Kevin Sorrow, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Georgia, passes by the Georgia Museum of Art, located in the historic quadrangle of the university, every day on his way to class or downtown Athens. Although he had been curious about the museum since he started his college career over six months ago, he never found the time to peruse its galleries until his Freshman English instructor arranged a tour for his class. “I liked the tour a lot,” commented Sorrow. “I had no idea that the exhibits changed or even what was in here until my class came here as a group.”
Like most university-affiliated museums in the United States, the Georgia Museum of Art, in its mission statement, has designated the immediate academic community as its primary target audience. The task of reaching the university community seems relatively simple, considering the fact that there are more than 28,000 students roaming this campus and only one art museum. But, despite the surplus of students and lack of significant competition, drawing university students into the museum remains one of the most difficult challenges the Department of Education faces. In fact, it is almost easier to serve elementary and secondary school groups, senior citizens, and families, all of whom are eager to take advantage of the museum as a free, educational community resource.
There may be several reasons why more students attending the University of Georgia never venture into the museum, including heavy courseloads, part-time employment, and active social lives. Curriculum-structured tours, catered specifically to academic needs, have become the route for creating greater student visitation.
The museum’s education department developed curriculum-structured tours targeting Freshman English classes. Because over 80 sections of Freshman English are taught at the university each quarter, the museum’s education staff considered this course the best vehicle of reaching the most students. In theory, if each section of Freshman English visits the museum, the majority of incoming students, regardless of major, will have at least visited the museum once during their educational careers. Some students may even be exposed for the first time to the idea of art, art history, or museum studies as potential majors. But most importantly, with the curriculum-structured museum tour, each student has the opportunity to make correlations between literature and the visual arts.
During the fall of 1993, the Department of Education toured over 30 Freshman English classes through the special exhibition American Impressionism in Georgia Collections. The students, many of whom were visiting a museum for the first time, looked at paintings first from a literary perspective and then from an art history perspective. Docents used terms familiar to English students – – character, setting, narrative, mood, or plot to analyze paintings.
For example, in the portrait by Isabel Vernon Cook of an unidentified woman entitled A Thoughtful Moment, students discussed the sitter’s character: her slumped shoulders and fidgeting hands conveyed insecurity; her slightly ducked chin gave her the appearance of being shy. As they investigated the work further, the students responded to questions such as. What is the sitter’s mood? disposition? social status? purpose? How does the colorful, floral background influence your interpretation of her character? Why do you think she posed for this portrait?
Likewise, students looked at landscapes, such as Fall in New England by William Lester Stevens, in terms of setting. They contemplated questions such as: How has the artist described this place? What times of year and day are represented? How has the artist invited viewers into the painting? Each analysis of a painting in literary terms leads to a discussion of the painting in the visual arts vocabulary of light, color, composition, and artistic technique. One of the primary aims of the tour is to help students realize what similarities are inherent in the visual arts and literature, and that writers and artists often tackle similar questions and issues.
Freshman English instructors have been enthusiastic about using the museum to expand their curriculum, and taking an interdisciplinary approach to writing. Many of the instructors use the tour as a basis for a writing assignment. While some students simply completed a journal entry, describing the painting they enjoyed the most and telling why, others wrote descriptive, comparative, or argumentative paragraphs based on a painting or a pair of paintings. Still others composed fiction or poetry using the paintings as springboards for their creativity and imagination.
One student who decided to write a short story chose a character from a portrait, placed her in a setting represented in a landscape, and had her character engage in the activities represented in a narrative painting. Several instructors scheduled tours following a unit on censorship in fiction, journalism, and the arts. Much to my personal delight, some students wrote papers on controversial photographs, defending the work as art.
In addition to English courses, curriculum-structured tours may be written in conjunction with courses in anthropology, history, religion, music, classics, drama, mathematics, and the natural sciences. But the primary goal must remain to make instructors in the community, whether they are affiliated with a high school, community college, or university, aware that the museum is available as a valuable teaching resource. Furthermore, instructors and students alike need to be taught that a museum’s collection, whether art, history, or science, need not be viewed in isolation or as only pertinent to one academic area.
The Department of Education staff at the Georgia Museum of Art hopes to expand its programming in the months to come to include more intensive docent training and increased endorsement from faculty and administrators. But the best route for stimulating the program to grow is through the testimonies of supportive students and instructors who have participated in the past.
“I think the Freshman English tour idea is a good one,” commented Sorrow. “It’s nice to be invited to come here and to feel welcome.”
Katey Brown is Curator of Education at the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens. Formerly, site was the Curator of Education at the Monroe County Historical Museum in Bloomington, Indiana, and Assistant Curator of Education at the Indiana University Art Museum. she holds an M.A. in art history from Indiana University and a B.A. from Florida State University. She is currently working toward her Ph.D. in art history at Indiana University.
Brown, Katey. “Teaching Adult Students: Curriculum–Structured Tours for College Students,: The Docent Educator 4.4 (Summer 1995): 10.