Making the Most of Museum Visits
First Things First . . .
Faculty want art history students to have opportunities to engage directly with original art objects in museums or gallery settings. These experiences underscore the discipline’s central reliance on material objects as a primary source of inquiry, and reveal the underlying problems and implications of their use. Viewing artworks on display highlights important formal characteristics of many works of art and raises questions about art’s originality, value, preservation, and display. In concert with classroom based pedagogies, object-based learning demonstrates ways of knowing that may also be rooted in embodied and aesthetic experience, and calls attention to art history’s uneasy relationship with its primary object of study, which students most often explore through visual surrogates made possible by continuing advancements in technology.
But even though many communities have local museums, galleries, or artists spaces where students can experience real art, coordinating class visits present many instructional challenges. Below are some ideas for engaging (and effective) gallery-based activities for art history classes that AHTR has gathered over the years–many shared in our Facebook group’s discussions. We also encourage educators in higher education, as well as K-12 settings, to look to museum websites for additional learning resources and object-based learning methods that can be adapted to any student learning level. To contribute your own ideas and activities to this list, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Background and Preparation
Museums are great places to encourage close looking, conversational dialogue, and student-directed learning based in discovery and exploration! But, it’s best to resist the temptation to lead your class through the museum, stopping before specific objects and sharing your knowledge about their important. To make the most of the visit, allow (or assign) students to break into smaller groups, or to explore areas of the museum on their own. For evening classes or others offered when the museum is closed, have the students to go on their own. Here are some other suggestions:
- Prepare students for their visit beforehand by telling them reasons for the trip. What do you want them to gain from the experience? How should the experience contribute to the learning goals of your course? How will you follow up to find out about their experience in the museum? (ie: a class discussion; an assignment; etc.). Be transparent about your goals for the visit.
- Provide the students a prompt or assignment that will help focus their experience to support your goals. Scavenger hunts and worksheets can be great, but use these to encourage higher order thinking by asking students to develop their own connections to ideas learned in class, choose which objects they’ll spend time with and discuss, or use social media to share and amplify their discoveries to a broader audience.
Ideas, Suggestions, and Assignments
Object-based learning in the galleries
- Index cards can be your best friend at the museum! Use them for varied object-based assignments that you distribute in the galleries. For example, have students look for a designated time on their own and write down on their index card a question, an observation, a connection to class based on one object. Then share in a group discussion in the gallery (if there’s room) or in one of the museum’s public spaces. These can also be used as the basis for independent reflective writing assignments to collect in class.
- Try close looking activities, either as a group or independently. Have students look quietly at the same object for a sustained time and then each share one observation. Group them in twos or threes and choose a work in a gallery and talk about for 7 minutes. Give them a menu of possible conversation starters (ie: What’s the story here? How would you describe this object to someone who’s blind? How does this object compare to others that we have learned about in class?)
- Sketching activities in the galleries support close looking, encourage sustained focus, and are great to help students understand the need to experience sculptural and architectural forms from different points of view. You might also have students closely examine works in collections and then compare them to digital reproductions available through the museum’s website or posted online.
Museum-based Assignments and Research
- Ask students to notice, analyze, and evaluate curatorial decisions around museum display, organization of the collections, juxtapositions of objects in the galleries, and exhibition materials such as object labels and wall texts. This could be the basis of an assignment asking how they would create these elements to achieve different goals.
- Ask the students to think about where objects from different cultures or time periods are placed in the museum. Is it difficult or easy to find specific galleries? Have them analyze the juxtaposition of galleries on a map of the museum and consider how different pathways structure the visitor’s experience or might influence their understanding of art historical, cultural, and social relationships.
- Develop an assignment about the history of the museum itself. Have students research how or who established it, how the collection was acquired, its current mission, and how it engages with the community. While on site, have them consider why the building looks the way it does. Why is it located where it is? Who appears to be the museum’s primary audience? How do visitors engage with the museum, and how does the museum communicate information to its visitors?
- Assign a creative writing project inspired by the artworks or the museum setting. Consider assigning popular examples of art-based fiction as models and/or comparison to the writing and approach used in art historical scholarship.
- Assign a project to research or interview one of the curators or other museum staff.
- Assign students develop a blog post (with photographs) responding to a prompt about their visit to the museum. Have them review an exhibition, research a work of art on view, or comment about their observations and interactions with other visitors in the galleries.
- Prior to visiting a local museum, have students research and write about an object in the collection. (If materials aren’t available about the specific work, have them research a similar artist, movement, genre, object type, etc.) At the museum, let them present their findings to others in the class, or assign them to revise the paper based on direct observation of the object
In addition to the many museum websites that offer ideas, here are several resources for gallery teaching strategies that can be adapted to meet the objectives for different academic courses and learning levels.
See the section “Enjoying the Art,” in AHTR’s Lesson Plan: How to Visit a Museum–A guide for students”
Check out these and other museum-based teaching ideas on the AHTR Weekly (Search: Museums)
- Alexis Clark, “Writing Exhibition Reviews,” (2017)
- Alice Kain, “Object-Based Learning,” (2015)
- Erin McCutcheon, “Debating Cultural Appropriation,” (2018)
- Karen Shelby, “Bringing the Museum into the Classroom,” (2014)
- Elsie Smith, “Museum Object Portfolio Assignment,” (2014)
- Virginia Spivey, “Developing a Student Audioguide,” (2013)
Watch Lisa Mazzola share “Five Tips for Teaching with Works of Art” in this short video from MoMA Education
See lots of great ideas at ArtMuseumTeaching.com (Tag: Teaching Tools)
For a useful book on this topic, see Rika Burnham and Elliot Kai-Kee, Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011. (on Amazon)