Teaching with Objects, Part 4

In this four-part series, Departmental Teaching Fellows Anita Nikkanen (Comparative Literature), Erin Blevins (Organismic and Evolutionary Biology), and Meredith Schweig (Music) reflect on the why, how, and what of teaching with objects. These reflections grew out of “Teaching with Tangible Things: Museum Collections in the Classroom,” a workshop they offered at the Bok Center’s 2012 Winter Teaching Conference.

In today’s post, Anita Nikkanen organizes a class trip.

 Case Study 2: Bringing the Class to the Objects

To complement Erin’s example of bringing objects to the classroom, my two-part demonstration consisted of, first, a short introductory lecture on ancient Greek sculpture with slides, and second – the part where you really get to interact with objects rather than just images projected on a screen – a tour of Greek and Roman collections at a museum.

Part 1: Preparing Your Students

The aim of my introductory lecture was to illustrate the key features in, and differences between, sculpture in three periods of Greek art: archaic, classical, and Hellenistic. I wanted  to orient my students and prepare them to recognize these details in other objects they might encounter later. I illustrated each of the three periods with slides of statues and busts representing male figures typical of each period, and pointed out such details as those of stylization in representation of hair or musculature, characteristic poses, facial expression, and subject matter. The lecture, in short, provided the basic knowledge and skills the students needed to tackle the material they were about to encounter in the museum.

Part 2: Taking a Trip

The second part, the museum tour, then, offered them an opportunity to apply what they had learned in the lecture and practice their skills. As Erin’s demonstration had already showcased Harvard’s offerings, I drew my examples from further afield: the Greek and Roman collections in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts – a great place to bring students, as I have done several times. As I took my “students,” the participants at the “Teaching with Tangible Things” session, on a virtual tour, I asked them to describe details of the objects we looked at and to compare and connect them to features of the sculptures they had seen during the lecture. When I showed them a stele with a relief depicting an athlete, for example, they were able to identify it as archaic by comparing the abstract musculature and the stylized representation of the hair with that of a kouros, an archaic statue of a young man, seen in the lecture. Applying skills with examples that fell within the covered material? Check. But we went beyond that: they were even prepared to discuss a piece that fell outside of what they had seen in the lecture. Without any introductions or explanations from me, they were able recognize the influences of classical and Hellenistic Greek art in a Roman Imperial bust of Augustus! They talked about how the serene facial expression reminded them of what they had seen in the slides of classical sculptures, yet they also pointed out the more individualized look of the bust, with its thinner lips and less idealized proportions – details that pointed away from classical Greek sculpture. They remarked on how the hairstyle reminded them of that of Hellenistic busts of Alexander the Great as well as of the classical Doryphoros (“Spear Carrier”) of Polykleitos. What is more, they could make meaningful interpretations of the mixture of these elements. After I told them the bust was of Augustus, we discussed the effects of representing an emperor as serene and eternally youthful, even posthumously, as this bust did, and of drawing on famous predecessors’ portrait styles in official representations of such rulers. We also did something you can really only do when viewing an object in person: we talked about the pieces that were missing, like the chipped ears, and what the bust would look like if it were intact – from there, we arrived at some of the characteristics of Julio-Claudian portraiture shared by all in the family, such as the slightly protruding ears!

My aim with this exercise was to demonstrate how teachers can engage their students in learning with objects in museums, as well as the kinds of things you can teach and learn by doing so – not just art or art history, but culture, politics, and the history of different time periods and places, connections with literature, or myth, religion, customs, and daily life. Furthermore, dealing with objects is a great way to teach the different steps involved in analyzing different kinds of material: for one, looking at an object rather than a text often makes it easier to distinguish between description and interpretation. Anyone can describe what they see, and the teacher can help them along with the interpretation of the details. And, as the example of the Roman Imperial bust shows, with just a little background you can get students to engage with entirely new material in extremely fruitful ways.

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