Exhibition as Classroom

This fall, students in seminars from the departments of Art and Archaeology, Comparative Literature, English, Spanish, and Visual Arts visited the Art Museum to engage with the exhibition The Itinerant Languages of Photography. Cocurated by Princeton University professors Eduardo Cadava (Department of English, Program in Media and Modernity, Program in Latin American Studies) and Gabriela Nouzeilles (Department of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures, Program in Latin American Studies), the exhibition traces the movement of photographs across time, space, and media through works from Spanish and Latin American photographic archives. For the faculty members and their students, the Art Museum became the classroom, whether for one visit or for the whole semester.

Students in Professor Cadava’s graduate English seminar “Literacy and Cultural Theory: The Itinerant Languages of Photography” and Professor Nouzeilles’s undergraduate Spanish seminar visited the exhibition each week, either on their own or as a class. Viewing the original works in the galleries allowed students to register details that would be impossible to see in a reproduction in a book, such as the thousands of tiny images that make up Joan Fontcuberta’s 2005 Googlegram: Niépce, and to get a sense of the works’ size, scale, or texture. Seeing the original works “enables the students to begin to think about the choices that photographers make,” says Cadava.

Classes in both English and Spanish used the exhibition as primary source material to complement in-class lectures and readings. Students enrolled in “Studies in Spanish Language and Style,” a 200-level Spanish class, were asked by course head Mariana Bono to write about two photographs of their choice that featured urban settings. The exercise gave students the opportunity to demonstrate in Spanish their ability to “interpret and analyze complex visual materials and the social and cultural circumstances of their production,” says Bono.

“When I see a photograph in a book or on a screen I only see what I can see. That is, I see who or what is in the image, what is happening, or where and when it was taken—I see facts. . . . But when I see the image in the exhibition, I am free to see it from different angles, different perspectives, and the accessibility and the immediacy of the photo really allows me to see it for myself."

—Lisa Kim, Class of 2015

Gian Paolo Minelli (born 1968, Geneva; lives and works in Buenos Aires), Chicas (Girls), from Zona Sur—Barrio Piedra Buena, 2003. Chromogenic prints (diptych), 100 x 120 cm each. Princeton University Art Museum, Museum purchase, bequest of John W. H. Simpson, Class of 1966, in memory of Wellington Hope Simpson, Class of 1931 (2013-62 a-b). © Gian Paolo Minelli

Other courses that made use of the exhibition included Professor Benjamin Conisbee Baer’s Comparative Literature junior seminar, Professor Irene Small’s undergraduate seminar “Theorizing the Archive in Latin American Art,” and a freshman seminar on “Photographies: A Visual Studies Workshop,” taught by former Art Museum curator Joel Smith, who asked his students to visit the exhibition on their own “to find out, and get them to notice, what idea of the show—what images, what types of continuity or variety—stayed in their minds.”

The faculty members agreed that being in the exhibition space offered their students a very different kind of experience than the classroom. Seeing images in relation to each other as they walk around the space “encourages the students to read images in a context,” says Cadava. “In this way, the exhibition can serve as a kind of training manual for reading images.” Nouzeilles had a similar goal for her students, whose experience in the Museum will help them to be “more visually literate and therefore better prepared to interpret photographic images and visual culture in general.” Visiting the Art Museum as part of a class also gives Small’s students “a sense of agency” and a level of comfort when visiting other museums or galleries. “Students are used to accepting a work of art as less strange than it actually is,” she says. “Being in the Museum forces them to confront the object.”


Johanna G. Seasonwein

Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow for Academic Programs