The Out-of-Town Class Trip to the Museum
When I began teaching as a graduate student, it was in New York, and the resources of the city were at my fingertips. Every semester, I sent my students to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Frick, or the Brooklyn Museum, for the invaluable experience of seeing representative art from the course, in person. Although many of my students were born and raised New Yorkers, the majority had never been in an art museum, so I was thrilled with the opportunity to open this door to the city’s cultural offerings. At the time, the Met offered free admission to college students from my university, which made the experience easy and accessible. Students regularly visited the museum multiple times to complete assignments; I remember one student returned four times to work on his paper about Poussin’s Abduction of the Sabine Women.
Now, nearly ten years later, I am working full-time at a small liberal arts university in Scranton, Pennsylvania, nearly 2 ½ hours away from New York and Philadelphia. Major art collections remain within reach, but coordinating visits with students has become more complicated. Although Scranton currently has a rising art scene, it does not have an art museum, so students, many of whom are local to the Northeastern Pennsylvania region, do not have the regular opportunity to experience a comprehensive collection of art in a museum setting. Therefore, I am keenly aware of the invaluable experience of walking around the Archaic Kouros, standing in front of the Temple of Dendur, and marveling at the sculpted details of the Assyran Lamassu as it looms over you, despite the difficulties of organizing a field trip from Scranton to New York.
Although I understand the great benefits of this now mandatory field trip, students always need convincing, largely due to the fact that I take them away from school and work for an entire day, and that I must require them to pay for the bus to travel to New York. Most of my students, like many college students, do not have extra cash around, and I know that this can be a strain. However, after some enthusiastic descriptions of the trip, and a lot of promises on my part that it will be worthwhile, they get on board.
Since my university has a small Art History program, I am generally the sole full-time faculty member responsible for organizing the trip each semester, which I require for all students enrolled in the survey courses. And, since the trip generally includes 60-75 students, it is impossible for me to tour the museum with them. Instead, I send students off with an assignment that forces them to navigate the museum themselves and take time to look closely at works of art. In fact, I have found that this method gives students more opportunities to think independently and look closely at the objects, unimpeded by my thoughts and opinions.
I call the assignment a kind of scavenger hunt, with works of art from galleries throughout the museum to locate. I include a combination of objects that we have studied together in class, and other related works of art. So, I always want my Survey I students to see the Greek Geometric Krater, to recognize how large it really is, and to see that the painted details of male genitalia and female breasts that are barely visible in slides, are actually evident when viewed in person. I also challenge them to find a Hellenistic sculpture that we did not study in class and discuss how it does or does not fit the characteristics of that style category, as they understand it. For each object on the “scavenger hunt”, I ask that students comment on how the work of art appears different as they stand in front of it, in comparison to their experience seeing a reproduction, having prepped them that they should take the opportunity in the museum to look closely, to walk around three-dimensional objects, to reflect on size, and detail, and how the object relates to the viewer.
Unfortunately, there are some challenges faced by student groups travelling from outside the city to visit the Met these days. Officially, admission to the museum is by donation, with a suggested fee of $25 for adults and $12 for students. As we all know, $12 is more than many college students have on hand in the middle of the semester, and for a group like mine who is already paying to take a bus into the city, an added admission fee makes the trip essentially infeasible. So, the most reasonable option seems to be to have students pay what they can afford upon arrival, taking advantage of the pay by donation policy that is available to every other visitor to the museum. Unfortunately, things get even more complicated due to the Met’s group admission policy, which requires that all groups register as such, and that students from groups pay $10 each. (The donation policy does not apply to groups.) My solution was to avoid entering as a group, as I knew I would not be herding students through the museum, would not be asking permission to lecture in the galleries, and would not be inconveniencing other visitors with our large group moving as such through the space. So, my students and I entered as individuals, paid individually, and moved through the museum individually. This, too, according to the Met, is not appropriate. (I discovered this when a representative from the group admissions desk stopped 6 or 7 of my students on their way in and questioned them.) According to group admissions, ANY group, whether entering together or not, must register as a group and pay the admission as such. This seems to me an arbitrary rule that places unfair regulations on students, and inhibits institutions such as mine from bringing their students to visit the collection, a collection which is meant to be available to the public, regardless of ability to pay.
Fortunately, the challenges of organizing these trips to the Met are largely overshadowed by the overwhelmingly positive response of students, comments including, “This place is like heaven on earth!” and “Can we come back every semester?” My greater fear is that the difficulties of entering could make a negative impression on a young student who then may not choose to benefit independently from the intended accessibility of the museum.