From the AHTR Archives: Engaging AP Art History Students at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum

Editors’ note: This post originally appeared in December 2016 as part of AHTR’s ongoing effort to support educators in AP Art History and other K-12 learning settings. Please contact us at if you’re interested in contributing your experiments and ideas for art history instruction to high school students. 


The redesigned AP Art History curriculum, which debuted for the May 2016 APAH exam provides an excellent opportunity for student engagement with a local museum’s collection. The curriculum encourages this relationship by specifically referencing the importance of museum visits as a part of formal assessment and contextual analysis. Like other APAH teachers I am excited to explore the relationship between the artwork I am teaching in my two APAH classes and seeing students experience related works at a museum. Even though the Speed Art Museum is just a ten-minute walk from my classroom in Louisville KY, it closed in 2012 for a 60-million dollar renovation and expansion, reopening in March 2016. So, in August 2016, I essentially had a new museum to embrace and a reasonably new APAH curriculum to navigate. I needed expert help—and some of my APAH teaching dreams have come true, as I have now have an action plan to guide and shape my classroom visits to the museum.

I started by arranging a visit with Shannon Karol, Teaching and Engagement Manager at the Speed Museum. I was delighted when Shannon assured me that she and the museum would be eager to help. She created an amazing document “Links Between APAH Curriculum and the Speed Collection.”  Shannon’s document worked in a couple of ways, it paired  artists and works from the APAH image set of 250 core objects  from the Speed’s collection such as Albrecht Durer’s print of Saint Eustace, Cindy Sherman’s Sevres soup tureen and Yinka Shonibare’s Three Graces. The document also contained broader links that compared objects, artworks, genres, and related artists such as a photo and a painting of the Great Sphinx, a painting by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, who shared royal patrons with image set artist Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun and a Painted Elk Hide. The “Links” can easily be utilized for course preparation, future visits to the museum, and they can help instigate and guide individualized student research.

For our visit, Shannon prepared a lesson exploring themes of “Death and Burial” which aligned with classwork in the Ancient Mediterranean and African content areas. Shannon designed stops in five areas of the Speed for activities crafted with various pedagogical techniques involving open ended questions and discussions, active listening and looking, and investigative work that drew on course content.

Our visit started in front of Roman cinerary urns and a 3rd century sarcophagus. Shannon divided students into two groups and encouraged them to “think like archaeologists,” asking them ”What clues do these items reveal to us about burial practices in Ancient Rome?” Shannon’s teaching style was thoughtful and engaging, and she encouraged students’ visual analysis as they discussed the symmetry of the urns, their “house like” appearance, the inscriptions, and that the Speed’s sarcophagus had a simpler design compared to the crowded figures in the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus from the APAH image set.  

Reviewing the materials, iconography, and context of the Speed’s sarcophagus generated comments about the use of stone compared to the terra cotta used for the Etruscan Sarcophagus of the Spouses from the image set. A student standing in front of the Roman sarcophagus asked, “Was there actually a dead person in here or is this a replica?” Shannon assured him that “Everything at the Speed is an original work of art.” Suddenly, the abstraction of looking at an image on a powerpoint or in a book was replaced with the “realness” of seeing it up close. This question highlights the importance and context of students seeing actual artwork and having history become alive.

“Stop Two” was in front of the sarcophagus lid for an Egyptian scribe and the Speed’s statue of a scribe. Shannon prompted students to discuss the role of scribes, burial practice, and other aspects of Egyptian culture, and how objects can indicate status. Standing in front of canopic jars, Shannon explained mummification, canopic jars, amulets and ushabti in a much more expansive manner than I could ever do. Students marveled at the canopic jar lids, which were sculpted animal deities.

Seated upstairs in the European gallery at “Stop Three” in front of Frederick Arthur Bridgman’s oil painting The Funeral of the Mummy, we were introduced to the pedagogical technique of  “slow looking.” Slow looking encourages patience, fostering a deeper analysis and viewer connection with a work of art. After some time while we got used to “just” sitting and looking, Shannon encouraged dialogue and the group discussed Egyptology and the artist’s apparent research, preparation, and various details in the painting.

Visiting a wooden Gabon reliquary figure from the 19th ‑ 20th century and a 14th century gilded copper French reliquary at “Stop Four,” Shannon facilitated a comparative discussion of the visual features and differing historical and cultural contexts of the two objects. She also encouraged a larger discussion comparing these reliquaries to the other burial objects. Ancestor veneration, migration, patronage, and spirituality were among topics discussed. Students observed differences of materials, size and portability, the figural stylization and coiffure of the Fang figure compared to the figure on the sarcophagus lid, and architectural details of the Roman and French objects.

Shannon created methods for investigating artwork that were interesting and interactive. Her art historical toolbox included analysis of iconography, content, context, and materials, slow looking, comparison, and some brief unscheduled time for students to experience the museum. Meanwhile, back in my classroom, I have used Shannon’s questioning strategies as we start new units to generate student led discussion and presentations.

The most important and inspiring thing I learned from the museum visit was witnessing my student’s genuine excitement at seeing actual art. I am looking forward to more visits with Shannon at the Speed Museum. I have been encouraging other AP Art History teachers to reach out and see what happens when they approach an institution for help. The multilayered APAH curriculum lends itself to adaptability. If a teacher doesn’t have an art museum nearby, communities have many other local galleries, universities, museums, and historic and educational sites with objects, collections and staff that are willing and eager to share their resources and enthusiasm.

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