Many colleges and universities around the country have on-campus museums and galleries but these spaces could often be better connected to teaching and learning in undergraduate education. In an effort to identify a set of best practices for linking on-campus museum exhibits to undergraduate coursework, faculty and curators at Skidmore College, Hamilton College, Colgate University, and the University at Albany united to develop new ways to teach with exhibitions across disciplines through courses and assignments that consider how subject matter, medium, authorship, audience, physical and institutional setting, and even display and labeling strategies, can shape learning experiences.
This project aimed to demonstrate how exhibitions can not only support students’ understanding of various disciplines, but also enhance critical and creative thinking and develop transferable academic skills such as writing, teamwork, and oral communication through museum-based pedagogy. By engaging with images and artifacts through multiple lenses, this collaborative partnership revealed the many roles that museums can serve as both as traditional galleries for students and visitors and as active sites for transforming interdisciplinary undergraduate education.
This museum pedagogy project was centered around This Place, an exhibit featuring photos of Israel and the West Bank through the vantage points of twelve contemporary photographers. In Spring 2018, the four campuses each displayed a quarter of the exhibit and developed linkages between their portion of the exhibit and a variety of courses, ranging from anthropology to environmental studies. The approach and strategies developed in this project were intended to be transferable to any museum-based exhibit.
Each campus provided students and faculty a unique opportunity to reflect on and assess the value of a single exhibition through various lenses. Faculty developed assignments from 22 disciplines spanning all curricular levels and class sizes, from 20 to over 200 students. As part of the project’s collaborative approach, students had the opportunity to travel to the other participating campuses to view those institutions’ exhibition displays and engage in informal discussion with students and faculty across academic departments.
One geosciences faculty member on how This Place enhanced their course on climate change:
My goal was to use the This Place exhibit to expose students to how art can be a powerful means of communication about the impacts of humans on the natural world. The unique opportunity to introduce students to an exhibition served as a point of discussion for how what we know about climate change from the sciences’ perspective translates into visual arts.
Students produced a wide range of work based on This Place, including research papers, oral presentations, dances, and poems that highlighted the themes and diverse interpretations of the exhibition, providing students and faculty with a shared body of material on which to reflect. Faculty reported that the museum-based learning experiences led to more student participation in lectures and expanded perspectives on a variety of interdisciplinary topics.
A professor of Political Science reflecting on how working with an exhibition complemented classroom-based teaching:
It definitely confirmed for me the benefit of using the Tang [Museum at Skidmore] as a teaching tool; it is a good community building exercise for the class, it allows students to experience true interdisciplinarity, it allows students with different academic interests and strengths either to shine and feel comfortable or to challenge themselves a bit and be uncomfortable.
Examples of assignments that incorporate museum exhibitions in the departments of anthropology, art history, English, geosciences, psychology, and religious studies can be found here.
One student on how the This Place exhibition enhanced an Environmental Studies course:
It has been a real treat to have an exhibit to learn from. The visual complemented some of the topics we discussed and other times made us question topics we hadn’t covered through lecture.
The value of museum-based teaching and learning was clear to participants. A Skidmore professor of international affairs who led a course on the definition of culture noted that through their engagement with the exhibition, “students developed a deeper sense of the significance of culture as a concrete experience, rather than [a] theoretical concept.”
Still, some challenges inevitably emerged. As part of a course on American consumer culture, students from Hamilton College visited the Wellin Museum of Art to observe Julia Jacquette’s exhibition, “Unrequited and Acts of Play,” which included original drawings from Playground of My Mind, the artist’s first graphic novel set against a backdrop of the financial crisis and social upheaval of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. As part of their reflection, students were asked to consider how the text and images in the exhibit interacted to produce meaning. However, some students failed to grasp the connections between their assignment topic and the exhibition, leading one faculty member to confirm the importance of exposing students to nontraditional pedagogical approaches earlier and more often.
While many different learning experiences were created, the majority of these courses were in the arts and humanities. Without a strong culture of museum-based pedagogy, it was challenging to facilitate courses in the social and natural sciences that utilized This Place in its curriculum. Another challenge, collaborative teaching, was encouraged, but proved logistically challenging as viable time slots and appropriate class sizes did not always permit a co-teaching model. However, there were some striking successes. In a course at the University at Albany, studio art and English were fused in a way that allowed students to think about distinctions between visual and verbal expression and how they can complement one another to enhance integrative learning. This course successfully utilized co-teaching using This Place in its approach to pedagogy.
Two collaborating professors on how the impact of This Place will shape their future courses:
We have both been teaching for 20+ years on the college level and the experience of team-teaching this course and using the museum as an extension of our classroom has been utterly transformational...our pedagogy will be forever altered as a result of this class. We will continue to make the museum central to our syllabi and we will continue to try to draw upon the resources of faculty in other fields.
New Directions and Future Sustainability
The faculty who participated in advancing museum-based teaching and learning were positive about the experience. While some acknowledged that changes can be made, most expressed interest in pursuing similar initiatives in the future. Their work with developing curricular ties to the This Place exhibit inspired them to take advantage of six other on-campus exhibits in similar ways. Some aspects of museum-based pedagogy are even now embedded in regularly scheduled coursework offered by the campus partners. At Skidmore, a course titled “Writing in the Tang,” named after its on-campus museum, will be offered to students as part of their general education writing requirement. Colgate University’s popular “Pair & Share” exercise, which challenges students to teach one another about aspects of the exhibition through group lessons and reflective writing, has been a key means of incorporating museum-based pedagogy across disciplines.
The success of the project has encouraged campus partners to invest in developing faculty professional development opportunities that promote museum-based teaching and learning. At the University at Albany, the University Art Museum has partnered with the school's center for teaching and learning to sponsor a series of pedagogy workshops and put together a plan to include faculty of STEM disciplines in future museum-based learning initiatives. Similarly, Skidmore and Hamilton Colleges are supporting faculty course development proposals where students are actively engaged with artists’ work in new exhibits at their respective campus museums.
A philosophy faculty member on the experience working with This Place:
Visiting This Place was a good way to let students think about some of the questions and topics of the class by engaging their senses and opening themselves up to responding to the situations and people depicted in the photographs. It also helped students see how the way we view the world is informed by our academic and disciplinary background, and it helped students defend their own views while being open to listening to and being challenged by the views of their peers.
Spreading Museum-Based Teaching and Learning
A two-day symposium is planned for June 21-22, 2019 to share the project’s many successes and visions for the future with the larger academic community.