On Tuesday and Friday, juniors and seniors taking the advanced art history course “What Is A Masterpiece?” ran a virtual art history assembly for eighth graders in place of their annual field trip to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, a trip that has been long standing tradition since the mid-1990s.
The beginning of the eighth grade history curriculum focuses on Hinduism and Buddhism, so the high schoolers focused on exhibits from South and Southeast Asia, Kaia Fisher (11) said. To prepare, the Upper Division art history students learned about iconography and works of art in Hinduism and Buddhism. They were put into pairs and received specific pieces of art to study, Fisher said. Each pair researched their art pieces to learn their iconographic, symbolic, and historic significance.
The pairs presented to each other and to the class multiple times before they taught the eighth grade students, said Visual Arts Department Chair Dr. Anna Hetherington, who teaches “What Is A Masterpiece?” and has been running the Met trip for the past few years. “It’s an intense preparation process because we want it to be the best it can be,” Hetherington said.
The eighth graders were split into small groups in order to give each student the opportunity to participate in a more intimate learning environment, Rose Korff (8) said. Each pair of high school students was assigned to one of these groups. The high schoolers taught one piece from Hinduism, one piece from Buddhism, and a final piece from either religion that the eighth graders sketched and then discussed.
“There is something really profound about trying to trace the lines of an object you see,” Hetherington said. “Your hand notices things that your eyes and brain do not, and you can have more access to the work of art in that way.”
Learning from other students was a different academic experience for the eighth graders, and both Korff and Nicole Au (8) said they could relate to their high school peers more closely than to a teacher. Having student interaction between the Upper and Middle Divisions is what makes the Met trip so successful, Hetherington said. “It felt like I was learning from someone who understood us more than our teachers can,” Danil Harding (8) said.
Alexander Cox (12) took AP Art History last year, a class no longer offered, which traditionally had taken MD students to the Met. “It was harder to engage kids and make sure they were paying attention,” he said about this year’s online dynamic. “It’s usually such an exciting experience to get out of school for a couple hours and actually see the art.” Cox said the trip is more interactive in person when students can view the art to scale and walk around the Met. Still, the eighth graders seemed to enjoy making observations and contributing to the discussions, he said.
Learning about and creating art over Zoom gives students a different perspective than when they create art in person. One of both the greatest advantages and disadvantages of learning art history virtually is understanding the work of art’s scale and presence in the world, Hetherington said. For smaller objects, technology allows one to zoom into details in a way that is not possible in person, but for large objects, proportion and scale is not clear. In his breakout room, Michael Shaari (11) presented a 13-foot statue of a Buddhist figure, called a boddhisattva. “The sheer size of the work, you can’t really fathom from a picture on a screen,” he said.
Josh Borut (8) also acknowledged that scale was an issue when learning about art remotely. The UD students that presented to his group used photos of people standing next to statues so the eighth graders could get a sense of the actual height of the statues. “[The picture] helped me get a feel of what it would actually look like in person,” Borut said.
The Met trip not only allowed students to relate their learning to more concrete objects, but it also served as an introduction to art history in the Upper Division. “[The trip] is really informative, especially for kids who have just gotten a taste of art history but don’t know what it is,” Fisher said.
This was the first time art was introduced to many eighth graders as an important part of history, Valeria Huerta (8) said. Huerta did not realize how much she could learn from just one piece of art, she said. “I was surprised how much there was about religion just in the art itself.”
Huerta said the high schoolers’ presentations also piqued student interest in art history for the future. “I like the idea of looking at art through a different lens,” Harding said. “Because of that, maybe I’ll take art history in the future.”