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Seducing Non-Art Students: Cornell’s Johnson Museum Pioneers Interdisciplinary Course Offerings (with video)

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Rear view (during last phases of construction) of Cornell University’s Johnson Museum, showing new (mostly underground) wing at left, designed by John Sullivan III of I.M. Pei’s firm
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I first met Stephanie Wiles, then the recently arrived director of the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University (where I’m an alum), she told me about exciting new plans to address the chronic problem that many university art museums grapple with—spotty student visitation at an institution that should be appreciated widely (not just by art-history and fine-arts students) as a valued cultural, educational and intellectual resource.

A year later, Wiles’ wiley ideas for more closely integrating the Johnson’s riches with the university’s wide range of academic offerings (not just fine arts and art history) are now about to be implemented, through an exciting “Connecting Research with Practice” initiative, bankrolled by a four-year, $250,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant.

If it succeeds, this could serve as a model for other institutions around the country: Many art museums, not just those at universities, have been pondering how to take a more interdisciplinary approach to permanent collections and temporary exhibitions. What better place for such experimentation than a university, where on-site specialists in almost every conceivable discipline are eager to share their ideas and expertise?

Daniel Aloi of the Cornell Chronicle reports this, regarding the Johnson’s new program, which is set to begin next semester:

The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is creating a series of collection-based courses, to be co-taught by museum curators and educators with Cornell faculty members, intended to engage students and new faculty from several different disciplines….

The first course, “From Excavation to Exhibition,” will be offered this fall, in partnership with the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies. Co-taught by chief curator and curator of Asian art Ellen Avril and professor of anthropology Adam Smith, the class will examine the paths objects take from recovery at archaeological sites to their appearance in museum exhibitions, using items from Cornell’s classical collections and the Johnson Museum’s Asian and pre-Columbian archaeological material….

Other planned courses include “Seeing Art Through Science,” a technical art history course in partnership with art, science and engineering departments. It is structured around the physicality of objects and materials and scientific study of artworks—for example, using X-ray fluorescence and pigment analysis to “see” underlying layers of paintings. Instructors will include…research associate Arthur Woll, museum curator Andrew Weislogel and engineering professor C. Richard Johnson Jr.

“The museum’s staff has teamed with faculty to teach semester-long courses in the past, mainly with professors from the history of art and visual studies and the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, and those have provided rich educational experiences for students,” Avril said. “What is most exciting about this grant is that it supports innovation to conceive course topics that engage students and faculty across a broader range of disciplines and diverse intellectual approaches.”

This push for a broader audience builds upon what the Johnson Museum described as a record semester, during which 177 Cornell classes visited the museum. The new initiative will make the museum not just a place for an occasional class visit but an integral part of full-semester courses, co-organized by professors from departments outside the usual art history and fine arts disciplines.

CultureGrrl readers may remember that trying to expand the student audience was also a stated goal for Brandeis University’s previously endangered Rose Art Museum, as discussed in this CultureGrrl Video by the then newly appointed director of academic programs, Dabney Hailey (starting at about 3:16 in the clip ).

Now let me show you around the expanded Johnson. Below is my CultureGrrl Video tour (shot in June of last year), taking you through the museum’s recently expanded reinstallation of its strong Asian art collection and showing you parts of the new addition to its 1973 I.M. Pei building. Along the way, you’ll hear my chat with Wiles and Avril about one of their mutual favorites—”Tajvid Red,” an alluring 2009 calligraphic piece in the Asian art galleries by Pouran Jinchi, the Iranian-born NYC artist:

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