Teaching Police Observational Skills through Art History

Amy Herman, head of education at the Frick Collection in New York City, has since 2004 offered “The Art of Observation” program, which offers members of the NYC police, the FBI, and the National Guard professional training in observational technique by using art works in the Frick holdings. Adapted from a similar program that the Frick offered in conjunction with the Weill Cornell Medical School in 2000 to help train medical students in observational skills, Herman’s program has garnered much public and media attention over the years. The program has now inspired similar programs at museums around the U.S.

With great anticipation, in August 2004 the inaugural group of captains arrived at the Frick Collection. Having no idea why they had been assigned to 1 East 70th Street, many assumed a security briefing would occur. Imagine their surprise when they were told the real reason: They were there to look at art. In Henry Clay Frick’s former bedroom, now a conference room, the officers were introduced to the concept of looking at art, were shown introductory slides of paintings and were asked to describe exactly what they saw, no detail being too precise and no observation too obvious. If they had previous knowledge of art, Herman requested that they refrain from revealing such factual information, concentrating instead on the image before them.

Following their session in the Frick’s galleries, participants return to the conference room, where they view a series of photographs of crime scenes, urban landscapes and portraits of individuals. Asked to articulate in descriptive language similar to that utilized when looking at paintings, the officers respond by describing, in detail, what it is they see before them. Consistently, it seems that the previous hour spent discussing observations of works of art instills in the participants a sense of confidence that is evident when relaying their visual observations of the photographs. In the later discussions, consensus is generally reached after thoughtful, deliberate and focused dialogue. More often than not, participants ask to revisit the slides of paintings so they can articulate their observations with a renewed approach to looking. (Full article | News coverage and video)

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