By Julia Munemo
Sixty local high school students toured the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) last fall as part of their U.S. History course. They divided into small groups and rotated through four different galleries. In each, they found a Williams student gallery guide who walked them through a close-looking exercise with a piece of art before engaging them in a conversation about art and history. “Our role was to try to open their minds to more complex connections,” says Emma Nuzzo ’16, an art history major and WCMA gallery guide.
The visit was part of a new program called Art Museum Partnership for Education, or AMPED. A collaboration among WCMA, the Clark, and MASS MoCA, AMPED’s goal is to connect secondary school students to the museums and the rich arts community of the Northern Berkshires. “Through experiences and conversations with teachers, peers, and college students in the museums, we hope to inspire in them a love of looking at and learning from art,” says AMPED director Sean Charette, who ran two pilot programs in local schools this year.
AMPED works closely with teachers to co-develop museum visits and activities that are customized for each class. Williams student interns visit classrooms to help secondary school students understand concepts and terms used in art history and prepare for their museum visits. Then the interns are at the museum when the students arrive. “When students have the chance to learn from and with college students, they listen more closely and come to realize that there are young, smart, and creative people to whom critical thinking and the arts matter,” says Mount Greylock history teacher Jeff Welch.
After each of the four conversations with a WCMA gallery guide about a work of art, Welch’s students wrote short responses to the photographs and paintings they’d seen. That helped them start thinking about how art and history inform one another. “It can be hard to imagine how the past looked,” says Welch. “Art helps students see into the past to understand how a people saw themselves, what the norms and values of a culture were, what religious beliefs they held or what gender roles they conformed to.”
In January, Welch’s class made a second museum visit, to MASS MoCA. This time they weren’t looking just at art, but also at the building itself to explore connections to the past. “The experience helped them contextualize industrialization and the history of North Adams,” Charette says. “These exercises are important to the development of critical thinking skills and help students build visual, historical, and cultural literacy, which in turn helps them understand the world around them and the past.”
AMPED’s other pilot program is happening in Melissa Cairns’ 9th grade English class at Drury High School in North Adams. Cairns already teaches a unit on poetry and art that builds literacy in both areas. With AMPED, her 85 students get to move beyond looking at slides in the classroom and visit the Clark, where they will look at art in its original form and scale. “After guided experiences looking at art, the students each choose one work to write about,” says Charette. “Then they write an original poem and an essay that discusses the connections between visual art and poetry.”
“We want young people to think about the museums, to think about art, and to think about the value art can have in their lives,” Charette says.
To learn more about AMPED visit its website.