Students as Curators: Art and Life Mix it Up

Story posted December 07, 2007

You might have thought Winslow Homer himself was standing in the gallery. The buzz coming from the inaugural exhibition in the Bowdoin Museum of Art's new Zuckert Seminar Room on Dec. 6th was palpable.

in the gallery

"This is great," said art history major Sean Sullivan '08, bedecked with a red carnation and grinning. Dozens of students, faculty members, and parents were pushing their way in to see the opening of the student-curated exhibition, Representing America: Ties that Bind and Lines that Divide.

A similarly carnationed Kate Herlihy stood beaming beside her father, Joe Herlihy, who had driven up from Needham, Mass., for the big night. "Something this special doesn't happen every day, so I figured I'd come up," he says.

Exhibition and Gallery Talks

Representing America: Ties that Bind and Lines that Divide runs through Dec. 16, 2007, in the Zuckert Seminar Room of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Student-led gallery talks will take place Saturday, Dec. 8th at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and Tuesday, Dec. 11th at 3:30 p.m. For more information, contact the Museum at 207-725-3275.


It soon became clear that there were 13 people getting their "15 minutes of fame" tonight. All of them Bowdoin students who had spent the better part of a semester knee-deep in the Museum's extensive collection of works on paper in preparation for this moment.

The exhibition, which examines several thematic representations of American life over 150 years, is the culmination of Associate Professor of Art History Linda Docherty's Fall 2007 course "Art and Life." The intensive, hands-on class in art history and museum work brought students into the Museum even before it reopened its doors in October 2007.

Docherty
Linda Docherty

"We joked that the title of this class was appropriate, "Art and Life," because it literally took over our lives," said Emily Keneally '08, an economics major.

Emily Keneally
Emily Keneally '08 gives an impromptu talk on one of the works.

Twice weekly, the corps of 13 students met in the Museum's new, dedicated classroom. Instead of the usual slideshow of works, the students studied and discussed original objects from the Museum collection—Winslow Homer's wood engravings for Harper's Weekly, etchings of New York City life by John Sloan, and documentary photographs from the 1930s through 2001.

"This was working physically with the objects, which we've never been able to do before," said Keneally. "Many art history classes involve looking at famous works and memorizing dates, artists and mediums. But these are pieces our own museum has! For every single class we had, Diana Tuite [Andrew W. Mellon curatorial intern] would bring in additional art work from the Museum that would help in the discussion."

That might have been the easiest part. The real work began, said Docherty, when each student was charged with choosing three objects to research and critique.

"Even though the artists may be known, the individual objects have not been studied extensively," said Docherty. "It would be rare for one of these students to find an article on the particular print or photograph they were working on. And yet, they developed penetrating analyses that considered the aim of the artist, the audience for whom a work was made, and how it fit into its cultural moment.

"They brought objects to life that in many ways exceeded the scholarly literature as it now stands."

Brochure
Students review the exhibition brochures before the opening.

After presenting their research to each other, the students were charged with discovering common or emerging themes from among such disparate works. They began a jurying process to determine which objects would be in the show. After lively debate, they selected 27 images, then began the process of creating a full-fledged exhibition. Every aspect passed through group consensus - from the gallery layout, to publicity, to the bounty of the opening reception food table. Most difficult of all, groups of students had to condense their extensive scholarship into 100-word wall labels.

student looking at brochure

"Everyone has strong opinions," said Keneally," so you really had to work together to come up with themes, select works, write wall tags, put together a poster, brochures ... but we would meet outside of class time. We even came in at night to figure out the layout of the gallery. In the end it worked out great. We have all worked together so much, we know about every single image in here."

They will get their chance to prove it during a series of student-led gallery talks that are taking place throughout the exhibition's short Museum run (see sidebar).

Docherty was clearly delighted at the results. "Having this exhibition is so critical," she said as another wave of students pored into the gallery. "They can see the fruits of all their hard work and commitment.

"So often, we hold our work close to ourselves or just share it with professors. But this is giving students a sense that what they are learning can extend beyond the classroom. They can educate their peers, their teachers, and the community about the richness of the Museum. In a sense, they've all become teachers."

Sean Sullivan said the course—and his 15 minutes of fame—have been among the highlights of his Bowdoin education:

Sean Sullivan
Sean Sullivan '08, right, enjoys his celebrity at the opening reception.

"Professor Docherty is a mover, a shaker, she's everything," he said. "This isn't just a job to her. It doesn't stop when class is over. I don't think a day went by when there wasn't an email from her. Sometimes they're at 11:30 at night. This is what she's passionate about and she comes in here to share her own passion. She rubs off on you."

He surveys the crowd, marveling at the turnout. "You know, we've really been given a treat here," he said, "being allowed to work in the Museum even before it was open. It really showed us they were offering us something. Because we realized we were given this gift, we wanted to give something back to the art museum."

For tonight anyway, life and art are in perfect harmony.

"Art and Life" is part of Visual Culture in the 21st Century, a program of cross-disciplinary courses, public talks and performances, and departmental events exploring the vitality and importance of the visual arts. It runs throughout the 2007-08 academic year.

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