Object Lab: Encounters With Art

Students visit the Object Lab for the course Modern Pleasure, taught by Margaux Cowden, visiting professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies.

The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) has transformed the Blashfield Gallery into the Object Lab, a space where students can have close encounters with artworks to deepen their understanding of the subjects covered in classes across the curriculum.

Ten faculty members teaching courses including Africana studies, biology, math and theater are taking part this fall in the pilot semester of Object Lab. Each selected between one and eight works from the museum’s collection that speak to the subjects they’re covering. Entire classes visit the gallery several times during the semester, and students return as often as they like. Some projects must be completed within the walls of the lab.

Biology professor Matt Carter is using the Object Lab to help his Neural Systems and Circuits students understand how the eye processes visual inputs. “We’re looking at works of art that highlight motion, some through the use of optical illusion,” he says. “I’m asking students to apply what they’re learning about visual
neural circuitry to what they see on the walls of the museum.”

Professors Peter Low, Elizabeth McGowan, Jason Mientkiewicz and Stefanie Solum have assigned each student in their co-taught Art History 101 class a unique work of art to study over the entire semester. “Object Lab is the ideal environment for our students’ deep engagement with works over time, from their first encounter in September to their sophisticated analysis of an object they have come to know very well by the end of the term,” Solum says.

And James Manigault-Bryant, chair of Africana studies, selected five photographs and three prints from the museum’s collection for his course Introduction to Africana Studies. Each work speaks to a different time period in American history that coincides with one of the novels he’s teaching. “These photographs provide students with alternative reference points to explore the themes we’re addressing through literature,” he says. “Viewing the pictures deepens their understanding of the time periods we’re discussing.”

Because 64 works of art—paintings, photographs, prints and sculpture—fill the gallery space, the Lab provides opportunities for what WCMA director Christina Olsen calls “serendipitous learning.” “Courses and objects rub up against one another inside Object Lab, allowing students and faculty to get ideas from the other courses’ selections,” she says.

The artworks for a course called Modern Pleasure, taught by visiting professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies Margaux Cowden, hang on the wall alongside those for Manigault-Bryant’s course. Both professors included several Aaron Siskind photographs from the 1930s, and their proximity sparks a conversation across curricular boundaries that might otherwise not have occurred.

Cowden was excited when she heard about the Object Lab pilot semester, because she knows that letting students get very close to the works of art supports more profound understanding. In previous iterations of her course, she depended on slides projected in a darkened classroom. “Physical proximity to art objects allows for a deep engagement that makes students better readers of any text, be it a novel or a work of art,” she says.

Object Lab is open to the public during regular museum hours—including weekends and Thursday evenings. So museum-goers have the opportunity to
see for themselves what Olsen calls “a material manifestation of the liberal arts.”

—Julia Munemo

To learn more about Object Lab, visit http://bit.ly/objectlab.