Students use Dinner Party for object lesson in history of Wisconsin women

Stealing a leaf – indeed, an entire table – from artist Judy Chicago, students in Krista Grensavitch’s History of Women in American Society course created their final project, titled “The Supper Club: A reinterpretation of The Dinner Party, based on local history.”

Chicago’s famed work celebrated the history of women in Western civilization, and stands as foundational feminist art. In paying homage to the spirit of Chicago’s work, Grensavitch’s students narrowed their focus to women in Wisconsin’s history and displayed it at the end of the 2016 fall semester.

Like the original Dinner Party, the centerpiece of UWM’s exhibit was a triangular table with place settings, which represented the stories of female artists and professionals who left a mark on Wisconsin. The student-created settings primarily featured hand-decorated plates and placemats, as well as accompanying research papers.

Grensavitch, a doctoral candidate in history, said the project and exhibit was intended to present students with a new way of thinking about history. “In my dissertation, I analyze a teaching technique that was popular in the 1860s in the U.S. called the object lesson – that’s where the popular term comes from,” Grensavitch said. “Instructors would bring objects into the classroom – sometimes because they had no texts.

“The object lesson style of teaching went out of fashion in the early 1900s, but recently, objects have come to be viewed as a valid source material for history scholarship.”

Students not only produced objects, but used them in their research, studying UWM’s special collections, archives and growing collection of digitized objects. Though the class project was uncharted territory for many students, they came to embrace it.

“The course was completely different from every other history course I’d taken,” said Adriana Ramirez, a senior studying journalism. Her subject was Charlotte Partridge, who founded what became the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

“It wasn’t just memorizing. You actually retain what you’ve learned,” Ramirez said. “I’ll never forget what I learned doing this project.”

Zoe Whorrall’s subject was Ruth Gruber, who graduated from UW-Madison to become a celebrated journalist and photographer. “I was really nervous at first because I’m not too artistic, but it encouraged me to explore my more creative side,” Whorrall said.

Grensavitch noted how the projects often became family affairs, with elders sharing artistic techniques and even personal memories of the subjects. For first-generation students in particular, families not only got insight into their student’s academic experience, but some academic validation of their own knowledge.

“There were parents and grandparents who came from as far away as Green Bay to support their children and grandchildren,” Grensavitch said. “They saw their own knowledge and skills shared in the show, and maybe that’s why so many came.”

Grensavitch believes that because historical texts generally exclude common artisans and the uneducated, objects can reveal a wider range of humanity and enrich our historical accounts.

“Objects can be far more representative of whole populations of people than text,” she says. “If we can use those objects to offer more a more inclusive history, we’ve done our jobs as historians.”

A documentary video, Creating The Supper Club: Interpreting Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, traces the production and  presentation of the project, and includes reflections from the participants.

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