I bet all of us can remember having some art work or writing piece we did as a child placed on display in a public place and the pride we had in showing our loved ones what we had done. (Mine was an ode to popcorn that was displayed at a mall near my home in Slidell, Louisiana.) Many museums and historic sites have picked up on the idea of displaying student art work and have found that it’s a wonderful way to get local members of their community connected to the organization.

Last winter, our Manager of School and Group Programs, Jacqueline Langholtz, launched a program called “My Monticello” in which we asked all 300 Charlottesville City public school 3rd graders to do an art and writing response to their experience visiting Monticello. While on site, they looked at reproduction items that different members of the Jefferson household and the enslaved community might have carried in their pockets. Then they returned to their classrooms and created an art project and short essay comparing the items they have in their own pockets today with those they learned about on the field trip.

My Monticello student art

We provided passes for the families of the students to return to Monticello for free during weekends in January to see the projects and visit the site. Around 250 people from the community visited the exhibition during these weekends. Time and again, we heard that many of the families had never been to Monticello before or had not been in many, many years. We were thrilled to have these new connections with our local community!

Top 5 things we learned:

  1. Time & Space – Know your student count, wall space, and hanging mechanisms before you begin. We ultimately used push pins and just about every inch of space in our education center, including a lobby and hallway. Using all these spaces allowed us to share the project with regular visitors and staff members.
  1. Partner with Local Businesses – Our patron for this project was our local group of Wells Fargo banks. They were delighted to fund the project because of the ties it built with the community. For about $10,000, they were able to make a huge impact on the city’s students. The cost covered field trip admission, art supplies for the teachers, transportation for the field trips and for the exhibition, opening reception food, and staff time for our employees working with the students.
  1. Transportation for Families – After talking with local teachers, we realized that providing some form of transportation on our family days would be necessary for families without cars. We contracted with a bus company to provide continuous shuttles from two of the elementary schools to Monticello each Saturday.
  1. My Monticello student artists with artwork

    Photos – The project manager for “My Monticello” is a rock star in so many ways, including remembering to take pictures. We’ve shared photos of the project with potential donors, our board, and now with a community of museum educators.

  1. Potential after the Exhibition – While the formal exhibition ended in early February, the students’ art work has continued to help us build connections with the community. In the next month, some of the projects will be displayed in a celebration of the city’s 250th birthday. Our contacts at Wells Fargo have also expressed interest in displaying some of the student art work at their branch offices.

Many organizations are highlighting student projects. A few friends in the field also recommended checking out the work the Space Science Institute and the Levine Museum of the New South have done with displaying student projects.