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Connecting through Conversation

Our galleries may be closed to the public right now, but the connections that generally take place in those spaces depend on what visitors bring to them. Works of art and the conversations they spark encourage us to see new things, explore different perspectives, and connect to memories. Though we cannot facilitate those experiences in person at the moment, we know the need to connect is just as important—perhaps now more than ever.

The following prompts are designed with specific audiences in mind but can be adapted for a variety of interests, experiences, and age groups. Our hope is that whoever you are, they inspire you to reach out, start a conversation, and connect with the people around you. So, gather the family, schedule a video chat with friends, or get in touch with someone you’ve been meaning to call for a while, and let our works of art bring you and your loved ones closer together.

Connecting with People Experiencing Memory Loss

Right now, many of us may be seeking meaningful ways to stay connected with friends and family, including loved ones experiencing memory loss. Conversations about art can foster highly personal experiences that exist in the moment and do not rely on memory or previous knowledge. The Just Us at the National Gallery of Art program helps create time and space for people with memory loss and their care partners to explore works of art together in an affirming museum environment, but you can have comparable experiences at home, too.

Conversation prompts, The Old Violin by William Michael Harnett

An old violin hanging from an old wooden door with large metal hinges. A sheet of music is hanging behind the violin and in the bottom left corner is an envelope.

William Michael Harnett, The Old Violin, 1886, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Mellon Scaife in honor of Paul Mellon, 1993.15.1

To explore this painting, gather with your loved one (in person or virtually, if possible) in a comfortable location where you can look together at a work of art. Note that you may want to play music on a computer or mobile device. Both the care partner and person with memory loss can then follow these conversation prompts:

  • Start by observing the space you’re in. What do you hear and feel?
  • Take a deep breath while taking in the work of art. As you exhale, let your eyes wander all over the composition quietly for at least a minute.
  • Share: What stands out to you? What do you notice after more time has passed? Let this investigation go on for as long as possible. Pause frequently and let silences stretch out as you explore together.
  • We think that the artist might have intended this painting to act as a symbolic self-portrait. If that is true, what might have been important to him, and what makes you think that?
  • One of the pieces of sheet music pinned beneath the violin is an aria from Vincenzo Bellini’s opera La Sonnambula. Opera enjoyed a surge in popularity at the time that this was painted, and this song was popular with amateur musicians.

Listen to a 1909 recording of the music as you look at the painting and consider: As you hear the music, do you notice anything new or different about the painting? Does the music fit the tone of the painting? Why do you think the artist might have picked this piece of music to include? Once the music has been played, share ideas.

  • Take another look at the painting. What other thoughts and questions do you have?

Learn about the artist and painting, or find other works of art in the collection to explore.

While you’re working with the conversation prompts, try keeping these tips in mind:

  • Allow very long pauses for looking and for articulating observations and ideas. Let silences stretch out, and stay completely in the moment.
  • Let go of expectations and allow the exploration to go in any direction it takes you. Accept all comments and ideas without immediate correction. Feel free to share your own observations and ideas.
  • Spend as much time as you can exploring the work of art before reading about it. We are all curious about the stories behind works of art, but the open-ended exploration of works is the most valuable part of this experience.
  • Avoid asking participants to share memories that works of art might elicit, but welcome and embrace memories when they arise.
  • The emotional tone of any experience may outlast the memory of it, so end on a high note.

Connecting across Multigenerational Audiences

Looking at a work of art together as a family is a great way to make meaningful connections with each other. While you are home, try using our Look Together prompts to discover new ideas, perspectives, and questions with your family, however you define it for yourself. The prompts are based on observation and reflection and can be used with children of any age and their adult companions, but they also work for groups of adults. Look Together experiences are available in English and Español.

Ready? First, spend 60 seconds looking at the image and then follow the provided prompts.

Conversation prompts, Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

General Shaw seated on horseback with a regiment of soldiers marching alongside him resting their bayonets on their shoulders

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Shaw Memorial, 1900, patinated plaster, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire

This sculpture honors Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the first African American regiments to fight in the Civil War. Each soldier is a unique portrait.

Look: Do you see a drummer boy? A soldier carrying a flag? Canteens? Bedrolls? What else?

Imagine: You are a figure in the scene. How are you unique or similar compared to others? What might you be thinking or feeling?

Did you know: The original plan for the Shaw Memorial had Colonel Shaw alone on a horse, but his family thought it important to include the regiment. How does that change its impact as a war memorial?

Interested in doing more? Find additional Look Together experiences in English and Español