Poetry on Display: 6 Stand-Out Times Museums Incorporated Poetry

Museum-goers may consider history and art to be their most common fascinations, but many prevalent institutions have also introduced poetry into their exhibitions and attractions. As symbols of culture and knowledge, museums represent numerous traits that poetry is known for. Throughout their long-standing histories, beloved museums have celebrated the power of words in creative, unexpected ways. Here are a few of our favorites.


1. The American Poetry Museum

It’s impossible to talk about poetry and museums without mentioning the historic American Poetry Museum, which has devoted itself to the art form since 2004. Exhibitions combine videography, photos, and poetry, showcasing the unique power of multimodal creativity. The site also unites people who appreciate poetry, with its variety of readings, open mics, and book launches. Located in Washington, D.C., the museum’s current exhibit focuses on afrofuturism. Past exhibits have spotlighted printmaking, responded to serious issues like human trafficking, and illuminated the personal histories of D.C. writers.


2. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s “Pictures To Be Read/Poetry to Be Seen”

This iconic exhibition, shown in 1967, blurred the boundaries between words and images. Featuring 71 works, it aimed to facilitate a “breakdown of traditional categories in all the arts.” This resulted in experimental and stimulating works that activated multiple types of intellect, like diagrammatical paintings, graphic design, and sensory performance art.


3. “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” : Emily Dickinson exhibit at The Morgan Library and Museum

One of the most exciting aspects of museums is their ability to challenge misconceptions and educate viewers on little-known details. As Emily Dickinson is one of the most famous American poets, people think they know her story—including her penchant for solitude. This New York City installation brought to light Dickinson’s hundreds of letters, which reveal her deep friendships and mentorships, as well as early manuscripts. The Morgan Library and Museum maintains an online feature on the topic, where those interested can view drafts in Dickinson’s handwriting and listen to 25 recordings of her most popular poems. 


4. Yoko Ono’s Mend Piece for John at Art Gallery of Ontario

Though Ono gained fame for her art, the poetic aspects of her work have long been overlooked. Her “Mend Piece for John,” which alludes to her high-profile relationship with John Lennon, shows the two functioning in tandem. Now on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, a simple but resonant poem by Ono instructs: “Take your favorite cup. / Break it into pieces with a hammer. / Repair it with this glue and this poem.” This reflects an inherently artistic trait about poetry: its ability to endow everyday objects with special significance, transforming them into meaningful imagery. It also shows how both poetry and art can be a catalyst for action. 


5. The Jewish Museum’s “Florine Stettheimer: Painting Poetry” Exhibition

Stettheimer’s career stands out as a testament to modernist influences across numerous genres of art. Featuring paintings, drawings, and poems, the 2017 installation proves how impactful art and culture can be. Most prominently, a poem about New York City hung beside Stettheimer’s visual art, providing context and emphasizing the storytelling characteristics of art: “At last grown young / with noise / and color / and light / and jazz / dance marathons and poultry shows / soulsaving and rodeos / gabfeasts and beauty contests / sky towers and bridal bowers / speakeasy bars and motor cars / columnists and movie stars.”


6. The New Exhibition’s Museum’s “Poetry as Practice” Exhibit

This online exhibit finds rich inspiration in internet culture and the physical technology that now accompanies the act of writing. Cursor scroll-overs, computer hardware, and inventive, personalized fonts overlay with words. Six featured poets explore how these technical and visual aspects influence their craft. Computer programmers collaborated with these poets to animate their writing process, letting viewers behind the scenes and into the poets’ headspace.

Does this list have you feeling inspired? Take the connection between written and visual art one step forward by learning about ekphrastic poetry, including how to transform your favorite works of art into striking stanzas.