In Memoriam: Abigail Housen

Dr. Abigail Housen
With heavy hearts, we share the news of a great loss to the Commonweal and Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) family. Dr. Abigail Housen, VTS founder, died this August after a long illness. We are filled with emotion and gratitude, swimming in memories, and forever changed by all that we have learned from her pioneering work.

Abigail started her life-long research, probably on a faux-leather banquette in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She mused about why people look at art the way they do—at what explains the differences in how visitors walk around the room, in how they like one painting but not another, in how images spark memories, spark questions, spark closer observation, or make a viewer walk away. How is it that viewers understand what they see? Why are museums, when free and open to the public, filled mostly with people with advanced degrees discussing topics like brush stroke or genre? Why don’t more people come to museums?

She created an open-ended, non-directed interview, to listen to what was going on in viewers’ heads, without intervention. She took these sometimes brief, sometimes extensive interviews, and sliced them down into the smallest possible thought units—from listing objects in an image, to comparisons of art historical context—which she then transcribed onto piles of index cards, and objectively categorized by the type of thinking. Using the hundreds of separate categories, she noticed that there were recurring patterns—different, but predictable ways people understand art. Her groundbreaking research showed that there are measurable stages in how people think as they look at works of art. Her research, not only described, in rigorous detail, the different ways people digest and consider art, it also laid out the evolution this thinking takes with experience over time. Her Harvard thesis scoring manual is still used across the world today to assess viewers’ thinking and learning.

Uncovering developmental stages in how people look at art, immediately raised a new set of questions: how do we best speak to, teach, and engage more viewers? She was particularly focused on beginner viewers: what do they feel is important in a picture? When people find artwork stupid or boring or irrelevant, what helps them look more closely? What hooks us into the life-long, rich process of looking at artwork? Children from schools and families that don’t have the habit of dropping by museums, can be brought in—but how? From her research, from the tools she created to assess visual thinking, and from the new paradigm it raised, Abigail began to shape a pedagogical method called Visual Thinking Strategies, and to bring it to museums.

Abigail was hired to consult at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where she found herself in the uncomfortable, but not unfamiliar, position of demonstrating the gap between what the museum thought it was teaching and what they were actually teaching, who they thought they were reaching and who they actually were reaching. This work was so eye-opening, that the head of education at the time there, Philip Yenawine, decided to leave to co-found Visual Understanding in In Education (VUE) with Abigail so they could bring the work to a wider audience. They first used her research to articulate a curriculum for beginner viewers in public schools, and, over decades of collaboration, created more curricula and trained teachers and museum educators all over the world.

Abigail’s empirical research, her collection and close analysis of data, and the resulting theories have informed, influenced and impacted museum educators, teachers, students, and a worldwide network of VTS practitioners. We continue to learn from her, not only how to design teaching to engage viewers, but how to assess growth.
VTS Founder, Abigail Housen

When we take a quiet moment to look at this picture, we remember Abigail’s warmth and generosity as a teacher and mentor. Here she is in 2007 hosting an introduction to Aesthetic Development Theory and her research methods in “the Carriage House” of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts—a space dedicated to regular conversations and study of research for the VTS community. She is surrounded by colleagues of all ages poring over transcripts, stacks of 3×5 notecards and mugs of tea on every surface, her longtime research associate and collaborator, Karin DeSantis, sitting alongside her, and her beloved dog at her feet.

As we have learned to do as VTS facilitators, she has created a warm and inviting space for thoughtful, rigorous study and lively debate. Here she is patiently listening, prompting her students to look for evidence, never jumping in with an “answer”, and making space for all gathered to talk and think their way into understanding—in this case a particular nugget of an individual response to a work of art, and how to code it among the 150+ classifications of aesthetic thought.

Her research methods documented the developmental growth of students who participated in VTS lessons vs those who did not—including how that growth extended beyond aesthetic development to growth in critical thinking and language development. Museums have reconsidered how they install and teach with works of art based on what they have learned about their viewers from her work. Abigail’s research remains vibrant in museums around the world, such as at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, where researcher-practitioners have used her methods and theories to better understand Boston’s students of all ages in a series of studies. Her writings on the controlled longitudinal studies she and colleagues have conducted will continue to yield fresh insights and spur further inquiry for years to come. Abigail spent her lifetime investigating the cognition involved in viewing, and her work has implications going forward that continue to unfold.

We are grateful for the gift of her teaching and example. Her encouragement to always trust our questions and give them our time and attention. To listen deeply. To treasure our families and friends. To be skeptical and look for evidence. To take time to mull. To remember that learning and development take time — as well as “eyes on canvas.” We will miss her deeply.

See links below to share your memories and read those of others and to learn more about Abigail and her research. 

Dr. Abigail C. Housen Obituary
Leave a memory or appreciation (coming soon on VTS Instagram & Facebook pages).

Memoriam by Philip Yenawine, co-founder of Visual Understanding in Education and co-creator of the VTS method and curriculum.

Learn more about Abigail Housen’s research and studies.