An Art Historian on Children in the Museum
by Erick Wilberding
An art historian by training, for the past eight years I have taught art history at Marymount International School in Rome, and I regularly take groups of middle school and high school students into the city to tour the monuments and museums. In this time I have learned several helpful tips about taking students to museums that I would like to pass on.
As many will recognize, a group of twenty or less is better, and in fact, the smaller the group, the more it will learn from the experience. Living in Rome, I see groups of all sizes from different schools in Europe roaming the city, from six or seven students to forty or more. The very large groups are never entirely concentrated on art. When we take an entire grade of students to Florence, we break the class into smaller groups, where there is one teacher for every ten students.
Revisit the museum before you take the students
Revisit the museum the week before you go and make sure the objects you wish to view are where they should be. Individual galleries can close, objects can travel to exhibitions or be in restoration, and you might find that the Renaissance painting you really wanted to show the students is in Toronto rather than on its usual wall.
Limit the number of objects you see
Obviously students in high school can stay in museum longer than a group from middle school, but generally three hours in the museum is enough, the break included. This means you must be selective. Wittgenstein said that one should go into the museum, look at one painting, and leave, and the gist of this is correct in my experience. Looking a dozen objects critically is better than looking at forty in a kaleidoscopic tour. The goal is not that the students can say, "Yeah, I saw that once." Rather they are given the opportunity to study the works critically and thoughtfully.
Prepare the students before the visit
Students learn much more if they have viewed and studied the object in class before going to see it. My impression is that many schools, even universities, do not prepare the students before they see the objects, and this in turn renders the group more passive before a short lecture in front of each object. How dull! This makes the teacher a kind of guru of art knowledge, and fine art seems exotic, and this should be avoided. In many literature classes, you read the play, then view it on the stage. By presenting the objects in class, by studying them in depth, the students are empowered to recognize the object and bring to mind all they have learned.
Give the students a vocabulary to talk about art
Much of the introductory course at the university level should be present in the secondary school curriculum. Part of this is empowering the students to articulate the formal qualities of the work of art. In literature courses one studies meter, rhyme, metaphor, simile, etc., and then one learns how to analyze a poem critically. In the same way, students should be given the language to express what happens in the painting or sculpture or building, and should know about composition, color, figure style, etc. With some practice in class, the students can become very articulate, and then they bring this skill to the museum.
Do not lecture, ask questions
Admittedly, one can have the students prepare presentations on selected art objects. But I have found it better to ask questions, and draw the knowledge from the students. They become more active participants in the museum, looking more critically at the works.
A worksheet? Drawing?
A worksheet can be helpful, but at times students will be more intent on completing the sheet with information rather than on concentrating on the works of art. But if the teacher can keep the students centered on the art, worksheets can reinforce key knowledge. If it is an art class, then some drawing can be done, but this depends also on the size of the room and the number of people milling about.
Partners and chaperones
I have heard teachers who just let the students loose in the museum. But in Rome there are such large crowds, depending on the time of year and the place within the museum, that I am afraid to lose students. Particularly with the middle school, it can be helpful to assign partners to keep track of students. For a group of twenty, one needs at least one other chaperone, who will be at the end of the group, to make sure that no one falls away.
A break halfway through
A break is necessary! Museums have little seating before paintings and sculpture. Legs become tired! A break of twenty minutes or so is always welcome.
Explaining assessment before the visit is essential. The assessment can take into account the worksheet, participation, and behavior, as well as any follow-up work. Having the students write a page or more on their personal reflections about the visit can consolidate the experience.
It can be hard work!
Given the amount of energy required, it is more difficult to take a group out than to remain in the classroom. But it greatly enhances education. Art is not always approached critically in classes, even in art classes. Rather than studying photographs in books, the students are standing before original and unique works of art, and in Rome this means the Coliseum, the Pantheon, the Sistine Chapel, Raphael's School of Athens, etc., etc. Preparing the students well, and organizing an educational visit (not a symbolic one!), will create a foundation that will lead to other great experiences. It is only when they are approached without knowledge, imagination, and moderation that museums become boring!
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