Teaching with Objects, Part 2

In this four-part series, Departmental Teaching Fellows Anita Nikkanen (Comparative Literature), Erin Blevins (Organismic and Evolutionary Biology), and Meredith Schweig (Music) reflect on the why, how, and what of teaching with objects. These reflections grew out of “Teaching with Tangible Things: Museum Collections in the Classroom,” a workshop they offered at the Bok Center’s 2012 Winter Teaching Conference.

Today’s post addresses some of the practical questions you’ll want to consider when teaching with objects.

proton beam aperture

Proton beam aperture (Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments)

There are numerous collections at Harvard that offer exciting opportunities for instructors.  The heavy hitters include the Harvard Art Museums, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Semitic Museum, Harvard Museum of Natural History, and the Harvard Libraries.  But there are also hundreds of smaller collections, such as the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, the Collection of Musical Instruments, the Mineralogical Museum, and—as Erin will detail in our next post—the Ichthyology Collection.  The Peabody even provides support and space for teaching displays, short-term exhibits that feature collections chosen around a theme or topic related to a course.

Contacting Curators and Planning Your Visit

Akiko Yamagata, Museum Educator at the Harvard Art Museums offered us the following suggestions for TFs seeking to collaborate effectively with collections staff:

  1. Start early.  Teaching with objects takes time, in the teaching and in the preparation.  Get in touch with a curator at the beginning of the semester or before if possible and know that each museum and collection has its own policies.  If you just want to do a walk-through of a collection, two weeks notice might be sufficient.  But “early” is the key word here—conversations with curators can open up avenues for exploration that you might not have even considered.
  2. Curators are experts on teaching with objects:  ask for suggestions on possible approaches.
  3. Always be sure to visit whatever object you plan to use in advance of the class session!  Make sure it’s what you’re expecting and that it meets your specific needs.  Last minute changes can be difficult for museum staff to accommodate, so better to head any problems off at the pass.

Preparing Your Students: Logistics

Anita Nikkanen, who often incorporates MFA exhibits into her classes, adds the following recommendations for communicating the logistics of the session to your students:

  1. Give your students clear directions on how to get to the museum or collection you’re visiting. This is as true for on-campus destinations as for those farther afield. Include bus/tram/T line information and what the fare is, as well as portions of the trip to be walked.
  2. Help your students plan their time: give an estimate of how long it will take to get to and from your destination, how much time they should allow for the session itself, and whether you recommend they allow extra time for self-guided exploration before or after the session.
  3. Specify a meeting place inside (or outside which entrance to) the museum.
  4. Include a note about any museum policies that may affect them—if they must check bags, can only bring pencils, whether photography is allowed, etc.

Preparing Your Students: Conceptual Prep

Meredith Schweig adds:

Providing some kind of introductory reading, a mini-lecture, or a preparatory writing assignment can really help to maximize the effectiveness of a session at a museum or special collection.  Most students aren’t accustomed to working with objects—especially antiques or otherwise precious things—and giving them the time and space to generate their own ideas and questions in advance of the session will make the experience that much more enriching.

To explore how some of the Harvard faculty has approached teaching with objects, check out this article from Harvard Magazine and this video from the “Conversations @Fas” series.

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