Teaching Nature's Nation
Among the most enjoyable aspects of producing the exhibition Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment is the opportunity it has afforded to teach related courses at different stages in the project’s gestation. During the fall of 2014, as the exhibition was being conceptualized, co-curator Alan Braddock came to Princeton from William & Mary for a semester as a Belknap Visitor of the Humanities Council, enabling not just crucial planning time together but also allowing us to teach “toward” the exhibition in a new class: “Nature’s Nation Revisited: An Ecocritical History of American Art.”
The course was conceived as a Capstone Seminar in Princeton’s certificate program in Humanistic Studies, created specifically for students to engage in focused interdisciplinary study. Although Alan and I are both art historians, the “nature” of Nature’s Nation is inherently cross-disciplinary, engaging ecology and environmental history in addition to American history and art history. The small but brilliant and deeply committed group of students—only two art historians among them—offered strikingly original observations that productively informed our ideas about the scope and content of the show.
Alan returned to campus in 2016–17 under the auspices of the Princeton Environmental Institute as Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities. While here, he taught “The Ecocritical Exhibition: Pursuing Sustainability at the Princeton University Art Museum,” which laid the basis for the website created in connection with Nature’s Nation, “The Ecology of an Exhibition.” This innovative website, installed in the reading area midway through the exhibition, effectively turns the tables on the ecocritical analysis of works of art in the show by viewing the exhibition itself through an environmental lens. By focusing on how objects from seventy lenders nationwide came to the Museum, were installed in the galleries, and interpreted in the accompanying catalogue, the website offers visitors a way to consider the implications of cultural activities generally and to reflect on how they might more sustainably be undertaken.
With the catalogue in hand and the exhibition now on the gallery walls, the current semester has afforded a different opportunity—to now learn “from” the book and show. Students are doing just that in my course, “Exhibiting Nature’s Nation: American Art, Ecology, and Environmental History,” with weekly visits to the galleries to view in person objects explored in the publication and thus experience and understand them directly—often in ways that result in further insights, both for the students and their instructor.
John Wilmerding Curator of American Art