Museum’s Collections at the Core of Innovative Courses

For more than a decade, the Art Museum—through an endowed fund established by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—has been offering grants to Princeton University professors to encourage the development of new courses that use the Museum’s collections in significant ways. This year the disciplinary array of courses is especially broad, as is the breadth of the Museum’s collections that they draw upon, speaking to the role that art plays in interrogating human nature—and in stimulating classroom conversation.

Students from Alexander Todorov’s psychology class in the Museum’s Works on Paper Study RoomIn the fall semester, Princeton Professor of Psychology Alexander Todorov taught “Expressing the Passions of the Soul: The Study of Human Emotions in Art and Science” to immerse his students in a centuries-old conversation between artists and scientists about human facial expression. This course paired works of art from the Museum’s collections with historical texts, recent research papers, and popular media to consider whether expressions of emotions are innately specified and universal or are learned and culturally specific. As students read Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), for example, they examined the Museum’s photographs by Oscar Rejlander (1813–1875), which were published in Darwin’s book and were in fact essential to the book’s arguments and its popularity.

In spring 2017, four intensive Museum-funded classes are energizing the Museum’s study rooms. “The Body in Pieces,” taught by Professor Javier E. Guerrero in Spanish and Portuguese, examines how representations of the body in modern art and contemporary Latin American visual culture served as radical counterpoints to repressive political regimes and oppressive institutions. Drawing on the Museum’s holdings of Latin American art, students are exploring the relationship between the body of the spectator and the body of the work, a dialogue of increasing importance in art today.

Enrique Chagoya (Mexican, born 1953), Utopiancannibal.Org (detail), 2000. Lithograph and woodcut with chine collé on four sheets of amate paper, folded and joined in a codex format. Museum purchase, David L. Meginnity, Class of 1958, Fund. © Enrique ChagoyaProfessor Anna Arabindan-Kesson in Art and Archaeology is teaching “Seeing to Remember: Representing Slavery across the Black Atlantic” to explore the historical representation of slavery and its contemporary manifestations in art of the Black diaspora, asking why slavery remains relatively invisible in public art in the United States. “American Literary Traditions: Postwar New York,” taught by Joshua Kotin in English, focuses on postwar New York City as a site of urban decay, civil unrest, and radical innovations in literature, philosophy, and art. Finally, Professor Maria DiBattista in Comparative Literature has developed a new graduate seminar, “Modern Portraiture: Literature, Painting, Photography, Film,” which traces the emergence of the “modern” portrait from its beginnings in the nineteenth century to the present.

For DiBattista, as for the other professors, the act of identifying works of art from the Museum’s collections began during months of summer research and was itself part of the scholarly and curricular process. As DiBattista reflected, “Assembling a pictorial archive drawn from the Museum’s collection . . . helped me to think more creatively about how certain texts, photographs, and films reflect or draw on each other and how, pedagogically, they might work in combination.”

Juliana Ochs Dweck

Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement