Building a Teaching Materials Collection
Many of us become art historians because we love the materiality of things—the solid heft and feel of objects, the way that time marks its slow passage across their surfaces. We are seduced by the sharp scent of limestone in a medieval cathedral, the warp and weft of red silk damask decorating the walls of a 17th-century chateau, the weight of a marble hand heavy in our own. Yet in the classroom we so often limit ourselves to presenting the decontextualized and spectral trace of these same works—offering students an image in lieu of an artwork.
This fall, with the help of my college’s Visual Resources Librarian, Allan Kohl, I set out to explore how we might bring this missing materiality into the classroom. At the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, we are privileged to have the rich and varied resources of a world-class museum literally at our doorstep—the Minneapolis Institute of Art serves as an invaluable extension of our campus. Yet even visits to an art museum can offer little in the way of touch, taste, scent, or sound when it comes to appreciating works of art. By creating the Teaching Materials Collection, we hoped to highlight the sensory qualities of works in order to provide an opportunity for experiential learning, one that invites exploration through both touch and close looking. Materials such as Egyptian papyrus, Byzantine tesserae (the gift of a generous restorer working on the murals at San Vitale), and pages from an illuminated manuscript thus offer a rare opportunity for first-hand observation of the physical properties of art works.
As an art historian, I often focus on the finished product, understanding artworks in aesthetic terms, but my students are just as fascinated by the process of making itself. Our collection thus also includes a range of raw materials such as marble, wool, obsidian, and the raw pigments needed to make paint in the Renaissance (thanks to a generous loan from the Kress Foundation) [see an example of a Kress Pigment_Kit].
Discussing these historical materials and the tools and techniques used to shape them provides students with models for their own work in the studio. As Michael Baxandall famously demonstrated, however, the right kind of blue can also tell us quite a bit about what it meant to be an artist working in 15th-century Italy, for example. In the classroom, I often pair materials from the collection with short videos on techniques such as carving marble—those produced by the Getty Museum and the Khan Academy in particular are quite useful.
Our collection also includes several small-scale replicas, including a hand-painted Greek lekythos and an exact model of the Venus of Willendorf—holding the tiny figure in your hand makes all the difference in understanding its intimate and mysterious appeal. The usefulness of the Teaching Materials Collection is not limited to the study of objects from distant historical eras, however. As we continue to develop the collection, we hope that objects such as a camera obscura (currently under construction by a colleague), daguerreotypes, a Claude glass, and a stereoscope viewer will provide insight into changing modes of visuality in the modern world.
The Teaching Materials Collection began with a generous bequest by my colleague, Allan Kohl, who collected many of the items on his travels in Europe. Those seeking to establish a similar collection might consider not only soliciting donations from colleagues past and present, but also exploring the resources offered by museum gift shops, local studios and workshops, flea markets, and online auction sites. The collection is housed at our campus library for all instructors to use and is also available to students who wish to consult the materials on their own.
An informal poll of students in my survey class brought to light the usefulness of this kind of collection for teaching. Many students emphasized the tactile quality of the objects presented, for example, noting the way in which handling the materials allowed them to study the tool marks made by the artist and to imagine what it might be like to create a similar object. Others remarked that they had never before seen or touched materials such as marble. One student observed that holding a page from an illuminated manuscript “makes it more real instead of from the world of the dead,” reminding us that the allure of artworks is deeply tied to their unique status as objects that connect the past and the present. By bringing these materials—and materiality itself—into the classroom, I hope to do the same.
[Editor’s note: For those in the New York City area, The Rubin Museum of Art offers hands-on workshops for K-12 curriculum that can be adapted for university visits. The Children’s Museum of Brooklyn loans portable cases that instructors can use in the classroom.]
 See Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy, 1st edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972).