How to Visit a Museum with Your Students by co-director Natasha Goldman

Visit to the Bowdoin College Museum of Art

As part of our summer seminar, we like to take advantage of the wonderful art collections on campus at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA). BCMA Codirector Frank Goodyear was kind enough to make available a seminar room and to ask his staff to pull specific works of art from storage for us. As a teacher, you can do the same at your local museum or galleries.

We requested to view objects that intersected with our topic. Since the museum did not have objects that exactly aligned (i.e., works made by Holocaust victims or survivors or works made in reaction to the Holocaust), before our museum we first discussed  in the classroom works of art that are related to our topic by artists whom we know are in the BCMA collections (we checked the museum’s online catalogue, first!). Then, we chose works of art by those artists in the collection that would align with the ideas we discussed in class. Would we have loved to look at original works of art by Heartfield, Solomon, and Nussbaum? Yes! Does our museum have them? No. But there are still reasons to look at works art that align with the goals of our seminar – and we hope that this is an approach that you can take with your local art resources, as well.

We begin visual analysis in front of original works of art by asking participants questions such as “what do you see?” “What stands out?” “What is in the foreground, middleground, and background?” “What effect do the colors have on each other? On the viewer?” And finally, “what meaning can you glean from these observations?” Oftentimes, even people who don’t have a lot of experience analyzing works of art come up with amazing observations that lead us directly to the “heart” of the ideas that we are trying to address. In this case, we examined prewar works of art that set up the social context for the rise of Nazism.

During our regular class time, we looked at Otto Dix’s Match Vendor (Streichholzhaendler), 1920, to discuss New Objectivity, the Weimar era, and the artist’s participation in the Reich Chamber of Arts in 1934. The work depicts a crippled veteran from WWI who is so poor that he must sell matchsticks on the street; the work thereby historically “sets up” the precarious situation of Weimar Germany. Since the museum did not have that specific work of art, we nonetheless looked at another Dix that conveyed his style and approach to subject matter: Amerikanischer Reiterakt (American Riding Act), 1922, drypoint on paper.

We examined Käthe Kollwitz’s , Memorial to Karl Liebknecht, 1919-1920. woodcut on paper, for the ways in which it captures the spirit of the socialist worker, soon to be completely disenfranchised by Nazism.

George Grosz’s Half a Century of Social Democracy (ca. 1923, lithograph on paper), served to highlight aspects of prewar Germany that Grosz satirizes, such as greedy, grotesque capitalist factory owners, the working poor, and crippled veterans from World War I.

Lyonel Feininger’s Cathedral (1919, woodcut on Japanese cream paper), exemplifies the ideals of the Bauhaus, the art school that was active during the Weimar Republic that extolled architecture and all types of crafts as fine art – and was considered “degenenerate” by the Nazis.

Many of the teachers, especially those who live in rural areas, do not often get to visit museums – and had never looked at works of art up close, in an intimate setting, and with a museum director in the room.

Practical tips when visiting museums to view works of art: 

  1. You can usually view a museum’s collections on their website by searching their online database. Failing that, you can contact staff members to help you.
  2. When making requests to view specific objects in a museum, remember that the galleries have been scheduled with specific exhibitions and seminar rooms often are scheduled early in the year – so it’s important to plan ahead of time).
  3. Always have your participants check their bags in storage and only bring a pencil and paper into the galleries/study room – never a pen! When we speak in front of a work of art, we often feel the urge to gesture and point, which can be fatal for a work of art, especially if we are holding a pen!