, each student is given an object that remains hidden from their partner. They each write a detailed description of their object, without naming it. Descriptions are exchanged and each student creates a drawing, based only on their partner’s written description.


Seeing  – Critical Analysis Process

Using the Critical Analysis Process [link to PDF] for exploring an artwork, print off the related images with the captions on the reverse.

Further Inquiry: ask the students to examine the miniature altarpiece (#34208) that shows episodes from Jesus’s childhood. Does the overall shape (or frame) of the altarpiece reminds you of anything in your experience? How is the framing of action similar to either a staged play or a television screen? How is it like a book? Why might the patron or sculptor choose to portray these events about childhood and adolescence? Research has discovered that this altarpiece was probably created by many people, rather than one.

Ask the students: Have you ever collaborated with others to create an artwork? Describe the steps in your creative process and the interactions that you experienced. Look at the so-called David bead (#29361), first its exterior, then its interior. Does the shape and surface design of this tiny sculpture give you any hints about what might be inside? Why or why not? How would you describe the surface patterns? How has the sculptor designed this bead so that seven different moments from David’s life are included? Draw a diagram to illustrate this ingenious design. One inside relief sculpture shows a story from the Old Testament about David and Goliath. How do you interpret this scene – what is the artist saying? As a visual response, create a storyboard about a story from your life. What would you choose? How will you break it down into separate frames or parts?


Lost and Found

Fill a suitcase with a variety of objects. Establish the scenario that this suitcase was found abandoned by security at a train station or bus terminal.

The students’ task is to reconstruct the life of this suitcase’s owner. What are they certain about, what can be deduced, and where do they require more information? What steps would they need to follow to go about learning more information about each object?

In wrapping up, discuss how this exercise simulates the difficulties of dealing with historical evidence. Ask students to write a biography, a day-in-the-life narrative, or create a storyboard or portion of a graphic novel, with captions, for this fictitious individual.

This activity can also connect with the roles of art museum curators and conservators in their work with objects (See Collections and Museums activity below).


Then and Now: Thinking About Late Medieval Culture

What was life like in early sixteenth-century Western Europe, in what were called The Low Countries  – modern day Holland, Belgium and Northern France? The boxwood sculptures illustrate aspects of daily life and religious belief, but not much more. Here’s an opportunity for students to conduct research into the lived lives of late medieval (gothic) life.

Students can identify aspects of their own Canadian daily lives and culture (e.g., family, work, education, food, dress, leisure time, responsibilities, home, religious/spiritual practices, celebrations, etc.), and create a T-chart to compare with people’s lives in late the medieval era. Have them discover visual evidence, either museum artifacts, examples of existing buildings, or contemporary cultural recreations of medieval times.

Summary responses: What is the biggest difference between our present culture/community and life in late Gothic times? On a ratings scale from “great” to “no thanks,” assess what it would be like to live during this time period given the quality of life and cultural practices. Write about, dramatize or illustrate what your imagined life might be like if you lived in Western Europe during the early 1500s. Finally, ask students why it is difficult to know with any certainty what it was like to live in historical times.


Collections & Museums

Students can share their personal collections from home, in a more thoughtful “show and tell.” Why do they collect what they do? Make a list of what types of things are collected. What is it about people’s passions and interest in certain material things that makes collecting such a serious, dedicated activity? How might a collection show us something about imagination and human diversity? Discuss the extremely personal nature of collections and the sensitivity that needs to be exercised by all viewers.

Moving beyond personal collections to private and public ones, students can explore the nature and varied functions of museums and art galleries, ideally culminating in a field trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario or a local museum. Researching the roles of art gallery and museum staff gives students a special behind-the-scenes understanding of gallery/museum work and provides opportunity for career/pathways exploration. Invite a guest speaker  – parent or community member  – to talk and respond to questions about their museum or gallery work.


The Portable Museum

Just as the boxwood sculptures were purposely made miniature in order to be easily transportable, students can create their own portable museum to house their collection (or part of it). Depending on the size and nature of their artifacts, a variety of containers could be used, e.g. old suitcases or briefcases; banker’s or other sturdy cardboard boxes; small toolboxes or sets of drawers; a card file or recipe box; knapsacks or messenger satchels; shadow boxes.

Collected objects can be mounted and appropriately labeled with descriptions (e.g. things from nature, vacation souvenirs, movie memories) and interpretive questions for viewers (e.g. Which celebrity does this rock look like? How are these coins similar and different?). A title sign can be added to the decoration and overall design of the portable museum, a design that should somehow emulate the character of the collection.

Arrange for these young curators to have their portable museums displayed for parents/guardians and the rest of the school community.



Additional Resources

  • Annenberg Learner: The Middle Ages 
  • Burnham, Rika & Kai-Kee, Elliott. 2011. Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience. Los Angeles, CA: The J. Paul Getty Museum
  • Henry, Carol. 2010. The Museum Experience: The Discovery of Meaning. Reston, VA: NAEA
  • Idema, Johan. 2014. How to Visit an Art Museum. Amsterdam, The Netherlands: BIS Publishers
  • Langley, Andrew. 2011. Eyewitness Medieval Life. New York, NY: DK Publishing
  • Stone, Denise. 2001. Using the Art Museum. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications
  • Verde, Susan & Reynolds, Peter H. 2013. The Museum. New York, NY: Abrams



Ontario Curriculum Expectations

Social Studies

Grade 4

  • Heritage and Identity: A1.
  • Language
  • Writing (Developing Ideas) 1.2 (Research) 1.3 (Form) 2.1

Grade 5

  • Writing (Developing Ideas) 1.2 (Research) 1.3; (Form) 2.1

Grade 6

  • Writing (Developing Ideas) 1.2 (Research) 1.3 (Form) 2.1 


The Arts – Visual Arts

Grade 4

  • Creating and Presenting D1.2, D1.3
  • Reflecting, Responding, and Analyzing D2., D2.3
  • Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts D3.1

Grade 5

  • Creating and Presenting D1.2 ,D1.3
  • Reflecting, Responding, and Analyzing D2.1 , D2.3
  • Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts D3.

Grade 6

  • Creating and Presenting D1.2 , D1.3
  • Reflecting, Responding, and Analyzing D2.1, D2.3
  • Exploring Forms and Cultural Contexts D3.1


The online catalogue raisonné and digital photography made possible through the generous support of Thomson Works of Art