Translating Object-Based Learning into Virtual Discussions

Students in ART 363 use Zoom to discuss Guercino’s drawing Two men in broad-brimmed, high-crowned hats (1630s–40s)As Princeton students left campus in March and faculty and curators found themselves teaching from home, engaging with works of art from across the Museum’s collections became a vital means of remaining intellectually and emotionally connected. When we all learned that University teaching was moving online, we quickly began exploring virtual formats that could most closely re-create the experience of discussing objects in person. A huge team effort led by the Museum’s communication and information department yielded several interesting possibilities.

Once classes resumed online following spring break, students were both relieved and enthusiastic to reconnect with their professors and classmates. Classes designed around frequent visits to the Museum, including Associate Director for Education Caroline Harris’s “Behind the Scenes at the Art Museum” and my own “Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art in the Princeton University Art Museum,” had live conversations looking at high-resolution PowerPoint presentations and using a viewing technology called Mirador, which allows for the magnification of objects. Within the Department of Art and Archaeology, Anna Arabindan-Kesson’s “Enter the New Negro: Black Atlantic Aesthetics” also utilized virtual tours of exhibitions such as Life Magazine and the Power of Photography. For classes that could no longer meet at their regularly scheduled times—including Jane Cox’s “Introduction to Lighting Design” and the Italian 102 and 103 classes—PowerPoints with recorded narrations were delivered. In order to discuss works from the collection of Asian art with Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s class “How Was It Made and Who Made It?,” Associate Curator Zoe Kwok worked with photographs and three-dimensional interactives.

João Biehl’s class “Medical Anthropology” discussed the topic of the city and the plague, which felt especially timely, as did conversations on illness and empathy for Elena Fratto’s course “Literature and Medicine” and considerations of artistic responses to epidemics for Carolyn Ureña’s writing seminar on contagion. Examining magnified objects on a computer screen—a different experience from standing before them in the galleries—sometimes led to new observations, as when students noted that the grouping of black beads in Ruth Cuthand’s Reserving: Typhoid Fever (2018) recalls a fingerprint and furthers the work’s deep reflections on identity. Some large-scale classes that could not have been accommodated in the galleries were able to experience the collections through an online experience; one example is Pietro Frassica’s class “The Literature of Gastronomy,” which focused on works like Luca Giordano’s Pasta Eater (ca. 1660).

Sixty-five courses, thirty-six departments, and more than 3,400 Princeton students engaged with the Museum’s collections this spring semester. Those of us teaching were grateful to continue our work and to share experiences of visual analysis. In speaking with the students, we have been reminded of their resilience as learners and of the extraordinary role that art continues to play in providing inspiration in the face of challenging circumstances.

Veronica White
Curator of Academic Programs