Into the Archives!

Last semester I decided to take 80 Intro to World Art students to do archival research. To many teachers, this might sound a bit crazy. So what possessed me? For one, I have always taught with primary sources, so why not take it one step further? Second, while my main goal is to teach art history, I think it’s also valuable to expose students to what art historians do. That means studying objects through their historical traces.


At first they freaked out. The task was foreign.

They were intimidated by Special Collections and overwhelmed by the volume of material. Mainly they worried it would be too hard. But they proved themselves wrong and astonished me with their hard work and good results. I have never given out so many A’s. Most significant, as it turned out, they learned things I didn’t teach them, indeed, things I could not have taught them.


The instructions were simple:

look at an architectural site, review its archives, and write a report of 3-4 pages. The “site” was the Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral of Learning on Pitt’s campus. Beginning in the late 1920s, these rooms were designed to represent Pittsburgh’s various immigrant groups, using designs, materials and techniques from their “national” cultural traditions. Students could pick one of four rooms (decided by me in advance; the Greek room was particularly popular) and select one of four prompts for their report. Each prompt was designed to fit a particular archives’ contents, but they were equally typical art-historical queries, which could reasonably apply to any monument:

1. why did the Nationality Room decision-makers select the particular design they did?
2. what was the procedure or process by which the Nationality Room committee selected the design that it did?
3. select one document that you think is particularly important to understanding the Nationality Room committee’s goals, aims or hopes for the room.
4. explain a conflict or challenge that emerged in the course of construction the Nationality Room of your choice.

A final question asked students to reflect on their experiences. This assignment was worth 15% of their final grade.

The responses amazed me. It was fascinating to see what different students did with the same material. In some cases, the differences between interpretations were substantial. Dominant and marginal readings also emerged. For example, while many students picked up on the internal politics between members of one Nationality Room committee, two students independently identified an external conflict, between the committee and the university itself. The subtlety and originality of these readings impressed me.

But the personal reflection section was the most amazing part. It was full of insights that students had arrived at through their own initiative, independently of my goals. For example,

* greater media and information literacy, registering the novelty of analog information, in contrast to the usual experience of Google searching. Archival materials struck them as richer, more authoritative, and more human than anything they were used to. One student said it was like having “3-D Internet”!

*  research skills. To overcome frustrations, they developed strategies such as skimming documents, reading for certain names or dates, or beginning with packets of documents that were all bound together—reasoning (often correctly) that they are probably related.

* cultural appreciation. Many expressed respect, awe and empathy for the Nationality Rooms’ creators. One student called their achievement “monumental.”


For their personal reflection section, I had asked students to consider how they might apply their skills/insights in their own disciplines. Here again, the answers were so original, I could never have anticipated them. A biology major and aspiring science journalist learned the value of going directly to the source. A pre-med student recognized the importance of rigorous record-keeping, which he promised to practice in the future. Some of the sharpest insights came from engineering majors, who discovered that human factors impact design, since large-scale building projects inevitably involve diverse stakeholders. Across all disciplines there was universal agreement that the assignment was worthwhile. They had discovered new uses for the past.

As for myself, I discovered that I had inadvertently allowed students to craft their own individualized learning experiences. They learned things I could never have taught them—things I didn’t even know they could learn. By crafting a “discovery” experience (and with the help of wonderful library staff) they could teach themselves.


For many students, archival research was a novel experience. Many used words like “exciting” and “refreshing” to describe it. One student wrote, “I think there is something to be said about hands on activities such as this one. Being able to look at documents and do research for yourself is very fulfilling, and provides an outlook to [sic] the information that is not found anywhere. It almost puts you right in the situation that you’re learning about, and I found that fascinating.”


2 responses to “Into the Archives!”

  1. Marie Gasper-Hulvat says:

    I love this idea! What a fantastic project. Thank you for sharing — great inspiration for more hands-on art history/archival projects.

  2. Karen Leader says:

    I sent this article to our Special Collections librarian and now she is all fired up to craft something for our students. Thanks Alex and AHTR for another inspiring piece.

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