Museum course dives into artistic, literary connections

Graduate students explored texts and artworks with themes of movement, escape and water and curated a related gallery installation as part of a fall course at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

Co-taught by Shirley Samuels, professor of English and American studies, and Nancy Green, the museum’s Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints and Drawings, 1800-1945, the course “Race, Gender, and Crossing Water: Mobility and Escape in the 19th Century U.S.” was the last offering in the four-year “Connecting Research With Practice” initiative at the museum, funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Readings in the class included Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” the 1854 temperance novel “Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There” and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, M.A. ’55. Guest lecturers included Melville scholar Wyn Kelley of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lenora Warren of Colgate University; and Hannah Ryan, doctoral student in the field of history of art and visual studies.

The “practice” portion of the course was a curatorial project – students organized an installation in the museum’s study gallery, choosing objects from Cornell collections and writing accompanying text.

“Every week we’d start off in Goldwin Smith in class, and visit the museum to pull works out of storage,” Samuels said. “We talked about most of them as art objects, as well as in relation to the literature.”

Green said, “There are so many ways for viewers to approach a work of art, and these students brought rich and multifaceted interpretations to the pieces they selected. Though the readings were largely 19th-century American stories, this did not hinder them from looking across cultures and centuries to find works that resonated most with them.”

Artworks the students selected for display included a large Kara Walker silhouette from “Freedom: A Fable;” scrimshaw (carvings on whalebone) displayed with a book on whaling; a video by contemporary artist Isaac Julien; “Ex-Slave with a Long Memory” by photographer Dorothea Lange; and William Hogarth etchings from “A Rake’s Progress.”

“Some of the art Nancy brought out had to do with alcohol and drinking,” Samuels said. “‘Ten Nights in a Bar-Room,’ and the Hogarth prints, both start off with pleasurable aspects of drinking, how lovely and convivial it can be – and they end with utter ruin.”

The class also accessed whaling and history of slavery collections in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections in Kroch Library. Such archival resources proved “extremely valuable in enhancing our attention to correspondences and conversations among images,” the instructors wrote for the installation.

“None of them had put together an exhibition before and on the last day, when installing the show, their shared excitement was contagious,” Green said. “That kind of magic seems to have infused all the Mellon courses, as a chance for students to interact with art and other disciplines.”

Among the final projects, MFA fiction writer Nneoma Ike-Njoku reimagined a passage from “Huckleberry Finn,” writing from the point of view of Jim, the slave who accompanies Huck on a raft down the Mississippi.

The class also included graduate students in English Philippa Chun and Jennifer Rabedeau, and doctoral student in the history of architecture and urban development Ecem Saricayir.

“We were taking students who were not specifically trained to be curators, and bringing them through the process of what it is to work in the museum,” Samuels said. “And there are several values to that – one is the need for all humanities Ph.D.’s to consider different careers. I’ve had some students who have ended up working or volunteering in archives, including at the Met.”

The Mellon “Connecting Research with Practice” initiative created eight new courses, co-taught by faculty and Johnson Museum staff, using Cornell resources and featuring scholars, scientists, curators and conservators as guest experts. The spring 2015 “Art | Science Intersections” coursedeveloped around a yearlong museum exhibition, “An Eye for Detail: Dutch Paintings from the Leiden Collection” (2014-15), and focused on image-processing tools to examine artworks in collaboration with guest lecturers in engineering, chemistry, art conservation and dendrochronology.

“Every new class brought us closer to our goal of co-developing courses that would bring together students majoring in vastly different subjects,” said Stephanie Wiles, the museum’s Richard J. Schwartz Director. “‘From Excavation to Exhibition,’ a partnership with the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, appealed to archaeology students as well as those interested in museum work, science and history; ‘Embodying the Object: Writing with the Collection,’ taught with the Department of English, attracted students passionate about poetry; while the hugely popular ‘Zen Buddhism: Aesthetic Cultivation of Self’ enrolled Asian studies majors and students excited about philosophy and religion.”

Each course was designed to provide opportunities for students to enrich their learning and skill sets, bring their own research expertise to the effort, and recognize through hands-on projects how their work intersects with scholarship in various fields.

“For me,” Wiles said, “the most exciting outcomes were observing students discovering the benefits of shared research, better understanding the potential of tight-knit working groups, and increasing their comfort level in experimenting with new ideas and taking intellectual risks in their work.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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