Special Collections and Practicing Art History in a World Art History survey class

Special Collections and Practicing Art History in a World Art History survey class

In my world art history class (15th-century to the present, second-half of a two-semester sequence) a couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to find an alternative to the research paper. The class always fills at 25 students, and I had become tired of research papers. Students also seemed tired, mostly on auto-pilot and oftentimes less engaged than I’d prefer. I wanted them to practice being art historians, but I decided I had to find another creative way to do this.

During another class’s session in my school’s special collections, I began to wonder whether we had enough materials in special collections that spanned both time and geography for the class. After a separate meeting with the special collections librarian, in which we searched for many, many hours in storage, on the shelves, and in the catalog we had found a variety of excellent (and surprising!) objects and books that related to the class in a useful way. And an idea was hatched: what if I devoted 3-4 days to special collections and the final project was a team project that focused on one item in special collections? It has worked beautifully, and I will not go back to the traditional paper for this class for a number of reasons, explained below.

First, let me provide a description of the project and its steps.

Day 1:

At one point in the semester, I have students visit special collections to consider European book culture between the 15th-17th century and the topic of the printed revolution. The students arrive and are asked to fill out forms as if they were a researcher visiting special collections. We go through protocol (washing hands, book weights, spines, etc.). Then, as a class, I have the librarian give us an intro to special collections and an overview of book culture and prints. Imagine this takes 30 minutes.

Chumash basket (Payson Special Collections)
Chumash basket (Payson Special Collections)

At this point, students break into small groups (4-5 students) and are stationed around 1 single book (I have the librarian use at least 1 medieval manuscript from Spain, 1 printed bible with woodblock prints, and a philosophical treatise with engravings). They complete very focused activities that ask them to look, explore, engage, respond, and compare. At the end of class they are familiar with handling materials, with looking closely, and with applying what they learned to our broader class content. It also teaches them archival responsibility—they are always SO nervous to handle older materials, but by the end they all do it and they recognize the responsibility placed upon them.

Fore-edge painting (Payson Special Collections)
Fore-edge painting (Payson Special Collections)

Day 2:

In our second session of special collections, which happens a few weeks later, the librarian and I selected a broad sweep of materials from about 1700 to the present. We have baskets, ceramics, photographs, prints, fore-edge paintings, and more. We give them a broad overview with these materials, and then teams are asked to select 1 object to work on for their project—from materials from the first or second session. No two teams can work on the same “thing.”

Day 3:

Teams come back to get to know their chosen objects in greater depth. They complete a detailed activity that guides them through different types of questions to think about (formal, iconographic, material, etc.). They take a lot of pictures and videos.

The rest of the semester:

The students then work in teams the rest of the semester to research and analyze their object. At the end of the semester, they present for 10-15 minutes on their object, contextualizing it within the history of world art that we’ve been discussing. They create beautiful presentations, and thus far every single team has demonstrated the depth of their research and analysis in what I can only describe as amazing, creative presentations. They have been exceptional. And the students enjoy hearing about what others have done in special collections.

Students also return to special collections on their own, having now been at least 3 times, to get to know their object in greater depth before the final project is due.

I should also note that I do devote another entire class session to the project, allowing teams to work for 2 hours in class.

I have seen many students go to the library to pick up physical books (gasp!), and they ask insightful questions throughout the entire process. From their reflections on the project, they feel more engaged in this project—the stakes apparently seem higher to them.

This project has been a wonderful learning experience for me and students, and I can’t wait to see what they develop this semester!


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