We did more experiential learning this week, this time in the UCL Art Museum. We are incredibly lucky to have an impressive art collection at UCL, related to the Slade School of Art. And we are even luckier that it is staffed by deeply knowledgeable curators who helped me put together an exhibition of artworks that helped us think about various aspects of how nature is, and has been, depicted.
I’ve been working with the Art Museum to deliver teaching using its collection for a few years. Before that, I used to take students to the many free exhibitions in London and it was a chance conversation with a student who put me in touch with the UCL curators and made me realise that I could do the teaching I wanted to on our very own campus! This is a huge privilege (in our exhibition we had a Turner!), but wherever you are, there is probably an art gallery or museum in your town that would fit the bill, depending on what you want to teach.
What I want to do in these sessions is enable students to understand artworks as political objects: to become critical readers of the visual, to see through the facticity of images and understand the ways in which pictures are often generic and repeat familiar ideas, thereby reproducing and relegitimising them. The reason we take them for granted as reflections of reality is more to do with the way they repeat key narratives that we are used to and take to be commonsensical than any actual correspondence to an independent world. This is quite different from an approach that might, for example, focus on how works are made, or what their deeper meaning is, or an appreciation of their aesthetic qualities as such. You can read more about how and why I teach in art galleries here.
If you want to have a go at getting out of the classroom and doing some teaching with artworks, here are a few tips and ideas.
- Be clear about your purpose: there are lots of different reasons why you might want students to engage with artworks, but make sure you are clear in your own mind about it, so they and you understand the purpose of the exercise. Otherwise, you will have a nice time, but it might be a bit aimless. In my case, for my politics of nature class this year, I wanted students to understand that the ways landscapes and the rural have been depicted for centuries is often generic. Works in the pastoral tradition prettify the hardships and difficulty of rural lives, whilst images of the sublime invite rugged individualism and mastery. One of this year’s students – herself a student of the Slade Art School! (I am very excited to see her portfolio!) – explained decolonial readings of the idea of the sublime reminding us of earlier reading about the dangers of narratives about the ‘lone, enraptured male‘. A range of different works, on the face of it all different, all lent themselves to making these points which reinforced work we are doing throughout the module.
- Relatedly, be clear about how the work in the gallery relates to the rest of your module: I included artworks that depicted colonialism and enslavement, building on last week’s work at Kew, helping students see how pastoral, sublime and picturesque artworks legitimised enslavement and glorified adventurers like Captain Cook (depicted heroically at his death in a work by Bartolozzi), whilst depicting indigenous people as ‘savage’ and ‘close to nature’ in ways that deprive them of political agency. The works also picked up other themes in the module, for example, returning to ideas we encountered in our week of queer ecologies about how parks and beaches have been celebrated in art for certain sorts of leisure and relationships (the courting heterosexual couple, for example) and not others.
- Provide context through reading and other materials: For this week, we read a chapter by Nomi Lazar on discourses of ‘primitivism’ and an article by Jennifer Peebles on the ‘toxic sublime‘ to support students in noticing these discourses in the artworks. I also provided short ‘flipped classroom’ materials on how we can look at artworks as political objects and on the genres of ‘pastoral’, ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque’. I did my best to relate the discussion back to these materials as we discussed the works.
- Teach students how to look: Tate Modern’s studies show that visitors on average spend about eight seconds looking at each picture! By creating an exhibition of just a few works (I used ten, which was probably too many if I’m honest), you can get students to look at bit more closely. Encourage them to stay with a few works that interest them rather than trying to look at every one. I always suggest that they spend time sketching. No-one actually did that this year, but in the past students have stayed in the gallery for longer than the allotted time to look and draw. This is the best way of getting them to notice all the details, especially in complex works. It’s also worth spending a bit more time getting them to describe the key features of a work before launching into questions about what political work it is doing. That way, students often help me notice things that I hadn’t seen myself!
- Work with curators: The way I have always put my exhibitions in the UCL Art Museum together is to ask advice from the curators. I tell them the broad themes and concepts from the module and then they pull out a range of artworks. I always want to use them all, but with painful difficulty they help me whittle it down to a manageable exhibition. Their deep and extensive knowledge of the collection makes this easy and fun work – whereas slogging through the catalogue myself would have taken much longer. Two curators also kindly helped me by circulating among the students and talking to them about the histories of the works, how they were made and what other interpretations have been made of them, drawing on in-depth knowledge that I just don’t have. This is gold dust, and much appreciated by the students! Curators and education teams at public galleries have always been equally helpful.
- Make it fun: attending an exhibition is a pleasurable experience. Bringing that enjoyment of art and being together in a different sort of space into an encounter with close looking and critical thought leads to a different kind of embodied learning that will hopefully stay with students as they encounter more works of art in future. I usually encourage the students to wander round as if they were in any other exhibition, as well as giving them encouragement to look closely and sketch. I give them a few questions about each artwork, some of which require some close and slow looking. I give them a chance to do all this before I start circulating round and helping them. Unfortunately, this year, every time I started talking to a small group of students about a particular artwork, the whole class gathered round to hear my wisdom. This is probably because the Art Museum is a small space and I was using my teacher voice, but it did take away from the joy of individual discovery a bit, as well as depriving them of chances to chat with the curators, who were also on hand. I need to think about how I avoid this next year. There is probably a bit of me that enjoys being the centre of an attentive crowd a bit too much that I need to keep an eye on….
- Don’t be scared of difficulty: Some of the questions we asked in the Art Museum were confronting, particularly when looking at a picture of a Jamaican plantation with enslaved people in the foreground, using the tradition of the pastoral to make this scene look pretty and ‘natural’, or the way that Captain Cook is portrayed as a saintly, Christ-like figure being brutally murdered by Indigenous people. Looking at the exquisite Turner watercolour depicting the first steamer on Lake Lucerne, we asked ourselves whether it would have been better if the Industrial Revolution had never happened – delving into how even if we wanted to disentangle it from dispossession, capitalism and colonialism, it is hard to see how we ever could, despite wanting to keep a lot of the benefits that have accrued to the lucky ones like us. The discussion was difficult and sometimes faltered, but in some ways that is easier in a space like an art gallery than it is in a classroom. This is partly because we were not staring right at each other but looking at an object and partly because silence in a gallery is ordinary and expected, as we let the questions sit, and not awkward or embarrasssing. It is also fine just to wander off and look at something else when in an exhibition, and therefore easy enough to exit a conversation if it’s getting a bit intense.
- Think about assessment: For my class’s portfolio assessment, students may (but do not have to) write labels for the artworks in the gallery to help visitors understand the key ideas we have discussed or write an entry for an exhibition catalogue. Last year, lots of students did this to good effect, with some particularly beautiful catalogue essays. Students can also make their own artworks and are encouraged to reflect on how they reproduce or disrupt the discourses we see in the exhibition. The UCL curators would love to hold an exhibition of the same works for the public with labels written by my students plus responses from members of the UCL community and visitors. Subscribe to this blog if you want updates on this, if and when it happens!
I hope this might give you a few ideas about teaching with art. Artworks also aren’t by any means the only types of objects you can teach with and I love to hear other people’s ideas about object-based learning and how we can make it work in our discipline. Let us know in the comments if you have an approach that really works well.