Talk About Teaching and Learning
April 26, 2016, Volume 62, No. 32
The Magic of the Encounter: Teaching and Learning in the Penn Museum
Objects have the power to engage students because they make the abstract concrete, and the impersonal personal. This power can be an important tool for all kinds of teaching, not just for those disciplines that study the ancient world. The Penn Museum is the largest academic museum in the United States, and while its impact on the University has been deep, its reach has often appeared to focus only on disciplines directly related to its collections—history of art, anthropology, classics and the area studies of East Asia and the Near East. For the past three years, we at the Museum have been working hard to expand the museum’s reach to as many Penn classes as possible, transforming the Museum from an academic resource for content specialists into a laboratory for all types of learning. I’d like to take this opportunity to showcase three classes that have experienced the Museum’s galleries, laboratories and collections in ways that move beyond our traditional content and show how objects are particularly powerful tools for teaching students.
Objects engage students because they are real
What happens when you use the “real thing” instead of a photo? Seeing the value of exposing his students to the deep history of human technology, Etienne Benson, assistant professor of history and sociology of science, assigned an object-based exercise that sent his “Technology and Society” students into six of the Museum’s galleries. They were asked to choose one object from each gallery that pointed to connections between technology, social structure and cultural practice, and then choose one from their list to explore more fully in a written assignment. This short essay encouraged the students to consider the agency of the artifact, the way that it played a part in ancient social hierarchies and power relationships, and to identify how this agency was rooted in the materiality of the artifact’s manufacture and use. Now, you might argue that the same ends could have been achieved by presenting the students with a link to the objects on our online database, but there are important elements of the student experience that would be missed. First, contextual information provided in the object label and in the association of the object with others in the same case and gallery directly affected the students’ understanding of how that particular object connects with its larger culture. Second, seeing the object in person allows the student to have a deeper comprehension of the haptic dimensions of the object, the size, the shape and the way that the technology would have literally “fit to hand.”
Objects inspire students to make new connections
Sally Willig asked the students in her Environmental Studies graduate course on Wetlands to choose from a list of Museum objects from wetland contexts all over the world, including fragments of a 6,000 year old textile preserved in the anaerobic environment of a Swiss lake, a Lenape rattle made from the shell of a box turtle and the abstracted forms of a line of flamingoes dancing across an ancient Egyptian jar. The students researched their object before the class meeting, and presented their object in person during their meeting in the Collections Study Room. Though they were not prompted to do so, it became clear through the presentations that students had selected an object that ‘spoke’ to them because of a connection with their own research interests, whether in resource exploitation or river deltas. During their presentations, students used the object to create connections between themselves and the scientific content of their coursework, their classmates and peoples living in wetland areas in the past.
Objects represent shared experience and provide students with a common ground to practice communication
My final example of a class using the Museum for non-traditional learning comes from the Penn Language Center. Though we have enjoyed visits from a handful of language classes in the past—Spanish, Arabic and Turkish in particular—this semester we began a targeted outreach program to encourage all language faculty to bring their classes to the Museum. Because our collections are focused on non-European peoples, we can easily pull together a selection of Filipino cooking pots or Yoruba figurines that help students of those languages develop their speaking skills while immersing them in the material culture of the original speakers. Beyond the direct cultural parallels, gathering around an object or set of objects makes abstract vocabulary and concepts concrete in a way that is not often experienced in the intensely textual or aural language classroom. The very materiality of the object provides opportunities for description, questions and collaborative discovery in the new language that greatly enhance the learning experience.
But what about the languages that aren’t represented in the collection—Swedish, Ladino, German, etc.? Could an Italian class effectively utilize the Chinese gallery to develop its facility with color words? This challenge was put to the test earlier this semester when students of American Sign Language came to the Museum galleries. In pairs, the students filmed their conversation about a particular artifact. After a brief presentation of the cultural and physical characteristics of their artifact, each student answered questions posed by their partner, and made sure to employ Descriptive Classifiers (signs that describe a person or object) and Instrument Classifiers (signs that employ the hands or other body parts to manipulate an “object,” such as motioning “hammering a nail”).
Objects teach students new ways of thinking and seeing
In each of these examples, Penn students used the Museum as a laboratory for learning, not because they were directly studying ancient artifacts, but because those artifacts were put to use in making abstract concepts—the relationship between technology and social power, resource extratcion in a wetland environment, and that most abstract of concepts, language—concrete. It is also important to note that each of these learning experiences began as a connection between an individual student and an object that sparked the student’s desire to learn more, the “magic of the encounter” (1) that is a museum’s purview. The task of choosing an object from the galleries or a collections list becomes an active learning experience, where students make connections between the object and their own knowledge, construct new interpretations, and analyze information in light of the reactions and questions of their classmates. Active learning has been shown to result in deeper, longer-lasting memories so that perhaps in 50 years, these students will look back on their visit to the Museum and easily recall the sign for “paint,” the name of a Swiss lake village or the glint of a Chinese bronze mirror.
(1) Fortney, Kim, and Beverly Sheppard, eds. An Alliance of Spirit: Museum and School Partnerships, p. 1. Washington: American Association of Museums, 2010.
Anne Tiballi is the Andrew W. Mellon Curricular Facilitator at the Penn Museum.
This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences, the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.