The Museum is your Classroom--Online

February 10, 2021
Student leans over to better study a piece of art at the Harvard Art Museums

The Bok Center has been excited to collaborate with the Harvard Art Museums to bring ideas and strategies for teaching with museum collections to faculty and Teaching Fellows through a series of workshops and, for the first time this spring, a Bok Seminar. What started as an independent session run by Jen Thum (Assistant Director of Academic Engagement and Assistant Research Curator, Harvard Art Museums) at the Fall Teaching Conference in 2019 quickly turned into an ongoing conversation with Rebecca Brown (Assistant Director, Graduate Student Programming at the Bok Center) about engaging more of the Harvard community in teaching with museum collections. Faculty and Teaching Fellows from across the disciplines have found engaging with the wealth of resources available at the museums to provide an array of benefits to students, including providing new and varied forms of evidence for students to analyze, giving tangible expression to abstract ideas, and offering a space to practice and hone observational skills.

Jen Thum looks up at a 9 foot tall Jackson Pollock painting while facilitating a workshop at the Harvard Art Museums.Rebecca and Jen collaborated to offer their first joint workshops for TFs in January and March 2020, where they were still able to take advantage of teaching in the museum building. Participants engaged with the museums’ 9-foot-tall Jackson Pollock drip painting, considered the relationships between objects from the 18th-Century Atlantic World, and used drawing and writing exercises to delve deeper into selected works in the Art Study Center.

Shortly after this workshop, the university went remote, and the museums, like the Bok Center, pivoted and found new ways to engage with students and teachers from a distance. This included Rebecca and Jen’s work of creating forums for instructors to experience new ways of engaging with objects and collections that they could share with their students in turn. Their first in-person workshop consequently morphed into an interactive online workshop, which focused on engaging with the museums’ collections online and modeling strategies for slow looking in a virtual environment.

The online venue made it possible to look at and practice with works not on view in the museums as well as to more easily bring in additional materials to supplement participants’ observations. For example, the workshop featured a series of photographs by Wendy Red Star, new acquisitions not yet on view, and both still images and video of the Light Prop for an Electric Stage by László Moholy-Nagy. Rebecca, Jen, and Laura Muir (Associate Director of Academic and Public Programs and Louis Miller Thayer Research Curator, Harvard Art Museums) developed this workshop for faculty and graduate students across the university in July and August 2020.

Rebecca Brown discusses a Lazlo Moholy-Nagy art piece over Zoom.

In January of 2021, after a full semester of teaching online, Jen, Rebecca, and Laura revisited their summer workshop and expanded the discussion across museums to include Lainie Schultz (Academic Partnerships Coordinator, Peabody Museum) and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Teaching via Zoom has afforded the opportunity to bring disparate collections, ideas, and people into conversations that otherwise might not be possible, and this expanded collaboration has proved especially fruitful and inspiring for participants and facilitators alike. Faculty, Teaching Fellows, and instructors should look out for future offerings of this session during summer 2021.

The iterations on their initial partnership continue this spring. Jen and Rebecca are offering a Bok Seminar, Teaching Remotely with Museum Collections Across Disciplines, in which Teaching Fellows will experience, practice, and share even more strategies for engaging students in close looking and begin building their own repository of objects and methods to integrate into their teaching. Registration is still open, and Teaching Fellows from all disciplines are encouraged to join!

Whether or not you’re able to join us for a workshop or Bok Seminar, interested faculty and Teaching Fellows can be in touch regarding future interdisciplinary collaborations with the Harvard Art Museums with Laura Muir (email) and Jen Thum (email). Any Harvard instructor can register for our Hit the Ground Running Canvas site, where you can find a recording of our plenary session at the Fall Teaching Conference, Teaching Remotely with Images and Objects Across Disciplines, along with additional resources. Graduate students inspired to learn more about teaching with objects, or who have any other teaching-related questions, can sign up for a time to meet with Rebecca Brown.