Focus

 

 

Learning to Look

An innovative new partnership is shared with the Hood Museum of Art

A museum and an examination room both reward close, thoughtful, thorough observation. In one lives are enhanced, in the other lives may be saved.

Focus article photo

"Belisarius Begging for Alms" by the French neo-classical painter Nicolas-René Jollain.

Gathered in a semi-circle, the group of clinicians and administrators gaze thoughtfully at the large painting in a museum's gallery. Observations and comments slowly emerge. The little boy in the center of the painting has no shirt and seems to be dressed in rags. So is the old man. The women on the right seem grief-stricken. But why is there a dog in the foreground and who does he belong to?

The small group from Norris Cotton Cancer Center discussing the painting is participating in an innovative new program, Learning to Look. The program, a collaboration of Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art and the Cancer Center, uses art to help medical professionals better understand the subtleties of observing and examining patients.

Finding the Meaningful Details

Learning to Look teaches that quick first impressions often miss details that provide meaning, context, and other critical information, whether the subject is a work of art or a patient.

The group's attention is focused on a painting that is later revealed to be "Belisarius Begging for Alms" by the French neo-classical painter Nicolas-René Jollain. A treasure of the Hood Museum's collection, the large work depicts a legendary scene in which a legionnaire who had fought with the great Roman general Belisarius is shocked to find his former leader, now blinded and clothed in rags, on the street with his family, asking strangers for charity. The painting's themes include loyalty, justice and injustice, social class difference, and the binding connections brought by shared experience. This complex story is told with dozens of visual clues, some of them obvious but many of them subtle—the postures of the figures and their relationship to each other, for example, and the positioning of secondary elements like the dog and the chariot.

"The artist was quite deliberate. He made careful choices about the details he included in order to tell the story as richly and evocatively as possible," Vivian Ladd, a museum educator, points out to the group. "Nothing is there by chance. Everything you see is part of the story." She adds that the questions the careful observer of art asks are the same questions the careful doctor or nurse asks when seeing a patient: "What do I see? What do I think? What does it mean?"

"Seeing things in the painting that aren't immediately obvious but are nevertheless important to the story the painting's trying to tell show me something important about observation," comments Cancer Center director Mark Israel, MD. "Those subtleties of examination are especially critical for the medical community."

Translating Observation

Learning to Look is an outgrowth of a similar program the Hood Museum courtesy the Hood Museum of Art offers Dartmouth Medical School students. It is among a growing number of programs offered by museums across the country designed to reach out to the medical community to both enhance observation skills and to provide a place for reflection and renewal.

Michael Ward, Vice President for Cancer Programs, says the key to the success of Learning to Look is the "exceptional ability of the Hood's staff to translate fine observation of art to relevant clinical observation of patients." The museum's quiet atmosphere aids the observation and discussion: Learning to Look participants meet in small groups after hours.

A museum and an examination room both reward close, thoughtful, thorough observation. In one lives are enhanced, in the other lives may be saved. In both, the human condition and experience are vividly evident, and learning to look closely and draw conclusions is important learning indeed.

October 15, 2010