The Museum in the Classroom

Since the museum’s formal establishment in 1882, when it was cofounded alongside the University’s Department of Art and Archaeology, object-based teaching has been central to University teaching and to the life of the Museum. In 1882—when art history was a German scientific discipline only just finding its way to North America—this was a forward, even radical, leap.

While such teaching is common today throughout higher education, many universities have drifted away from it in the face of more theoretically informed classroom pursuits. At Princeton, object-based teaching remains a hallmark of the Museum’s relationship with its nearest neighbor (both intellectually and geographically) and of the intimately scaled teaching experience that is a signature of the University. 

What is newer, and perpetually evolving, is the range of ways in which the Museum and its staff enter the classroom, as well as the array of disciplines investigated through hands-on teaching. From civil engineering to Romance languages to African American studies, the spectrum is unprecedented. Similarly, the Museum’s commitment to broadening this engagement is ever deepening, supported by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation— which have made sustained outreach to Princeton faculty possible and have created structured programs in support of object-based classroom teaching—and from the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, which makes curatorial teaching possible. 

Grants awarded to faculty for the development of new courses account for several key initiatives in this area. In 2011, the Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Faculty Innovation course development grant was awarded to Professor Martha Sandweiss of the History Department, for a course taught collaboratively with the Art Museum’s curator of the art of the ancient Americas, Bryan Just. Entitled “Artifacts, Images, and History: The American Southwest,” the course was inspired by an impressive suite of collections spread among three University repositories: the Art Museum, Firestone Library’s Special Collections, and the Department of Geosciences, many of them formed during or comprising works produced in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Bringing together Sandweiss’s knowledge of the history of the American Southwest, her past experience as a curator of photography, and her conviction that objects can serve as important primary documents with Just’s familiarity with Princeton’s holdings, his dedication to the analysis of indigenous American arts, and his curatorial experience, the course— first offered in the fall of 2011—considers the Native arts of the Southwest through the lens of Princeton’s collecting history, especially the period from 1880 to 1930. 

The individual collectors, the history of the various repositories, and other aspects of Princeton’s collecting practices serve as primary research topics assigned to the course’s students, as do examinations of specific artifacts, whether ceramic jars, playing cards, or photographic albums. Collected for a variety of purposes—including the documentation of missionary activities, the work of geological research teams, and the gathering of fine art and library reference materials—these objects had never been brought into conversation with each another or studied for what they can reveal about broader cultural attitudes of the period toward the Native peoples of the American Southwest. Considered as a body of material, they reveal much, not only about the changing cultural practices of different groups but also about the impact of U.S. nineteenth-century expansion into the Southwest and the changing relationship between the region’s indigenous groups and the nation-state. The works also speak to academia’s—and, more specifically, to Princeton’s—shifting interests in the region, from a site of potential converts or financially valuable artifacts to a place where the University seeks to collaborate with local cultural groups. While research continues, the course’s findings are so compelling that they will become, we hope, a future exhibition mounted in the Art Museum’s galleries. 

Each year, a team of curators, the director, and other members of the Museum’s staff teach a freshman seminar entitled “Behind the Scenes: Inside the Princeton University Art Museum.” Here, students explore the role of the museum in the twenty-first century, ethical and policy issues such as cultural property ownership, collecting, the preservation of the past, and public engagement, as well as aspects of exhibition planning, from research and narrative development to loans and installations. The Museum’s associate director for education, Caroline Harris, is the professor of record for the course, which each week features a different guest to focus on a specific topic in his or her area of expertise. A group of two or three students then leads the class in a one-hour discussion based on the readings and the expert presentation. The freshman seminar thus simultaneously introduces students to academic life at Princeton and, through sustained discussion on a topic of interest, provides interaction with faculty in an informal setting. 

The student-led discussions have become the centerpiece of the Museum’s freshman seminar. Invariably, the guests become so involved in the students’ conversations that the classes continue well past the specified hour. A highlight of the fall 2010 seminar was the visit of Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings Calvin Brown, who led a discussion of the exhibition Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered. Calvin and the students sat for three hours in the exhibition gallery, engaged in a discussion about ideas of gender, paradise, escape, and colonialism in Gauguin’s art, directly facing the works of art themselves. Such discussions are invariably highlighted in student course evaluations, with comments ranging from, “there was never a dull or silent moment” to, “I learned a lot from my peers throughout the course. We did not always agree, which created the most stimulating conversations.” 

Even the Museum’s director, James Steward, occasionally has the opportunity to engage in sustained classroom teaching. In spring 2011 his first course at Princeton was a seminar looking at the art of Enlightenment Europe through the organizing rubrics of order and chaos. The course attracted a full contingent of students to consider many of the period’s most important artists from England, France, and Italy, often through the lens of social history, exploring how these artists and artworks were shaped by and captured the values of their time. With a number of important new additions to the Museum’s collections from this period, most notably the extraordinary portrait of Sarah Harrop by Angelica Kauffmann; other newly installed works in the collections galleries; and the traveling exhibition Lasting Impressions of the Grand Tour: Giuseppe Vasi’s Rome on view, the class regularly convened in the Museum’s galleries and study rooms, affording students opportunities to see works by such masters as Jean Honoré Fragonard and Giambattista Tiepolo without the filter of glass. Steward notes: “I’ve been considering the art of the eighteenth century for twentyfive years, and yet it never fails that students bring me into wholly new discoveries about what works of art mean and how they achieve that meaning. Without question students make me a better museum director.” 

The Museum’s curators are preparing a rich spectrum of future courses, including offerings on Maya painting, the art of Samuel Beckett’s decade, Attic vase painting, and “nothing” in art, as well as a seminar that will serve as a forum for the preparation of a volume on the Museum’s collection of American painting and sculpture. This dynamic array of courses promises to engage Princeton students in object-based teaching for years to come.