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Monday, February 19, 2018

Citizenship Through Art

The Executions of the Third of May, 1808, Francisco Goya
The painting depicts an execution of a group of Spanish countrymen by Napoleon's troops. There are eight soldiers, with their faces turned away from the viewer, firing upon Spanish revolutionaries at very close range. There is a central figure, a Spanish man in his early 30's with his arms outstretched, wearing a white shirt and yellow ochre pants. He is on his knees. If you look very closely you can see piercing in the palms of his hands. The central figure is surrounded by about seven men. They are in various states of emotions. Some of the men cover their eyes, others are in prayer, while at least one covers his ears. There is a monk in prayer along side this group that frames the central character. In the foreground is a pile of dead bodies. A pool of blood flows into the center of the composition, in front of the central figure. A large lantern in the center illuminates the execution. The painting was created by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in 1814, though little mention is made either of the artist, that date, nor even the title of the nearly 9-foot by 13-foot painting. The setting is the Museum of the New York Historical Society, and though it might appear so at first glance, the scene is not that of a routine art appreciation class touring the facility. The class is free and every student attending comes searching for help in passing a test, hoping to become a naturalized American Citizen.
A collection of just a few of the paintings the historical society uses to teach American history to future citizens.
The citizenship melting pot.
The citizenship class offered by the New York Historical Society is predicated on the fact that learning is best facilitated by doing and seeing, followed by reading, and listening (in that order). The class is aimed at experiencing art, thus deriving an emotional connection rather than memorization. What is the overall mean-ing of the work of art? The question is subjective. Everyone will have a different response. There are no wrong answers to what the painting says to the viewer. The goal is in helping students recall an im-age and its meaning as to American his-tory in answering the ten (out of a pos-sible one-hundred) oral questions posed during a personal interview. The painting is timeless. It pays tribute to people who are willing to stand up for their beliefs, in spite of, aggressors who would try to destroy them. It also depicts the cost of war for the victims as well as the aggressors.

Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City, 1859, Johannes Adam Simon Ortel.
F. Bratoli, 1796
Pulling Down the Statue of King George III (above) is used to help answer two questions on the naturalization test: “When do we celebrate Independence Day?” and “When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?" The New-York Historical Society is committed to telling the American story and fostering a community of learners to consider what it means to be an American, past and present. For more than a decade, the historical society hosted naturalization ceremonies at the museum, celebrating new American citizens. Their exhibitions, programs, and educational initiatives delve into American history and explore issues such as government, immigration, culture, and civics--all important ele-ments of the naturalization test. Par-ticipants learn about pivotal moments in history by examining objects and docu-ments from the museum's collections.

President Washington Taking
the Oath, Federal Hall, 1789,
Guiseppi Guidimci, 1839
With their "Citizenship Project," the historical society’s leadership decid-ed in January, 2017, to take an active role in helping permanent residents become citizens after President Trump called for travel restrictions on Muslims entering the United States. The classes started in July, with the goal of helping 750 to 1,000 people prepare for the citizenship exam. The project is a 32-hour interactive pro-gram utilizing artifacts, documents, and art from the museum’s perman-ent collection in covering all the questions used in the test. For many students, English is not their first language, so they’re quite eager to get any assistance they can to make this test easier.

Many, for whom English is not their native language, fine help in reading children's books supplied by the museum and written by authors from their home country.

New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at
(77th Street), New York, NY 10024
After the travel bans, the historical society recognized a long history of helping immigrants. If you're not a citizen, you can't vote, you can't travel out of the United States without fear of not being allowed back into the country. If you're arrested you could potentially be deported, so this is a way to be treated as a decent human being. The New York Historical Society program has already seen several students actually pass the exam and become sworn in as U.S. citizens.

The museum proudly displays America's first citizens.


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