Museums Offer a Wealth of Educational Resources

16 Apr 2007

0702museum5_600x450_1Teachers of all grade levels and subjects can use museum resources to enhance their curriculum.

by Erica Yonks

African Mask
2006, 10th grade,
charcoal and pencil.

During a unit on the art
and history of West Africa,
students drew from figure sculptures
in the Africa gallery at the
Brooklyn Museum to question
the cultureâ??s renderings of the human form.
What can you infer about
a culture by the way its art
references the human body?

All cultures generate visual artboth functional and decorativethat serves, if it lasts, as an historic record of those societies. Examining such objects and artifacts with students makes the history come alive and immediately renders it more accessible. Firsthand experiences, such as studying objects and questioning and analyzing what they see, allow students to imagination, excitement, and a third dimension to their knowledge.

Tips for bringing students to museums:

*Pre-visit and map out your visit! Know where the objects/paintings are, and have back up plans ready. Be open-minded, as there will be unpredictable circumstances that can create great learning opportunities!

*Discuss museum etiquette and appropriate behavior.

*Bring plenty of everything: extra handouts, pencils, sharpeners, drawing paper, charcoal, Conté crayons, etc.

*Prepare your students with an introduction to the material, the museum, the new vocabulary words, and the museum jargon.

*Plan for restroom breaks; use a buddy system for older students or set aside scheduled time for younger ones.

*Suggest that students carry the least amount of items to ensure they remain comfortablecheck all bags and coats. Students should have only a hardcover binder (to keep handouts, maps, schedules, and drawings), a hard surface to work on, and pencils. (Cameras when allowed.)

*When riding on public transportation, we require students to read a book or novel silently.

The New York City Museum School (NYCMS), in Manhattan, is a unique program that takes advantage of the city's diverse institutes and uses them as primary sources for core classes. Learning in both classrooms and museums helps students perform well on exams and standardized tests that evaluate their knowledge through use of document-based questioning. "Instead of merely relying on textbooks or images of museum objects, students are able to obtain unparalleled access to the very artifacts that historians, scientists, artists, and other researchers have used to create those textbooks," says Joel Lowy, an administrator at NYCMS. "Students find themselves in a position of inquiry and investigation when in front of the real artifact, whereas in a classroom they are more likely to be spoon-fed by a textbook or other static resource. Since I began teaching in a school that is founded on museum exploration, I can't imagine it any other way. Developing a curriculum around this type of inquiry-based instruction is always student-centered and engaging."

Another benefit beyond encouraging art appreciation and art criticism is that firsthand observation provides students a variety of inspirations for their own artwork. While studying the Renaissance, for instance, my students and I used The Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum to not only look at paintings and sculpture from the time period but also to use the space for figure drawing. During that particular section, students spent time over a period of eight weeks at the museums seeing firsthand the richness of the oil paint, the complexity of perspective, and the humanity apparent in such masterpieces as The Adoration of the Shepherds, completed shortly after 1450 by Andrea Mantegna, and The Birth of the Virgin, done in 1467 by Fra Carnevale.

Use of Purple 2006, 10th grade,
tempera paint.

We looked at and discussed the sketches
from an Earth Science unit
to develop abstract paintings.
Students looked at rocks,
minerals, and images of the
Earthâ??s surface. Students
then discussed which art
elements and principles they
noticed and brainstormed how
to transition them into paintings.

The Renaissance unit was executed simultaneously with the 10th-grade figure-drawing class. Students were first introduced to the concepts of figure-drawingand made their first attempts at itbefore visiting the European sculpture gallery at The Metropolitan Museum. In that instance it was useful to not only see the museum's art but also to spend time in the museum's superior spaces. That particular gallery is a cavernous space with very high glass windows and high ceilings. In it students have ample space to spread out and use one another to pose for warm-up exercises and gesture drawings. After several warm-ups students then select statues to use as their subject matter. Each week we revisited the gallery, and the students used the same statues for new observational drawings. Students built upon the previous week's experience with the object and were able to explore it with new media.

Exposing students firsthand to art objects also allows for self-discovery and creates an environment in which the independent artist develops. In New York City, in particular, there is a limitless amount of free art for students to examine. Simply exposing them to free nights at museums and many wonderful art-gallery exhibitions often inspires them to start projects that expand outside the classroom. During a recent discussion of pop art and graphic design, I introduced students to Roy Lichtenstein. I mapped out a few select galleries in our neighborhood?Chelseathat had Lichtenstein painting, prints, and sculptures. Students then sketched what they witnessed and used those sketches to create small pop art paintings. Many students were overheard making comments on "how cool it is that you can just walk into any gallery."

Tips for observational
drawing in museums:

*The drawing should be close to
the edge of the paper so the edges frame
the drawing. The complete object should
be drawn. Capture lots of specific details to
provide evidence of close observation.

*Use a full range of values.

*The white of the paper should only
be for the highlighted areas
of the object, which show
evidence of a light source.

*Label information

This teaching method is helpful not only for history and arts but for the physical and life sciences as well. Ninth-grade students, for example, often frequent the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), in New York City. There students observe animals in replications of their natural habitats during academic units on subjects such as evolution and biodiversity. AMNH takes painstaking care to accurately capture the habitats of the animals they display: artists make extensive on-site sketches, oil paintings, and three-dimensional models of the environments before they precisely replicate the animals' natural surroundings. The animals and their movements and anatomy are also taxidermied to appear as realistic as possible. Students render sketches, colored drawings, and observations week after week to research, question, and analyze what they notice. This work culminates with presentations of their understanding through debate on creationism versus evolution. We also use these drawings to develop watercolor, ink drawing, and printmaking techniques in the art room. Animals have always been a source of inspiration, and the same connection cannot be achieved by looking only at a book.

Students then present their debate on creationism versus evolution in the museum in the presence of administration, staff, family, and friends. Visitors to the presentations are consistently impressed by students' knowledge, articulation, and ability to answer off-the-cuff questions. The close observation through drawings and written observations, both subjective and objective, also encourages students to infer ideas and develop questions that will further their research. By taking advantage of the museum's resources, students have an opportunity to observe animals in their natural habitats without the travel expense! The same exposure cannot be achieved by simply reading textbooks and listening to lectures. "Museum objects are excellent tools for instruction because they make the learning process accessible to all students,"? says Kelly Donoghue, ninth-grade teacher at NYCMS. "Anyone can form opinions and ask questions about works of art. Those questions then lead to curiosity, research, inferences, and eventually deeper understanding. It's an amazing process."

Museum visits are not the only way to experience primary sources firsthand. Teachers can bring to the classroom objects found in everyday life to connect students to history, art, and science. During a unit on volcanoes, for instance, a teacher brought in sample lava rocks. Students used their skills of observation to create drawings that demonstrated their close attention to detail. Through these observations students were able to question what they saw and analyze how the objects were created. These questions developed into ideas for further research that the students then pursued to follow up on their initial investigations into volcanic science. Their research and sketches were also used to develop ideas for large tempera paintings, for which the textures, colors, and shapes that the students noticed were discussed.

0702museum2_600x467 0702museum3_600x494 0702museum4_600x455
Oh! Dear
2006, 10th grade, tempera paint.
2006, 10th grade, tempera paint.
Two Blondes
2006, 10th grade, tempera paint.
The galleries in Chelsea display fun, contemporary art and, because of their free admission, allow students to walk in and explore the works. This makes for perfect homework assignments for high-school art studentsâ??especially over a long break. Assignments can range from critical essays and sketch work to larger scale projects.

Museum visits should be structured around observation, inquiry, research, synthesis, analysis, presentation, and reflection. These visits take place a few times a week, during which students work in galleries and classrooms at the partner museums. Observational drawings, which force students to learn how to look, should be assigned regularly. By looking closely at an object, students begin to question what they see and therefore to question the object and the culture in which it was created. They begin to ask questions about what they are looking for and learn not to rely solely on lectures and textbooks as their information sources.

To help students develop their skills of observation, ask open-ended questionsthese questions can inspire student-run conversation and dialogue. Ask questions that prompt students to think about the objectthis questioning will lead to the development of research topics and further understanding of the context. It is helpful to allow students to select their own objectswithin limitsso they feel personally connected to the object and maintain a sense of control.

Erica Yonks is a high school art teacher at the New York City Museum School, in Manhattan, and holds a Master of Science degree in art education from the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn.

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