On a recent morning, about a dozen students huddled in an upstairs corner of the Ackland Art Museum, studying and discussing “City Hall, Reno, Nevada,” a glossy black and white photograph of a young, well-dressed couple posing in a close embrace.
“They’re dressed up for a special occasion.”
“That makes me think ‘church.’”
“It’s like she’s saying, ‘We’re so happy, but I’m freaking out.’”
In the evening, a different group of students in the upstairs gallery wanders around, taking in the same photography display but also a variety of drawings, sculpture and color photographs. They share their observations with the rest of the class.
On a photo of a man sitting alone in a corner behind several empty desks: “It’s sad he’s the only one left. I imagine him younger with all his hopes and dreams. I wonder what path led to his loneliness.”
On a photo of a woman in the back seat of a car, smoking and holding a can of beer: “She looks so bummed out. She’s drinking.”
On a small painted metal sculpture of a dancing geisha: “She’s got this goofy expression on her face and her arms are just flailing around.”
So what’s so unusual about these classes studying art? They aren’t art (or art history) students. The first group is part of an American studies class. The second group is made up of medical students in the Whitehead Medical Society.
Except that’s not so unusual, not at the Ackland, according to Elizabeth Manekin, who just completed her first academic year as head of University programs and academic projects at the Ackland. Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history at Carolina, did graduate work in public humanities and worked at the Harvard and Yale art museums “teaching with objects.”
“About 10,000 of our visitors are students. We teach 300 courses in over 30 departments,” she said of her team, which includes graduate students.
“Looking closely at art enables us to see and think in new ways,” she said. In an era when we are bombarded with so much visual content, learning how to look at art “cultivates visual literacy.”
Faculty members have many different reasons for using art at the Ackland to accompany their classes. Michelle Robinson, Tanner Award-winning assistant professor of American studies, assigned the gallery visit for her Literary Approaches to American Studies class.
“Our class read Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Subterraneansearlier this semester,” Robinson said. “Now, an Ackland study gallery has made it possible for us to explore an event that fascinated and thrilled Kerouac: the mid-’50s Guggenheim-sponsored road trip that resulted in the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank’s classic work The Americans(1958).”
The study gallery is also used to teach a wide range of courses, including history, comparative literature and languages. “The Spanish classes use the Ackland for their oral interviews,” Manekin said.
Cleopatra and George Washington
Sometimes faculty members know exactly what they want the students to see, like Robinson and the photos from The Americans. Sometimes they have a concept and let Manekin flesh it out.
Take ASIA 89: Wars and Veterans: Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Manekin learned from Claudia Yaghoobi, Roshan Institute assistant professor in Persian studies, that the class is “really thinking about war and how we understand war, particularly in Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan. In the class they’re looking at how we dehumanize the enemy, the culture of violence and the psychological effects of war.”
For this first-year seminar, Manekin pulled four very different examples. One was an engraving showing Gen. George Washington in the foreground, with the battle of Trenton barely visible in the background. Another was a 1951 photo by Elliott Erwitt in which a young black soldier on a march pauses to stick out his tongue at the photographer. A third was Cleopatra and the Peasant, an 1839 painting by Eugene Delacroix, and the fourth from the recent exhibition of the works of Ronald Lockett, steel grilles embedded on a collage of rusty sheet metal that memorializes the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing.
“I meet with the faculty member and discuss their learning objectives and any major course themes, pull some examples from the collection, bounce it off of them and say, ‘Does this sound good?’” Manekin said.
In this example, while Washington strikes the definitive aloof hero pose, the young black soldier “looks like one of us,” the students said. Cleopatra, so often portrayed as a tragic romantic figure, they observed, was also a military and political leader of Egypt who had gone to war against the mighty Roman Empire. And Lockett’s creations made from scraps made them think about loss and destruction.
Empathy and reflection
In the classes discussed so far, the students are all looking at the same works of art and discussing them. But for other classes, Manekin sometimes passes out prompts on bright paper slips and lets the students explore the study gallery.
For the medical students, the prompts include finding artwork that says something about “modern life,” “grief and loss” or “modern medicine.” Some students are asked to imagine the human subject of the art at another stage of life; others are asked which artwork they would use to cheer up someone feeling depressed.
“Our work with the medical school is surprising to some,” Manekin said. “With medical students, it began as something to help with observation and communication, but there’s been a move to think about empathy and reflection and how you factor in ambiguity. Doing that with a piece of art has much lower stakes than with a real live human.”
As Whitehead Medical Society vice president of diversity and campus affairs, Sarah Brown Jones set up the visits by society members. The group has also used the museum for team-building exercises and to host its Diversity Café.
“Medical students are often stuck in a bubble for four years. We attend class and work on the wards together and can get lost in that culture,” Brown Jones said. The Ackland “provides a safe space to develop into not just doctors but better human beings.”
Using the Ackland to help with teaching in so many disciplines aligns well with the Arts Everywhere initiative, Manekin said. “Art is so important. It cultivates our ability to ask questions and deal with unknowns. The arts reveal new ways of seeing and experiencing the world.”