Developing Student Expertise with Digital Resources from the NGA

In my own experience of museum and classroom-based teaching, I have found that an obstacle to continued arts education or the advancement of students beyond a survey level of art history is too often a function of pedagogy that doesn’t acknowledge or develop students’ ability to participate in the greater arts world. Asking students to look critically at the evolution of art requires a respect for individual perspective as well as an understanding of how those perspectives fit into the larger context of the arts world.  As someone who works to make learning through a museum’s collections possible on a national scale, a lot of my work comes down to providing and making accessible the tools and research that the public – which students in any context- might be able to use and build upon as an entry point into developing expertise within the arts.

Image Collections: NGA Images, the National Gallery of Art’s open access portal to nearly 50,000 public domain images from the museum’s wide-ranging collection, offers groupings of images, termed collections, unified by subject matter or medium. Access to high quality images is always cited as the most sought after resource offered by museums, and these collections are targeted at educators for inclusion in teaching. These image sets allow anyone to explore broad themes, such as self-portraiture, or depictions of nature, over a number of periods and movements. For ease of use, the pre-set collections—or other collections of images a user might create—can be downloaded into a Powerpoint presentation with the object information automatically embedded into the presentation notes.  While this is at first pass an obvious tool for lecturers, it can also be a tool for engaging students in making connections or analyzing critically– ask students to develop collections to present to their peers tracking the course of a theme, an idea, or a working practice, or alternatively, have students assess the existing image collections and determine what those collections are missing to represent more fully the topic or medium at hand.

Film Demonstrations: For the many students taking courses in art history who are not simultaneously taking studio courses, the understanding of various artistic processes is often a gap in developing a level of expertise that can be shared with others. For example, the complexity of the lost wax casting process can be difficult to grasp without experience, or the idiosyncrasies of working in metalpoint (see featured image) can be imperceptible in looking at a final product. Encouraging students to seek out and become familiar with a particular process through demonstrations on film is useful in developing an area of expertise that can be shared with peers. Similarly, encouraging students to seek out films that demonstrate, for example, conservation or exhibition practice can help to place the coursework in context and make more transparent the dialogue that is shaped by various arts professionals, and how that dialogue results in what is shown publicly.

Shared authorship: I am often considering the role that Wikipedia can play within teaching practice, particularly given the prominent role it plays in access to information. We are often asking students, particularly at the advanced level, to develop deep understandings of particular works or artists, with any original research that they might pursue having limited distribution beyond the classroom, digital or physical.  Asking students to author, or contribute authorship, to Wikipedia articles on under-covered or not yet covered works or artists is a rigorous exercise in supporting and synthesizing research to live in a public sphere.  This of course requires a not insignificant bit of specialized training, but it is an investment of time that both communicates the value of student research and the importance of participation in the greater arts world. There are many artists (including artists represented in the National Gallery’s own collection, such as American artist Edda Renouf or Czech artist Karel Vitezslav Masek) who have either a thin presence or none at all on Wikipedia. Supported by an instructor’s guidance and a network of peers, a student could build out and take ownership of a work or artist in which or whom they are invested.

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