The secret is out! Faculty are bringing more hands-on learning materials to students in the classroom.
An art history class examines the special materials collection; photo by Allan Kohl
MCAD Professor Jessica Dandona and Visual Resources Librarian Allan Kohl are in the ongoing process of putting together a special collection of materials that allows MCAD students to see and feel for themselves some of the items they're learning about in classes. These materials are available to everyone, from instructors checking them out for their classrooms to students consulting with the materials in the library. This collection isn't limited to specific classes.
Both Jessa and Allan are very learned individuals, and they have an obvious passion for what they study and teach. It was both fascinating and refreshing to sit down with both of them and learn more about the project.
Hey Allan, it's great to meet you! So, I have to ask, how have you come by all of these materials, and what are their stories?
Allan Kohl: Well it all started back in the early nineties when I was teaching all of the art history foundation classes here at MCAD, and it was early in my teaching experience; I found that a lot of students who weren't particularly interested in art history found their way into the subject through the materials and processes and techniques. They'd ask questions like "How did they do that?" and "Where did they get that material?" and I would have to look for the answers because I hadn't covered this in my own course work.
I remember asking those exact questions in my art history class.
Allan: So, I used to go to Europe to photograph just about every summer, and I started getting stuff that I thought would help people understand things. I got the manuscript page so people could actually touch parchment and see that it's not paper and that it's animal skin and it does certain things that skins do and paper doesn't do. I looked for obsidian so people could feel it, as well as jade and lapis lazuli and things like that.
That's really amazing. It's awesome that you've worked so hard to gather materials for us students.
Jessica Dandona: I'm the coordinator for all the foundation classes so I work with all the instructors to see how we can continually keep improving the art history classes and reimagining them. One of the things that has really struck me over the last couple of years is that the students at MCAD are deeply fascinated by the process of making. As makers themselves, whether in a physical or virtual way, they are people who are profoundly creative and who want to know more about the process behind the way things are made, the process behind the artwork. I've incorporated this into my own classroom in a couple of different ways, such as assigning readings by artists written from their own point of view about their work. I also wanted to give more attention to process and materials and tools, so after some long conversations with Allan and after a couple visits by Allan to the classroom, it seemed to me that one way to do that and to make it art of the past real for students was to bring the materials physically into the classroom and to allow students to experiment with them.
I remember being able to handle the manuscript that Allan brought into class and how awesome it was to actually feel what we were learning about and seeing on the screen. I'm really glad that you guys are able to bring more of this into the classes!
Jessica: Yeah, we've been bringing in materials almost every week now. The chair of liberal arts, Gerald Ronning, also made it so that we don't offer art history classes on Mondays which was always a big problem because if we wanted to bring students to Mia we couldn't because the museum was closed.
It sounds like you guys are really working to approach art history in a more hands-on and direct way. I almost wish I could back and take the foundations courses again.
Allan: This is Egyptian papyrus, definitely something that needs to be felt so they can see that it's not smooth like paper.
Allan: And this is marble from the same quarries that was used to build the Parthenon.
How do you feel about these objects being handled by so many students? Do you do anything to help preserve them?
Jessica: It's a working collection, it's here to be experienced and enjoyed. I think that the tactile dimension is really important.
Allan: That's one of the things, is having a great experience of going to the museum next door won't be the same as feeling the materials for yourself. We're very accepting of the idea of these deteriorating with use, because in real life they did.
Do you only collect materials out on your own, or are there other ways to collect?
Jessica: We buy a lot of our materials, and we are also open to accepting materials if people want to donate, especially faculty members, who might have gathered some things on their travels perhaps.
Allan: We're looking for some historic photographic types, like daguerreotypes and tintypes, and maybe a stereoscope viewer. Moveable type, wooden and cast metal, is also something we're looking for. Back in the day, artists also had to learn what types of fur made good brushes, so maybe it would be fun to have pelts from sable and other animals.
Jessica: I think it would be interesting to have examples of celluloid film, and advertising from the nineteenth century, anything that gives some insight into how things were technically made.
It would be great to start building up the collection, especially with examples of the photographs and brushes. I'll definitely be on the look out for some stuff!
Historical Pigments on Loan from the Kress Foundation
I'd like to thank Jessica and Allan so much for sharing all of this. I'm really excited to see more of these materials and workshops breaking up lecture-style classes! I'm really grateful both of them are working so hard to enrich and liven up our learning experiences. MCAD is so lucky!