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Land and Belonging: Teaching North American Landscape Art with Immersive Technology

This lesson employs a 360-degree immersive visualization room to encourage students to engage human relationships to the natural world in monumental nineteenth-century American landscape paintings and a 360-video presentation of data on contemporary human movement.

Published onJul 21, 2021
Land and Belonging: Teaching North American Landscape Art with Immersive Technology

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This lesson employs a 360-degree immersive visualization room to encourage students to engage human relationships to the natural world in monumental nineteenth-century American landscape paintings and a 360-video presentation of data on contemporary human movement.  This immersive experience further advances an ecocritical perspective of these artworks in emphasizing environmental interconnnectedness and in exploring questions of land and belonging.

Instructional Partners 

While this lesson was conceived as a class taught solo by an art history professor, the inclusion of immersive technology in the instruction lends itself to collaboration with digital technology librarians and Mexican refugee/migration community support centers or scholars. I worked with the Digital Scholarship Lab at our university’s library and the Refugee Development Center in Lansing, MI. 

Curricular Context


This lesson employs a 360-degree immersive visualization room to encourage students to engage human relationships to the natural world in monumental nineteenth-century American landscape paintings and a 360-video presentation of data on contemporary human movement.  The immersive experience further advanced an ecocritical perspective of visual works by emphasizing environmental interconnnectedness and in exploring questions of land and belonging.  Euro-American painter Thomas Moran’s work The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (1872) is featured along with American architecture and design firm Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s video Exit (2008/2015). The lesson took advantage of Michigan State University main library’s 360 room in the Digital Scholarship Lab and its GIS librarian.  Students engaged a simulated “Great Picture” landscape painting viewing experience, as well as a screening of Exit fully surrounded by the video. See Supplementary Materials: Great Picture Landscape Paintings and Exit Background Information.

This lesson plan is intended for a large class of first- or second-year college students in a semester-long face-to-face Native North American art history or visual culture course with 80-minute sessions.  This lesson will take approximately three 80-minute sessions, depending on which components you include.  These students need not be art history majors.  It can be adapted for small or large enrollments. The challenges for larger classes are with discussion of materials and screening options.  The 360 room at our library can only accommodate 12-15 viewers at a time.  Breaking down classes into discussion and screening groups is one possibility.  Students benefit from having the professor guide dialogues related to both the reading and the video, so anticipating ways to extend the professor’s availability to any smaller groups is necessary. The final project is somewhat scaffolded; students work from the immersive viewing experience stage to constructing the final writing assignment. Readings, presentations, and short writing assignments supplement this experience and build toward the final writing assignment.  

The associated readings and writing assignments expose students to the political implications of nineteenth-century American landscape painting and its hindrance to ecological sustainability. They are encouraged to consider how this idealized, monumental picture of nature, segregated from most planetary, social, and economic relationships, envelops viewers within a system of environmental and racial injustice.  Students also identify the prevalence of this American vision of nature from the past in their own experiences, in popular culture, and in some US policies on Mexican refugees and climate-change.  The lesson works well after an introductory lecture on post-Civil War expansionism, the Indian Wars, the development of monumental landscape paintings of the American West, and “Big Picture” exhibitions, as well as a discussion of William Cronan’s essay on the problematic modern Western conception of a pristine nature (1996). 


Why an immersive experience?

Artists often represent environments to organize social relations and to teach or reinforce knowledge about their worlds; this can be a felt, as well as visual, experience.   In order to fully implicate viewers’ bodies and/or souls in nature or the earth, as Thomas Moran and Diller Scofidio and Renfro envisioned, an immersive visual experience offers a pedagogical advantage over conventional slides or other two-dimensional representations. It further advances an ecocritical perspective in the interpretation of these works.

Why ecocriticism?

Alan Braddock and Christoph Irmscher define ecocriticism as “emphasizing issues of environmental interconnectedness, sustainability, and justice in cultural interpretation.  When it is historically oriented, ecocritical scholarship may bring attention to neglected evidence of past ecological and quasi-ecological sensibility or it may cast canonical works and figures in a new light by revealing their previously unnoticed complexity, ambivalence, or even antipathy regarding environmental concerns.” (Braddock and Irmscher, p. 3) In line with the role of land grant universities, such as Michigan State University, this lesson connects art historical research with advocating for the public good and creating possible solutions to societal problems in ethical ways.

The construction of history is a selective process. Some aspects of the past have been deliberately erased, dismantled, or negated. As William Cronan writes, the colonization of the American West relied upon representations of uninhabited lands. The cultural invention of a pristine American wilderness affirmed settler belonging and depended upon the eradication of Indigenous peoples.  Paintings like Moran’s effectively erased the history from which they sprang. (Cronan, p. 79) More recently, some US environmental protection policies have been used to forcibly remove and implement barriers to Mexican immigrants and refugees. (Park and Pellow 2013)  Students should be asked and taught how to rethink settler/nativist privilege in the past, as well as how to develop responsible and inclusive earth stewardship in the present.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Students will identify the human relationships to the natural world in Thomas Moran’s The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (1872) and Diller Scofidio and Renfro’s Exit (2015) through virtual immersion.

  2. Students will identify what nineteenth-century, “Big Picture” Euro-American landscape paintings say about their makers and viewers political, aesthetic, and economic values.  

  3. Students will apply nineteenth-century monumental visions of pristine wilderness to Indigenous disenfranchisement and Mexican immigration/refugee policies.

  4. Students will recognize how an immersive learning environment offers a pedagogical advantage over conventional slides or other two-dimensional representations and advances an ecocritical perspective in the interpretation of these works by engaging the viewer beyond the eyes.

Preparation for the Immersive Experience


1.  If you do not already have one, do an online search and download a high-resolution (300 dpi minimum) scan of Moran’s painting.  There are other sources for images, if a professor wants to work from a different context or use other media. See Supplementary Materials: Image Resources and links for downloading Exit.

2. Identify and reserve the location or room where you’ll be able to show a large-scale digital image and a 360 video. In 2018, our library built a specific space for immersive displays. See Supplementary materials: MSU 360 Room Details.

Learning Objectives

3. Decide what your learning objectives are for this lesson and what you want students to take away from the immersive experience. Include in your agenda time to prepare students.  They will need to know that the immersive viewing experience may involve changes in lighting, sound, and temperature, which can cause dizziness, motion sickness, nausea, or discomfort.  Set up a safety plan should students experience any discomfort.


4. Do a practice session with your technology support staff, if needed or available.

Identify Partners

5. If possible, identify and contact a refugee or immigrant support center in your community.  Establish a relationship with someone who would be willing to present on this center’s services and on the current Mexican refugee or immigrant crisis. Set up a date for this class presentation after the immersive experience (Exit screening) has happened, but before students begin their writing assignment.


6.  In order to provide students with an overview of the ecological and humanistic problems with Euro-American wilderness aesthetics or landscape painting, assign students to read historian William Cronan’s. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (1996).  Cronan aptly traces the nature/culture divide within Western visual and literary representations of wilderness.  [See Supplementary Materials: The Trouble with Wilderness Brief Summary] This reading can be further used to ask students to consider their own role in consuming or challenging a still pervasive myth of wilderness.

7. Prepare Pre-writing assignment questions and have students complete it for the immersive experience.

Post-Civil War Landscape Painting Introductory Lecture

8. Prior to the immersive experience, and as a separate class, prepare an introductory lecture on post-Civil War American landscape painting, “Big Picture” exhibitions, settler expansionism and the government-sponsored surveys, and Indian wars/relations in this period. See References below for some sources to consult.  I also include a brief review of the Mexico-American War and the US acquisition of northern Mexican lands, as well as terms including panorama, illusionism, the sublime, and Manifest Destiny. Students also conduct a visual analysis of Moran’s painting in small groups and then discuss their findings with the whole class.

Session Outline: The Immersive Experience

In this session, students discuss the Cronan reading and screen the video Exit: one 80-minute class period. 

1. Discussion of Cronan reading and preparation for Exit screening.

Review as a group or in small groups responses to the Pre-writing Assignment, then come back and share responses as a class.  This can be done before entering the 360 room or inside it, depending on how large the class is.

The preparation for screening Exit included a description of its creators, and its original presentation and intentions.  I also introduced terms such as video installation art and data visualization to better characterize the kind of viewing experience students were going to have.

2. The Immersive Experience

After the reading discussion, students enter the 360-viewing room and begin by looking at Moran’s painting. Students are given screening sheets to guide their critical review of both works. (see Screening Questions). It might help to assign 1-2 screening questions to partners or small groups.  Each group would then present their findings in the Post-Screening Session.

3. Next, students screen the 22-minute version of Exit

Session Outline: Post-Immersive Experience

After the immersive experience, and as part of a follow-up 80-minute class, students reflect on their responses and begin a new discussion on land, belonging, and the Mexican refugee experience.

1. Group presentations and discussion of Exit screening responses to questions.

The key details students might identify include the characteristics of a “Big Picture” landscape [scale, composition, content].  They might also note the differences between the immersive experience of Exit and Moran’s painting, as well as between where their body is/was in relation to each work. (The screening questions should have prompted students thinking along these lines) Other content of note is Moran’s expression of Manifest Destiny ideals, his focus on a pristine wilderness and erasure of Indigenous disenfranchisement.

The key details students might identify with Exit include the facts that it is an immersive video meant to be viewed in a circular gallery. It was part of an art installation.  Rather than a picture, it is a data visualization landscape, creating pictures/patterns out of numbers or statistics.  The data illuminates human migrations, ecological disruptions, and forced ‘exits’.  It presents six maps/scenarios/texts/sounds, while Moran created one frame of a scene.  They might also describe the relation of viewers bodies to the work and the lack of horizon line.

2. Presentation by Mexican refugee/immigrant support center staff.

 Follow-up discussion can highlight some ways that US environmental policies are designed to restrict/disenfranchise/ignore unwanted populations such as Mexican refugees.  The Cronan reading is useful to draw upon to help develop this discussion, as well as Park and Pellow’s article.  (See Resources)

3. At the end of this class, Writing Assignment instructions are introduced. 

After the immersive experience, and as part of a follow-up class, students reflect on their responses and begin a new discussion on land, belonging, and the Mexican refugee experience. 

Pre-Writing Assignment

Prior to your immersive experience in the Digital Scholarship Lab on the 2nd floor of the Main library), you need to review William Cronan’s “The Trouble with Wilderness: or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” from Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (1996). The following questions should be answered and submitted for review:

  1. What is your own definition of “wilderness”?  Where does it exist for you? (or where do you encounter it, if you do experience it)

  2. What is Cronan’s “trouble with wilderness”?

  3. How has wilderness been conceptualized historically by Euro-American painters?  List 2-3 examples of works we’ve looked at in class to support your ideas here.

  4. Why might trying to preserve “wilderness” be futile, according to Cronan? 

  5. Why might trying to preserve “wilderness” justify indifference to problems of famine, poverty, and human suffering in the “overpopulated” places of the earth, according to Cronan?

  6. What is the difference between an immigrant and a refugee?

Screening Questions

  1. Moran’s Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (1872)

Review: What were the characteristics of a “Big Picture” landscape? [scale, composition, content]

  1. Exit (2015); while screening think about the following:

Data visualization is the graphic representation of data. It involves producing images that communicate relationships among the represented data to viewers of the images. This communication is achieved through the use of a systematic mapping between graphic marks and data values in the creation of the visualization.

  • How is Exit an example of “data visualization”?  What sorts of data, sounds, maps are presented? What did that various sets of data teach you?  Why so many sets/map?

  • How is/is this a landscape? In what way? Is there a horizon line? Where or why not?

  • Where is the viewer in relationship to the video presentation?

  • How and/or why is the idea of movement or ‘exit’ significant visually and conceptually? Can these ideas be applied to Moran’s landscape? How?

  • How do human beings interact with or relate to nature/the environment?

  • How do the immersive experiences of Moran’s wilderness and Exit’s global landscape compare? Why make Exit immersive?

Writing Assignment

Length: 950-word (three pages) minimum; each section should be about equitable in terms of length. Task 3 and 4 may be condensed into one extended reflexive section.

Task 1: Explain William Cronan's "problem with wilderness" as it is epitomized in Thomas Moran's The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (1872). Include a thorough visual analysis with discussion on how 19th c viewers experienced it in Big Picture exhibitions.

Task 2: By way of a thorough visual analysis of Exit (2015), compare its immersive visual experience to Moran’s landscape painting. 

Task 3: Cronan argues that this 19th c. conception of wilderness is still pervasive today and has been/is being used to ignore human suffering.  Explain this in relationship to what you’ve learned about the Mexican immigration/refugee crisis.

Task 4: For your conclusion, explain what new vision of wilderness Cronan believes needs to replace the old conception and why. Is it possible anymore to paint this new vision, how? Or, if not, might data visualization be the model for more inclusive and environmentally responsible representations of nature? Why or why not?



  • Braddock, Alan C. and Christoph Irmscher.  “Introduction,” in A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History.  Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009.

  • Cronan, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996.

  • Park, Lisa Sun-Hee and David Naguib Pellow.  “Roots of Nativist Environmentalism in America’s Eden,” in American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking and Acting in the Local and Global Commons.  London and New York: Routledge Press, 2013.

Western Landscapes

  • Anderson, Nancy K. “’Wondrously Full of Invention’: The Western Landscapes of Albert Bierstadt,” in Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise.  New York: Hudson Hills Press in association with The Brooklyn Museum, 1990.

  • ________“’The Kiss of Enterprise’: The Western Landscape as Symbol and Resource,” in The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, William H. Truettner, ed.  Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press for the Nation Museum of American Art (1991).

  • Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton University Press, 2001.

  • Kinsey, Joni. Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West.  Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Additional Materials

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