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Student Curators Get a Handle on Art

Story posted May 21, 2009

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art has been described any number of ways: as an architectural jewel box; as one of the oldest college art collections in the nation; and as a masterpiece of inventive renovation.

The greatest measure of its worth, however, may be the surprisingly broad cast of curators who have the opportunity to get their hands around some of the more than 15,000 objects in the collection.

Take a single day in early May.

Katherine Finnegan
History major Katherine Finnegan '09
narrates an exhibition of 18th century
British prints she co-curated at the
Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

In the Center Gallery, Katherine Finnegan '09 is taking a last survey of her handiwork. As part of an independent study, the history major has co-curated an exhibition of 18th century British political prints from among the Museum collection and College archives.

Third Party Politics: Britain, France, and America in an Age of Revolution, is a satirical take on political life in the Age of Revolution told through British political prints created during the rule of George III.

"This is a good one," she says leaning in to inspect a caricature of John Wilkes Esq. Wilkes was an early proponent of freedom of the press who was tried for producing "seditious" pamphlets. The trial is mocked in an engraving by William Hogarth.

Finnegan stumbled on the Museum's impressive collection of prints—most of them allegorical lampoons—while helping Visiting Instructor in History Aaron Windel gather curricular material for a course on British Society and Culture in the Long 18th Century.

"We were looking at some of the Museum materials as a supplement to our readings about the Revolutionary Atlantic," recalls Windel. "We thought we would use a few of the prints to illustrate some of the important events of the day, but then the pieces in the Museum started to direct us. We realized how much these visual prints were at the very center of political culture in their time; they were visual artifacts."

Fletcher students in Museum

Their small-scale curricular supplement became a full-scale exhibition when a gallery at the Museum opened up. Diana Tuite, the Museum's Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow, pulled prints for the pair to look at and eventually helped them learn the ins-and-outs of building an exhibition.

Tuite regularly works with faculty members to link Museum collections to their coursework and research. "This is the first time that I know of that an independent study student has been able to assist in all aspects of curating an exhibition, however," she notes. "Katherine did a spectacular job."

It took Finnegan a full year of careful research to help write the exhibition catalog and wall tags for the 40-odd works in the show. She also gave a full-blown gallery talk on May 7th. Based in part on her work on the exhibition, Finnegan won a history department prize.

"Some of these prints are just providing news for people who are illiterate," says Finnegan. "But most of them are seeping in irony." She pauses to look at a print titled, The Savages Let Loose, Or The Cruel Fate of the Loyalists. It shows Loyalists hanging from a tree or being scalped by American colonists. "I mean, this is definitely the beginning of what we see today in a New York Times political cartoon."

Student looks at painting

An unlikely exhibition of "mathematica" is on display in the Becker Gallery, next door. Helen Wong, a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics, collaborated with Tuite to assemble a fascinating assortment of objects from the College's Museum, library and mathematics department.

Among the pieces in Curating Across the Disciplines: Intersections Between Math and Art, is an elaborate woodcut by Albrecht Dürer of a fantastical knotted design. Across from it, a wooden pendulum illustrates differential equations while evoking a modern sculptural design.

"There is a return to mathematically based art among contemporary artists," notes Tuite. "So it's interesting to see the historic comingled with modern works. Both explore mathematical principles such as symmetry, pattern, linear perspective and optical illusions."

Upstairs, a small flock of students is gathered around works from the European collection on long-term display in the Bowdoin Gallery - everything from a Gothic carved head to a cubist landscape. They're here as part of coursework for Associate Professor of Art History Pamela Fletcher's first-year seminar, Matisse and Picasso.

Two students examine a work

"We've spent about a third of our class time in the Museum," notes Rachel McDonald '12. "Sometimes we'd be in the seminar room and they'd pull original sketches by Picasso for us to look at. Other times, we'd go around the museum and pick a piece that related to something we were talking about in Picasso or Matisse's work—technique or use of color or abstraction.

"It's made the class fun and interesting because it's more hands-on. We could actually be working with art from the period we were writing about, as opposed to just talking about it. It really energized the whole class."

Fletcher's museum-centric curriculum had an added social benefit she hadn't expected, she says. "I felt I got to know them better," she says. "We weren't always sitting around a table, but were walking, talking, standing in front of works and discussing them. It really changed the classroom dynamics."

Opening Up New Worlds For Kids

Victoria Wilson
Victoria Baldwin-Wilson

Each year, more than 1,500 Maine K-12 students get introduced to the Museum's holdings by a special curator: Victoria Baldwin-Wilson. Assistant to the Museum Director, Baldwin-Wilson coordinates the Museum's community outreach, including bussed-in school tours. A new program called Saturday Mornings at the Museum invites local families to bring in children for Museum programming during the first Saturday morning of the month.

"We love to invite kids to come in, look and learn," she says. "Some come and don't want to let go of mommy's hand, but once they sit on a floor with one of our Bowdoin student volunteers, they loosen up. Before you know it, they're writing or drawing or searching for objects depicted in paintings."

Baldwin-Wilson sometimes takes the Museum into the classroom for in-school presentations. "I take posters or drawings students have done," says Wilson. "I bring museum reproductions they can touch. Children like to make a physical connection with art. And they are amazed that we have all this artwork," she adds, smiling. "They can't imagine people giving it to you."

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"Sometimes we'd be in the seminar room and they'd pull original sketches by Picasso for us to look at. Other times, we'd go around the museum and pick a piece that related to something we were talking about..."
— Rachel McDonald '12