Research strategies

Expand your understanding

Minimum Grade Level: 6th grade
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts (Writing):
Research to Build and Present Knowledge
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.8 Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-33, fresco, various dimensions (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry Murals, 1932–33, fresco, various dimensions (Detroit Institute of Arts)

Each Masterpiece Moment video provides a rich array of information about a treasured artwork. You learn about biographical and other contextual details of the artist, about the subject or type of artwork, and about the culture and time period the artwork comes from. In many of the videos, you also learn about the way the artwork became part of a particular museum’s collection and about the findings of scientific studies carried out by the museum on the artwork. Any aspect of these varied topics may spark your curiosity and desire to learn more. Below are some initial activities and strategies to help you conduct your research.

1. Follow your curiosity. 

Research is most rewarding when you pursue questions and topics of interest to you individually, so be sure to make note of the moments in each video that prompt you to wonder. There is space to capture your questions at the bottom of the Video Watching Worksheet

2. Build your context. 

Once you have a question (or two or three!) in mind, try to expand your foundational understanding of the artwork, including details about the artist, historical context, and subject matter. This process may yield answers to your questions or help you better discern where to look deeper to further investigate your interests. Here are some of the topics you can explore: 

  • Look at other artworks by the same artist to see if you can better grasp common patterns, key concepts, or core approaches in their work. For instance, Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals could be compared to other murals, or even panel paintings, prints, or drawings from his prolific career to see how he approached the representation of figures or the use of motifs from indigenous Mexican artistic traditions. If, however, the artist of your focus artwork is unknown, you could investigate artistic practices of the time and culture in which the work was made.
  • Look at other artworks that address the same subject matter or use the same style, technique, or material. For example, the subject of the Bodhisattva of Compassion Seated in Royal Ease appears in many sculptures, paintings, and prints made for Buddhist devotion around the world. Make note of the similarities and differences between the various artworks, including differences in date or cultural context. See if you can identify what is unique about the artwork you are researching.
Archibald John Motley Jr., Nightlife, 1943, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.3 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

Archibald John Motley Jr., Nightlife, 1943, oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.3 cm (Art Institute of Chicago)

  • Look at the historical context of the time your artwork was made. Were there any important political, economic, cultural, or social events happening? What were the dominant spiritual or philosophical beliefs at the time? For example, it helps us to better understand Archibald Motley’s Nightlife when we know that it was made when the United States was embroiled in World War II and African Americans in Chicago, and elsewhere, “were coping with the hardships of a constricted national economy, job discrimination, and racism.”
  • Look into the history of the museum or the collectors who gave the artwork to a museum. In what ways has one or both of them contributed to broadening access to art in their community? Did they face any challenges in that pursuit? Or, maybe you want to just do some broader research on the development and role of art museums.
  • Learn more about conservation and science efforts in museums. What tools and techniques help museums study, preserve, and, when necessary, repair artworks? Smarthistory’s Beginner’s Guide to Conservation is a great place to start your exploration!

In addition to what you can learn on Smarthistory.org, you can often find information about these topics on the websites for museums or other educational or cultural institutions like universities, libraries, or research centers. In some cases, you may want to look at newspapers or other sources from a time or place in the artwork’s history. If you find you need support in conducting your research, be sure to consult with teachers, librarians, and media specialists in your school.

3. Return to your question/s. 

Once you have gathered this foundational information, revisit your initial research question/s. Have you discovered what you were curious about? Or, have your new insights shifted your thinking? Do you want to revise, possibly even tighten, your question/s? 

4. Share your findings. 

At this stage, you can document your findings so far in writing or a presentation, acknowledging any questions that remain unclear. If you have the time and inclination to dig deeper, continue your research to see what more you can discover and share with others.