Integrating Art Museum Education into a K-12 School

Guest post by Michelle Marcus, The Dalton School

As John Dewey was integrating museum visits and other object-based experiences into his Lab Schools at the University of Chicago, Helen Parkhurst was incorporating similar principles into what would become the foundation of The Dalton School in New York City.  Dalton is still committed to interactive teaching and learning in museum settings; witness my particular position as art museum educator and resident art historian within a larger Museum Program. In close collaboration with classroom teachers and other specialists, both inside and outside the school, the program integrates objects and images into the existing K-12 academic curriculum (especially in social studies and history). At the same time, it weaves age-appropriate methods and questions of art history across the school. My experiences at Dalton over the past 15 years resonate with new directions in art museum education, as the latter begins to explore its shared roots with progressive schools.

Archaeological Analysis with iPads at the Met

Third graders with iPads in the European Painting Galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo courtesy S. Brudnick).
Third graders with iPads in the European Painting Galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo courtesy S. Brudnick).

Third grade doesn’t get any better than an archaeological dig. Even a simulated dig, chock full of museum replicas and flea market finds that only look like they belong to the Age of Exploration. The challenge is keeping the analysis of the finds as engaging as their recovery.  In one strategy, the students revisit the Met to find comparative materials with which to determine the possible place of production of their artifacts. Using iPads to document their finds, students rely on attributes of material, shape, and style: the bend of a tree trunk, the outstretched wings of a bird, the sense of spatial illusion.

Such authentic analogies raise the level of inquiry. For example, were the artifacts from a century palace at Kashgar made locally (in Central Asia), or had they been imported from elsewhere? Why are there Chinese-style cranes on an inscribed Persian tile? By mapping their museum parallels, the students start to reconstruct the nature of exchange along the Silk Road in the time of Columbus. Their finds convince them that Kashgar was a major player in a trade network that stretched from Italy to China. The students take ownership of a history they created from the ground up. While the archaeology provides the initial motivation, an authentic visual analysis sustains it. The use of art museum replicas as primary visual resources in school (whether excavated or not, whether high or low end) provides obvious opportunities for integrated museum visits, or for similar work with online collections.

Rolling Ancient Cylinder Seals at the Morgan Library

Student seal
A student’s rolling of an ancient Sumerian cylinder seal. The Morgan Library and Museum (Photo courtesy of I. Donnelly)

While the Met meets most of our needs most of the time (in terms of collection, proximity, and access), the smaller institutions can nevertheless offer more direct experiences with objects and curators. For example, a curator at The Morgan Library offers our fifth graders a remarkable opportunity with cylinder seals from ancient Iraq (ca. 3000-5000 BCE). He lets the students roll an ancient seal across damp clay to create a continuous impression of the engraved design.

What makes this experience so humbling, rather than excessive, is the degree to which it is informed by a classroom curriculum. The students arrive at the Library familiar with the iconography and function of cylinder seals in antiquity, including, for example, the way they were used to mark tablets as signs of authority. We are always delighted (but never surprised) to see the seal-bearing students quiver as they are transported back in time, knowing they are using the same object a Sumerian or Babylonian official did 3000 to 5000 years ago.

Mesopotamia Day at the University of Pennsylvania Museum

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology offers a different sort of experience for our fifth graders. It is based on the museum’s renowned position at the forefront of archaeological and academic research about the ancient Near East; as well as an unusual collaboration among a number of individuals at several institutions. The excursion is organized along the lines of a junior academic conference, in which students have direct access to objects, scholars, and ancient methods of production. In one session, scholars let students handle ancient cuneiform tablets before teaching them how to make one of their own.

A cuneiform tablet made by a Dalton fifth grader at The University of Pennsylvania Museum (Photo Courtesy P. McElfresh)
A cuneiform tablet made by a Dalton fifth grader at The University of Pennsylvania Museum (Photo Courtesy P. McElfresh)

One memorable moment has students passing around an ancient school tablet, used to practice making cuneiform signs on clay. They notice odd impressions along one edge. Are they ancient numbers? Is it damage? Finally, one student recognizes them as teeth marks! Indeed, a physical anthropologist had already attributed them to the teeth of a ten-year old. Suddenly, our fifth graders could identify with a scribal student who lived 4000 years ago, thinking of those moments of frustration when they leave similar teeth marks on pencils.

In another session, the students explore ancient technology with a curator from the Met, who traveled with us. They reconstruct ancient gold-working techniques by examining artifacts on display, side by side with the curator’s own microscopic photographs of the same finds. Her new photographs had been loaded onto iPads for the visit. The University of Pennsylvania Museum activities make lasting impacts on both the students and the scholars alike. For the former, it authenticates their curriculum through the lens of experiential archaeology and current research. For the latter, it challenges them to re-think their conceptions of K-12 teaching, as they interact with 100 young learners who, they admit, are more engaged by the material than many adult audiences they encounter.

I share these few museum visits — a sample of many dozens undertaken at Dalton each year — with a personal sense of excitement about the future of art museum teaching. I am encouraged to think that the recent turn by art museum educators can include renewed collaborations with progressive school educators. Our mutual interest in making visual materials accessible to a contemporary audience begs for the sort of collaboration, finally, that enriched progressive education at the turn of the 20th century. Granted, we face a challenge inconceivable in the time of John Dewey and Louise Connelly: how to take advantage of new computer technologies without compromising the direct experience with works of art.

About the Author

Marcus PhotoMICHELLE MARCUS earned her Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania.  Before taking on the position of resident art historian and museum educator at The Dalton School in New York, she split her time between college teaching, curatorial consulting, and writing about the art and archaeology of the ancient Near East.  Her research and publications have been supported by grants from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  More recently, she has been speaking and writing about using images to teach history on the K-12 level.  Beta grants from AMICO and Artstor supported her early efforts to use digital art images at Dalton.

3 thoughts on “Integrating Art Museum Education into a K-12 School”

  1. I greatly appreciate Michelle’s guest post to the site — I’m so glad to have her perspective from the K-12 school side of the equation as we reflect on teaching and learning experiences in museums. It is vital to have teacher voices as part of this conversation, especially since museums need to be working WITH teachers and schools to co-create learning experiences in and around museums.
    I welcome other K-12 educators to contribute posts to ArtMuseumTeaching.com reflecting on their experiences with museums and the practice of teaching in museums. If you are interested, contact me via Twitter at @murawsk27 or email at murawski27@gmail.com.

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