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campus scene

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Museum teaching crosses disciplines

Ever take a course where a museum show was an integral chunk of the syllabus? Well, welcome to Skidmore, where the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery is as much a part of the curriculum as the classrooms, science labs, and art studios.

Last semester, a dozen faculty members—from disciplines as diverse as studio art, English, American studies, art history, environmental studies, chemistry, and sociology—made vigorous use of the Tang exhibition Lives of the Hudson (as others will this semester) to augment their studies. An interdisciplinary celebration of the river marking the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage, it’s loaded with teaching tools: hundreds of objects and artworks large and small, geographical and historical, traditional and out-there. Imagine a sort of pedagogical toolbox, from which each teacher can dig out the objects, themes, and images best suited to a particular course’s needs.

Barbara Melville photo  
Pondering the Tang's Hudson River exhibit for a class assignment  
For Skidmore sociologist Rik Scarce, that toolbox seemed made to order for his freshman Scribner Seminar, “An Unsettled Place: 400 Years of Remaking the Hudson River Landscape.” Among his museum-based lessons was a midsemester mini-assignment: “Apply a theoretical viewpoint, from among those we read in the first weeks of class, to two of the works in the exhibition,” he told students gathered in the Tang lobby. “What insights into the works does your theory bring to light?”

Scarce’s students dutifully scattered, fetching up at Thomas Cole’s splendid 1825 oil painting Storm King of the Hudson, Yvonne Jaquette’s vivid contemporary painting of New York harbor, Michael Light’s large-scale photos of a heavily industrialized lower Hudson, or four plaque-mounted fish trophies—convincingly lifelike, except that they’re actually models cast by artists Bob Braine and Leslie Reed from river pollutants like road salt, toilet paper, and auto-paint pigments. What attracted Ellen Wallace ’13 was an 1857 American-primitive painting of the magnificent river steamboat Syracuse. Sitting crosslegged on the gallery floor in front of it, Wallace noted that the four formally dressed men on deck are gazing purposefully straight ahead, ignoring the scenery—as if they might be planning to cash in on the river’s natural bounty (an interpretation that reflected one of the course’s landscape theories.) Later, professor and students gathered in front of their choices to swap insights and compare theories. Scarce was pleased by how the show helped his students “broaden their grasp, deepen their historical understanding, and ‘travel’ farther in the Hudson region, with an immediacy we couldn’t otherwise experience.”

Students in “The Hudson: Science, Society, and Art,” taught by Skidmore chemist Judy Halstead, visited the museum three times, wrote two “response papers,” and attended the public talks related to the show. Skidmore sculptor Victoria Palermo urged her “Form and Space” students to mine the show for ideas for their final projects, and they came away with river-inspired plans involving media from leaves, sticks, and water to styrofoam, textiles, and stop-motion film.

Greg Pfitzer, the Douglas Family Professor in American studies, found that the show’s landscape paintings “complement the work we are doing in my ‘Hudson River Culture’ course on sublime and picturesque landscapes.” Kim Marsella, in environmental studies, used the exhibition as a venue for hosting the ES program’s annual welcoming reception and keynote lecture.

Not surprisingly, Skidmore English professor Tom Lewis also used the exhibition in his class “The Hudson River in American Life.” After all, Lewis co-curated the show with the Tang’s Malloy Curator Ian Berry, and Lewis’s 2005 book The Hudson: A History was required reading in several exhibition-based courses. An English faculty colleague, Alison Barnes, asked her students to imagine themselves invited to join the curatorial team of Lives of the Hudson and to propose (in essay form) a revision to the show—which would be one tough assignment. Just as it stands, the variety, juxtaposition, and sheer physical presence of the show’s objects and artworks offer what freshman Ellen Wallace calls “an opportunity to connect theories to something tangible, in an actual place.”

For Skidmore faculty, it’s that and more. As sociologist Scarce told his students, “It’s a gift to have a museum of this quality on campus”—and in the classroom too. —BM