Faculty Voices

Reading & Responding to Exhibitions

Writing in the Tang

English 105: Writing in the Tang

Professor Alison Barnes talks about creating a core structure for her course “Writing in the Tang.” While the curriculum of the course changes every semester to work with the new exhibitions, core methods of engaging with the museum emerge every semester.

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Writing in the Tang is an expository writing course that uses the Tang Museum as its central theme of study. The course explores the current exhibitions at the museum, along with the museum’s mission, collections, and architecture.

While the curriculum of the course changes every semester to work with the new exhibitions, core methods of engaging with the museum emerge every semester. These methods include an analysis of the viewing process and an argument crafted from the perspective of a curator or artist.

“Students in Writing in the Tang spend a significant amount of time completing exercises that prepare them to begin each essay assignment. These exercises often take the form of preliminary research and brainstorming of ideas. Students work both individually and in small groups as they complete these exercises. Throughout this process, the class engages in full group discussions. These preparatory exercises and discussions take place during repeated visits to the exhibitions.

Over the years I have taught this course, beginning in 2003, I have found that these exercises heighten students’ engagement with the museum while strengthening their writing skills.

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Reading Museums

Anthropology 336: Senior Seminar on Reading Museums

Professor Sue Bender talks about the process of curating an exhibit with students. Beginning with an exercise that asked students to map the exhibition A Very Liquid Heaven, this series of assignments led students to curate the exhibition Many Different Heavens in the Winter Gallery.

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Many Different Heavens presented cultural viewpoints and traditions that widened the cultural reach of A Very Liquid Heaven.

Fred Wilson, the Luce Distinguished Visiting Fellow for the Program in Object Exhibition and Knowledge, assisted in the making of this exhibition. A detailed discussion of the pedagogical impact of Many Different Heavens is featured in the article by Janet Marstine, “What a Mess! Claiming a Space for Undergraduate Student Experimentation in the University Museum.”

“By first analyzing and then making their own response exhibition, students learned that every curator begins an exhibit with an idea or perspective that they want to articulate through carefully selected objects and very targeted text. This intentionality then carries through the entire exhibit on multiple levels. As a result of this experience, many students remarked that they would never approach a museum exhibit with a passive naiveté again.” — Susan Bender

“Very broadly stated, our response is meant to make the museum visitor aware that, in addition to the western ideas about the heavens explored in A Very Liquid Heaven, cultures throughout the world have commonly observed and developed systems for making sense out of the heavens.”

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Creating a “Museum of Dilemmas”

Scribner Seminar: Human Dilemmas

In this first-year seminar, Professor Goodwin directed students in the process of making a “Museum of Dilemmas” inspired by the exhibition Dario Robleto: Alloy of Love.

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Audio: Integrating abstract ideas from readings with objects in the museum.

Students began the project by creating objects based on Robleto’s notion of an alloy. Rather than emphasizing the value of these objects as art, Professor Goodwin asked her students to conceive of their objects as visual explorations of a dilemma relating to the course. In the final part of the assignment, students wrote a commentary that introduced their objects and dilemmas within a discussion of course texts.

“Your final project will contribute to a Museum of Dilemmas, which we will create in real time and space as well as in a metaphorical space made of words. Like the artwork of Dario Robleto, your projects will be alloys, combining elements in representations that convey your own experience of one or more dilemmas we are grappling with in this course.”

The Museum of Dilemmas Assignment

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Molecules that Matter

Chemistry 222L: Organic Chemistry 11 Laboratory

Kara Cetto Bales’s assignment for the Fall 2007 semester asked students in her Organic Chemistry 11 Lab to study and build on the content of the exhibition Molecules that Matter.

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Audio: Kara Cetto Bales talks about how much fun the students in her Organic Chemistry Lab had as they studied Molecules That Matter at the Tang Museum.

This assignment provided a list of molecules that were not included in the exhibition and then guided students through the process of designing a group presentation that argued for the inclusion of one of these molecules.

In the Spring 2008 semester when Molecules that Matter was no longer on view in the museum, Bales designed a second assignment utilizing the exhibition’s web presence. This assignment asked students to complete research about one of the ten molecules featured in the exhibition and then to give a group presentation investigating a relevant new aspect of the molecule.

“In your presentation you should provide the history/relevant background, the impact the molecule has had, the chemical relevance (remember this is an organic chemistry lab), and the artifacts that speak about your molecule.”

Molecules that Matter assignment Fall 2007

Molecules that Matter assignment Spring 2008

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Psychology Thesis Project: “A Study of the Effects of Photographs on Memory for Museum Pieces”

Psychology 376H: Senior Thesis Project

Laura Mary Flynn ’09, with guidance from her thesis advisor Mary Ann Foley, completed a collaborative research project exploring the impact the action of taking photographs has on viewers’ memory of works of art.

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Using Skidmore undergraduates as the participants in the project, Flynn directed the first phase of the study in the exhibition, Oliver Herring: Me Us Them. In the second phase of the study, she guided participants through a series of memory tests based on their experiences in the exhibition. This study won a special award for excellence at the 2009 Honors Convocation at Skidmore College.

“Laura Flynn and I discovered our shared interests in the effects of photographs on memory when Laura was a member of my cognition class. In the spring semester of Laura’s junior year, Laura wrote a paper that ultimately set things in motion for a collaborative research project with me. Intent on finding a way to examine the effects of the act of taking photographs on memory in a naturalistic setting, we realized that the Tang Museum might provide fertile ground for accomplishing our goal. However, with this exciting realization came many concerns about the feasibility of ‘moving’ a memory research lab to the Tang Museum.

My memory research with adult participants is typically conducted in a relatively small, two-room lab space in the Tisch Learning Center, a space resembling prototypical memory research labs in many psychology departments. This space is off the beaten track, so to speak, rarely included on campus tours, or on paths to classes and other campus locations. Thus, my lab’s physical location makes it possible to maintain a quiet location for testing, minimizing interruptions and other potential distractions.

As we considered using the Tang as our memory research lab, Laura and I were concerned that the public nature of the Tang might create distractions for our participants as they explored the pieces in the Oliver Herring exhibit. However, several early trips to the Tang before the exhibit even opened, as researchers rather than as museum visitors, allayed our concern about the space itself. It was easy to imagine our participants exploring an exhibit, pausing at particular pieces, and returning to look at some pieces before selecting their favorites. We also experimented with alternative ways to guide the acts of taking photographs (e.g., thinking about where participants might position the cameras we provided). The sense of motion that we experienced in the Tang (e.g., from visitors coming and going from one exhibit to the next) seemed to contribute to the realistic nature of the setting. As it turned out, this hesitation about the space itself was the least of our concern.

As we learned more about how things worked at the Tang (e.g., hours when the Tang was open to the public), our worries grew to include concerns about the accessibility of the Tang for research sessions, the availability of image archives for selecting materials, and Tang policies regarding the taking of photographs. Susi Kerr from the Tang’s educational department offered invaluable help and assurances, easing our misgivings about the timing and scheduling of our research sessions. Happily, after countless meetings including a few with Susi Kerr, we were ready to launch the project.

Behind the scenes, the preparation and implementation of the project was considerable. Constrained by exhibits scheduled in the months in which the project needed to be completed (so Laura could graduate on time!), Laura and I settled on the exhibit featuring Oliver Herring’s striking work. We expected that our college-age participants would be relatively unfamiliar with this artist’s work (a good thing when testing memory). Fortuitously, special sessions that featured this exhibit (e.g., a dialogue with the artist himself) were scheduled by the Tang staff to occur later in the semester, decreasing the likelihood that our participants’ experiences (e.g., of selecting favorites or taking our memory test) would be influenced by other events related to the exhibit itself. If, for example, several of our participants happened to attend the dialogue, their memory for their own visit to the exhibit could have been influenced by the artist’s remarks or by any images that were shown during the dialogue. Thus, for the most part, the data collection phase was completed between February and March, before the scheduled museum events, but to double-check, once the scheduled events began occurring, at the very end of their second session (after the memory test was completed), Laura asked our participants if they had attended any public events related to the exhibit, specifically mentioning the dialogue session with the artist. Fortunately for us, our participants were not present for any of the scheduled events at the Tang during the months our study was in progress.

One of our most challenging preparatory tasks was the selection of the images to include on the memory test itself. As with most memory tests of this type, two kinds of materials are included in the test; participants are shown images of objects that they actually saw as well as images of new objects that were not part of an initial viewing session. Fortunately, we were able to draw on images available on websites and in the Tang’s archives to carefully construct our memory tests. For example, Laura uploaded images of all of the pieces included in the exhibit in preparation for the memory testing. Simultaneously, Laura designed and created a computerized version of a memory questionnaire that accompanied the presentations of the images. Further details about the kinds of images included in our memory tests as well as the items in the questionnaire are included with the more complete project description (see Detailed Project Description).

With the final set of images compiled early in the spring semester, and approval from the College Institutional Review Board, the real balancing act began. At the start of the spring semester, the actual scheduling of the research sessions went quite smoothly, with Laura keeping the Tang staff informed about when she would be bringing groups through the museum. Our participants’ visits went quite well, seamlessly integrated with other activities (e.g., visitors from off campus exploring the exhibits). Laura met with each group of four participants, collecting records of their favorites, which included the uploading of participants’ photographs of their favorite pieces in preparation of the computerized memory tests. With only a week to spare before the scheduled memory tests for each group, Laura created individualized memory tests (a rarity in memory research) by embedding images of participants’ favorite photographs in a stream of images of selected works of contemporary artists. As Laura was constructing these memory tests, she continued meeting new groups of participants over several weeks in the spring semester, balancing all of these phases of the research with ease and meticulous care.

From the points of view of the college-age adults who participated in our research project, the experience was like any other museum visit with perhaps two exceptions. In this case, someone other than a family member or friend was interested in his or her favorite pieces in a particular exhibit, and, at least for some, they were given the opportunity to document their favorites by taking photographs. Further details about our findings and their potential implications for memory theory and for art education are included in the project summary (see Detailed Project Summary).

Although I have drawn on the Tang exhibits in the teaching of my Cognition course and my Scribner seminar, this collaborative effort was my first foray into visualizing the Tang as an extension of my memory lab. Without a doubt, this ambitious project was a convincing exploration of the intriguing ways in which the Tang exhibits and related events might further support my study of the effects of images (on display or in the Mind’s I) on remembering. For Laura, and in her own words, ‘completing this senior psychology thesis was my favorite academic experience at Skidmore.’ Describing this adventure as ‘the most demanding endeavor of my college career,’ Laura highly recommends that interested students aspiring to complete a senior thesis look to the Tang for possible inspiration. Indeed this research project was a most rewarding one for both of us, laying the potential groundwork for further research at the Tang ‘memory’ lab.

In closing, I want to mention two unexpected benefits that emerged from this research project, neither of which is directly related to the project itself. While discussing the results of our study with Susi Kerr, we discovered that Susi has a long-standing interest in the use of visual thinking strategies for the development of critical thinking. Her particular interest in the use of visualizations (e.g., pictures of artwork) as supports for children’s education intersects in intriguing ways with our interest in photography (as one form of visualization) and, more broadly, my interest in the role of imagery in learning and remembering. Who knows where these shared interests might lead us in the future as we continue to think of the Tang as a research space. Finally, to our surprise, many of our college-age participants had not ventured into the Tang prior to their experience in our research project. Pleased by what they discovered when participating, many anticipated visiting the Tang again on their own.” Mary Ann Foley

“These findings are intriguing in their demonstration that active engagement during museum visits promotes better memory, and that the act of taking photographs (as one way of inducing engagement) may have particularly beneficial effects for some individuals.”

Sample assignment

Project poster

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Environmental Studies

ES100: Environmental Concerns in Perspective

To begin a unit on the impacts of different energy sources in her 100-level environmental studies course, Professor Karen Kellogg gave an assignment based on Environment and Object Recent African Art.

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For this assignment, students first explored the exhibition and carefully observed the works on view. Following this, they integrated different perspectives represented in the exhibition into “a brief essay about the environmental, social and economic impacts of oil extraction and use in Africa.”

“We kept returning to ideas that the artworks inspired as our discussions around energy progressed.” Karen Kellogg

Sample assignment

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Interpreting Objects & Collections

Archaeological Illustration

AN 201: Introduction to Archaeological Research

In her Archaeological Illustration class, Professor Heather Hurst gave her students an assignment focused on a selection of stone artifacts from the Tang’s permanent collection.

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For the first part of this assignment, students worked in pairs to make an illustration of one of these artifacts. As they did this, they followed a carefully described series of steps, which asked them to apply drawing methods from the course to a new object. Once students completed these illustrations in pencil, a continuation of the assignment asked them to research their object’s cultural affiliation, time period, and function, along with a final ink version of the illustration.

“This assignment will apply the techniques you have learned in artifact illustration to render a sculptural object.” Heather Hurst

Archaeological Illustration Assignment

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Strategies of Museum Display

Art History 203: Native American Art

Professor Lisa Aronson integrated ideas and exercises from the Mellon Faculty Seminar into a series of assignments she designed for a class trip to the Fenimore Art Museum.

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At the start of their visit, students were asked to study and map the strategies of display evident in the Native American Galleries. In the afternoon of their visit, students were guided through the process of presenting an idea for a small thematic exhibition based on several objects on display in the Native American Galleries.

When the students returned to Skidmore, they applied one object from the Fenimore’s collection to a blogging project exploring the collection at the Tang.

“The first assignment involves doing a critical assessment of how the museum represents their Native American art collection in terms of organization, display, and access to information.”

Professor Lisa Aronson talks about engaging her students with the Tang Museum through a three part assignment in her Native American Art History class. (Audio)


Native American Art at the Tang Assignment

Fenimore Art Museum Assignment

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The Role of Material Culture in Historical Studies of the Non-written Past

HI 111: Introduction to Latin American History

Professor Jordana Dym’s assignment directed students to study a pre-Columbian object from the Tang collection without the influence of textual support.

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Guiding students through the process of careful observation, this assignment challenged students to explore the role of material culture in historical studies of the non-written past.

“After picking a pre-Columbian object in the Tang Museum’s permanent collection, you will write a 500-700 word narrative essay that first describes the physical object (what is it?) and then interprets and analyzes what the object suggests to you about the society that made it WITHOUT using any other sources.”

Observation Essay Assignment: Pre-Colombian Objects

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Photographs as Material Objects

AH 321: History of Photography

Professor Mimi Hellman’s art history assignment asked students to study photographs in the Tang collection.

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Audio: Assistant Professor Mimi Hellman discusses the experience of students encountering art objects.

The project emphasized close observation and careful research, and guided students through the process of shaping and delivering a thesis-driven presentation. 

By arranging set viewing hours in the Kettlewell Print Study Room at the Tang, Professor Hellman challenged students to discover the nuances of photographs by studying them on more than one occasion. She also provided students with detailed guidance about research and presentation strategies.

“This assignment unfolds in stages: students learn to pace their process and I am able to provide team-specific support and feedback. Although digital reproductions are a necessary tool, I want students to remain attentive to photographs as material objects and study them in the intimate social space of the Print Room. Students discovered that their understanding of images shifts in response to research and ongoing thought, and spontaneous conversations among teams during viewing sessions encouraged collegiality and generated some useful insights. Another important step was an in-class exercise, conducted after the progress report deadline, in which teams exchanged photographs and formulated fresh observations and questions for one another (see Project Swap assignment). This sense of mutual responsibility was also encouraged by the handout requirement, which asked students to condense their most salient points into a single page.

Next time I would like to extend this experience of collective learning by insisting on more interaction during the presentations themselves. Students were well prepared to analyze their photographs but often found it difficult to elicit sustained, substantive discussion, and I do not want to undermine their agency by taking over the conversation. Possible modifications might include devoting equal time to presentation and discussion; eliminating formal presentation altogether and reframing the assignment as an interactive lesson; asking students to assess what they learned from one another; working with teams to plan specific discussion strategies; and/or building discussion leadership skills into the course throughout the semester.” Mimi Hellman

“The purpose of this assignment is to provide an opportunity to study actual photographic prints, explore themes of special interest, and develop skills of critical thinking, research, collaboration, and speaking.”

Project assignment

Project Swap assignment

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