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The Museum as Classroom: A Record Semester

January 18th, 2013

The Johnson Museum strives to be an indispensable educational resource for students and faculty at Cornell University. Along with our exhibitions and publications, we offer class visits that use art to enrich course curricula, develop and teach classes, and encourage faculty and students to use original works in creative ways to support their research and learning.

The Museum began the 2012 academic year by taking part in the New Student Reading Project. Using both our permanent collection and a specially curated installation, we guided 350 first-year students to explore themes—poverty, social inequity, the Holocaust, and the cruelty of aging—that they encountered in Romain Gary’s novel The Life Before Us. By experiencing the Johnson as a unique classroom, students were introduced to new ways of using primary sources that complement similar assignments they’ll encounter at Cornell.

During the fall semester, a record 177 Cornell classes visited the Museum. Faculty, curators, and educators worked together to use original artworks to encourage critical thinking and discussion, and improve students’ writing and research skills. A few examples can offer a glimpse at the breadth of the courses that employed the Johnson as a unique resource. Twenty-eight first-year writing courses from different disciplines used our artworks, including one class that worked on character development inspired by portraits. Professor Virginia Utermohlen’s “Health and the Humanities” course, consisting largely of premed students, discussed the history and devastating effects of syphilis while studying William Hogarth’s print series A Rake’s Progress and A Harlot’s Progress. Professor Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon’s creative writing class “Memory, Sound, and Vision” used photographs from the collection and the exhibition Harry Bertoia: Sound and Vision to write new poems that they read in a joint public performance with the Cornell Chamber Orchestra. In addition to using works on view in our galleries and exhibitions, more than forty faculty members requested works of art from storage for special teaching sessions in Museum classrooms.

Of the three special seminars that met here weekly, two used our new Citrin Photography Center as their main classroom: Professor Mary Woods’s History of Architecture and Urban Development (HAUD) Graduate Practicum, “Mirror of the City: Imagery from Rome to Detroit, 1450–2012,” cotaught with curator Andy Weislogel; and Professor Bill Gaskin’s studio art class, “The Desegregated Eye: Reconsidering Photographic History and Theory,” cotaught with curator Nancy Green. The annual “Museum and the Object” course, jointly taught by Associate Director/Ames Curator of Education Cathy Klimaszewski and Professor Cheryl Finley, along with Museum curators, took a thematic focus on the promise and experience of pluralism in American culture.

“Performing Objects/Collecting Cultures,” taught by Professor Kaja McGowan, focused on the significance of Asian objects and their related “texts” within the field of art history during their weekly meetings at the Johnson. This spring, Professor McGowan and curator Ellen Avril are teaming up to teach a class, “Threads of Consequence,” in conjunction with the exhibition Weavers’ Stories that will provide students with the opportunity to organize a complementary exhibition of Southeast Asian textiles from the Johnson’s collection that will be on view this summer.

Responding to this increasing interest by faculty and students to participate in the unique learning experiences that only the Johnson can provide, the Museum staff is placing a new emphasis on semester-long courses. By introducing courses that connect research with practice, the Johnson is becoming an even more vital and valuable part of a uniquely Cornell education.