The Power of a Museum Visit

For some students, the idea of going to a museum seems like an exercise in boredom. Even the word “museum” can conjure a number of descriptors for children such as stale, old, dusty, and irrelevant, especially in our fast paced world. Additionally, for many students, an art museum is a mystery. Why would you go somewhere just to look at a painting or a sculpture? Art classes can prepare students with the tools to interact with an artwork and its content, but oftentimes the power of the visit lies not just in understanding the work, but being in the physical presence of it.

Upcoming museum visits usually involve familiarizing students with the works they will be seeing. One example that comes to mind is a trip a few years back to the Museum of Modern Art. In the days leading up to the trip, students viewed Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" on a SMART Board. They learned about Picasso’s life and the invention of Cubism, who the women in the painting were, why Picasso painted them, and even why one looks like she is wearing a mask (the influence of African Art on Picasso’s practice). But what cannot be taught or conveyed in a classroom is the power and presence of the work itself. Students are always floored by its size, its position in the museum, the gaze of the women staring at you from history, and even the surface of the paint that was squeezed from tubes by Picasso himself. This is THE actual work, that cannot be comprehended on a computer screen, and something that is not made better by technology. Being in the presence of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon" is a direct link to the past, and to Picasso himself. The work takes on an individual and personal importance that transcends its place in the history of art as we become a part of that history by communing with it.
This spring, the 6th grade connected with the past in a different way during a trip to the American Museum of Natural History. Although the main purpose of this trip was to practice observational drawing skills by working directly from the wildlife dioramas, students also learned about the history of the exhibits. When the dioramas were first developed in the 1920s, visual artists accompanied scientists on field expeditions to gather specimens. These artists drew animals from life in their natural habitats, as well as the habitats themselves, down to the specific vegetation and geological features. Back in the U.S., sculptors used these drawings as well as scientific data, photographs, and the animals’ skeletons to create anatomically accurate sculptures of each specimen, over which the skin was then fitted. Other specialized artists recreated the habitats and scenery.

With this knowledge, students became active participants in the enduring legacy of the dioramas. Artists from around the world come to the American Museum of Natural History to draw from the collection, which highlights its continued relevance in a world dominated by modern digital technology. The experience of drawing from actual animals in a calm, quiet museum setting was a grounding experience for students that allowed them to slow down, relax, and focus. When we first announced to students that we would be traveling to the this museum, the overwhelming response was “I’ve been there a million times!”. The reality, however, was that many students were for the first time truly exploring and examining the collection, and drawing was the vehicle for this valuable experience.
Christine Pellicano
Head Teacher- Middle School Art
The Churchill School and Center