Bringing the Museum to AP Art History—a Model for Collaboration

The Challenge

In 2015-16, the College Board rolled out its redesigned AP Art History course.  The new curriculum moved away from a largely Western and Eurocentric curriculum to a more holistic understanding of art history from a global perspective.  As a high school teacher, the difficulty inherent to this new curriculum revolved not only around the many objects added to the course, but also my limited knowledge about the customs, conventions, and cosmologies reflected in the art of unfamiliar cultures,  now included in the course, and my (in)ability to access resources that support me and my students. Now into the second year of the revised curriculum,  I find myself enjoying my expanded art history palette and have grown more confident in my “art historical” abilities—yet, I still wondered how best to leverage the course in order to give my students the life-altering impact art history had given me.

While the course objective to pass the AP test in May is integral to my students’ goals and aspirations, it seems incredibly underwhelming as a teacher.  I want my students to learn  to use art in their daily (and academic) lives; to question, converse, and seek out new curiosities; and to expand and deepen their own world view.  As a classroom teacher I feel these outcomes, along with passing the AP test, will allow my students to experience the power, majesty, and awe that resides within the realm of art.

The Partnership

With that vision, and a public teacher’s resources, I searched for partners.  The Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) had previously collaborated on a lecture series aimed at helping AP Art History teachers introduce the revised curriculum, and they had opened their galleries for professional development and class tours. When I approached them about supporting my class objectives, they became willing partners.  Laura Decker, Coordinator of Educator Programs at the UMFA, studied the new curriculum and saw exciting opportunities for students to observe and reflect on cultures from around the world, and together we developed a year-long plan to integrate the museum’s resources into my class.  

As part of Bingham High School’s collaboration with the UMFA,  museum educators will visit my class three times (once during each grading period) to bring examples from their collection.  The UMFA is fortunate to have a traveling, hands-on teaching collection that allows real art objects into the school classroom.  In collaboration with AP Art History teachers across Utah, the museum curated a selection of these works, such as a Chokwe mask, a blue-on-white Chinese porcelain vase, and a selection of Buddha sculptures from three distinct cultures, that directly relate to the AP’s 250 image-set. 90 minute presentations on themes such as “the human world” and “the supernatural and mythological realm” will allow students an arena to experience art objects across cultures. The opportunity to handle these objects–seeing and smelling them in real life–helps students contextualize and solidify their understanding of concepts traditionally studied through two-dimensional slides.  By experiencing the tangible qualities of scale, technique, form, and function, students can better analyze why artists make certain choices and what these choices tell us about the the people and cultures for whom these objects were made.

Other highlights this year include:

  • a field trip to the UMFA for a “behind the scenes” tour where students will experience firsthand the conservation and installation of art objects to the wider public, as well as learn about career opportunities in museums and art history;
  • a field trip and meetup with UMFA staff at Spiral Jetty (one of the AP’s required 250 that is within driving distance for my students);
  • the students will organize an exhibition, including reproductions and objects on loan from the UMFA traveling collection, to complement the art history curriculum for the surrounding elementary schools.

The Big Picture

Aside from anecdotes and the look in the students’ eyes that we’d love to use as evidence of a successful partnership, we will instead compare the final AP scores with last year’s results.  We will also measure the effectiveness of site visits and field trips, using surveys focused on their impact and reflective opportunities they provided.  Another important indicator of success will be the students’ ability to create a meaningful art experience for the larger community at the local elementary school. This exposure will increase the visibility of art within our community and support the missions of both the UMFA and Bingham High School’s AP Art History program. We look forward to reporting on our accomplishments, as well as areas that we will improve in the future.  

Beyond the goals for this year, however, we are especially interested in how this thematic and hands-on approach to global art history will affect students’ appreciation of diversity, and how it might influence their interactions, empathy, and love for each other throughout their lives. By allowing art objects to become more than something to be looked at on a screen, we feel that students will not only do better on the AP test, but that their engagement with art will be forever altered.


Editors note: Be sure to check out AHTR’s resources for AP Art History


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