Exploring Multimodal Learning at the Rubin Museum of Art
Guest author: Laura Lombard
As Manager of University Programs & Partnerships at the Rubin Museum of Art, New York, I work closely with faculty to develop curricular connections and customized gallery experiences inspired by our collections. One of the aspects I love most about my job is brainstorming the ways object-based learning can enliven and enrich learning experiences inside and outside the classroom.
The Rubin Museum of Art is home to an outstanding collection of Hindu and Buddhist sacred art from northern India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia. As a museum educator, I help students and educators explore the ideas, cultures and philosophies of this art within a traditional Himalayan context and then apply these same concepts to contemporary life and ideas.
Along with these duties, I teach courses in Comparative Religion, Museum Studies, and Visual Culture at Eugene Lang College The New School of Liberal Arts. One course I taught in the fall of 2010 for their Religious Studies Program was particularly rich with multimodal forms of learning. It was inspired by Embodying the Holy: Icons in Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism, an exhibition at the Museum that compared Greek, Russian, and Byzantine Christian Orthodox icons with traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangkas.
During the course, we compared and contrasted Christian and Buddhist iconography, the development of religious symbolism and narrative, as well as materials and techniques, through multiple Museum visits. During the semester, the students developed their own student-led gallery talks by comparing and contrasting two works of art, wrote a research paper about the artwork, and then created a personal icon about a person or concept important to them.
To help them understand how the sacred art on view was made, we watched two films that I highly recommend: Mystic Vision, Sacred Art: Tibetan Thangka painting in Kathmandu Valley, by Raju Gurung and Anne Kaufman, and Logos Emmanuel: For Beginners, created by the Prosopon School Iconology, featuring the master iconographer, Vladislav Andrejev.
For their mid-semester assignment, each student prepared a 15-minute gallery talk that compared and/or contrasted two works of art presented to their peers at the museum. The gallery talks involved conducting research, storytelling, public speaking, and group evaluations. Some of the most popular themes addressed were the Divine Feminine, Mandalas and Geometric Forms, and conceptions of the after life as envisioned through the lens of Orthodox Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism. To help prepare for their talks, the students had access to online resources at our website—such as the exhibition In-Gallery Object Guide and Audio Tour—which are still available here.
After their gallery talks, the students wrote a research paper about their works of art, as well as two pieces of choice not included in the exhibition. For their paper assignment, they examined what it means for a work of art to be iconic—religiously, socially, and personally. I was impressed by the clarity of their writing and thoughtful research, which may have been the result of learning how to engage deeply with works of art during their talks.
For the final assignment, the students created a personal icon that could be representational, symbolic, narrative, or performance-based. One student, a senior, made a fantastic 3-D mandala illustrating his journey as a college student. He assembled a rich array of found objects, such as lazy Susan for the base (it was round and turned), pieces of wood, plastic figurines, and collaged photos and text. Other student icons included diverse personalities and themes from Catholic saints, to Rosa Parks, to concerns about the destruction of the environment with the world, itself, serving as icon.
A word of caution: during their gallery talks, the students created way too many categories for evaluating each other with ease. There were fourteen categories, such as pacing, body posture, narrative content, ritual function, materials, and personal reflections. As a result, the students spent too much time looking down at their evaluation sheets and not enough time looking at the presenter. In the future, I would limit the categories to no more than five or six and ask the students to help select the ones that are most important.