Skip to main content

In Focus

New Hampshire's Alison Nordström

On Visual Literacy

By Cynthia Barnes | HUMANITIES, May/June 2003 | Volume 24, Number 3

Before coming to Concord, Alison Nordström received her Ph.D. in cultural and visual studies from The Union Institute in Cincinnati, taught English as a second language in Canada, Lebanon, and Japan, and was a museum curator, most recently with the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona, Florida. Now she has returned as the executive director of New Hampshire’s Humanities Council. Her focus is promoting visual literacy in the humanities.

“I see us seeing the world in pictures. I’m not sure that I trust pictures, but I see how seductive they are,” says Nordström. “These days, people get their information from TV, from pictures on the front page, as much or more than from reading. We need to look at how we unpack that information.” She believes that schools focus on teaching students to decode text, not images. Nordström would like to see more attention paid to the analysis of other symbols. “Not to discount the word,” she explains. “Literature is important. I may never really be an adulterous Russian countess, but from reading Anna Karenina I know what it’s like. Novels give you the experience of being something you are not, as does travel and history.”

Nordström has seen how visual material can make the humanities more inviting. At the kickoff event for New Hampshire’s “Bootstraps and Pie: Claiming America” series, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Lucian Perkins discussed documenting world events through photos. An audience of more than four hundred braved a bitter January night to attend the event--when only ninety were expected. “It was amazing,” Nordström recalls. “Over half those people had never been to a Humanities Council program before. I’m not sure they would have turned out for a lecture on that subject.”

“Bootstraps and Pie” examines stereotypes and symbols of America’s cultural identity, and is a response to September 11, 2001. “We wanted to do something more integrated and more comprehensive, to deal with the idea of America,” says Nordström. “Bootstraps and Pie” also examines the relationship between patriotism and dissent. How you can love your country and disagree is informed by a knowledge of history.”

Nordström firmly believes that the humanities enrich everyday life. Her goal in New Hampshire is to reach out to people where they live, work, and play. “A program that involves driving half an hour after work to sit in a folding chair and hear a lecture isn’t workable for many people,” she says. “One of our missions is to reach out to the ‘underserved,’ and we’re broadening that idea. If you have two teenagers in sports programs, you’re busy every evening--perhaps too busy for the humanities. How do we reach those people?”

New Hampshire’s small size and commitment to education will help. “There’s a human scale to New Hampshire that I find wonderful,” she says. “People will drive for an hour and a half to get to a program that appeals to them. We can do something in the middle of the state that almost everyone can reach and will come to.”

Nordström hopes to capitalize on New Hampshire’s sense of permanence. “Our state is special, and we know it. I’m a New Englander, and I’m so pleased to be home. Neighborliness is important--because you expect to have those neighbors for a long time. This allows us to draw on local knowledge and to build audiences in ways that I think might be harder in other states.”

Nordström notes her optimism comes from a strong level of statewide support. “People expect good things from this council. We’ll be exploring many ways of learning in the future. It’s going to be a lot of fun for everyone.”

About the Author

Cynthia Barnes is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.