By Sasha Nyary
Late on a recent Friday afternoon, a small group of students gathered around Kristina Bush ’17 as she stood in front of a Chinese scroll that hung almost the length of the wall in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.
“As you can see, we are looking at a landscape,” Bush said, gesturing toward the artwork. “There is some evidence of human civilization, but the scale is so small in comparison to nature that we can tell that the artist really wanted to put the focus on nature.”
The students, perched on small folding stools, listened attentively as Bush described the hanging as a Taoist scroll and outlined the basic tenets of the ancient Chinese metaphysical religion.
“The Tao is the path,” Bush said. “The path is non-interference with natural things. It’s the way, the understanding of nature. The scroll reminds us that humans are so much less than nature, that nature is the way, that nature is so much greater than humanity.”
Bush, who is a medieval studies major with a Nexus in public history, archives, and museums, is practicing a tour she is learning to lead as part of the Art Museum’s inaugural Student Guide Program this year. She is one of seven students in the program who participating in the Art Museum’s Sightlines Tours, student-led tours that are based around individual themes.
As part of the Student Guide Program, the students spend two and a half hours every Friday afternoon learning how to observe and talk about art. They then develop their own thematic tours and lead them for the public.
“We are teaching our students about the collection and how to lead a tour,” said Kendra Weisbin, assistant curator of education, who runs the program with Ellen Alvord ’89, curator of education and academic programs and the Art Museum’s interim director. “We are also demonstrating slow looking rather than fast moving through the museum. We are getting them attuned to the visual rather than just content. It’s so easy to jump to story.”
Each Friday session begins with practicing looking at a work of art, which Weisbin calls “close looking through inquiry.” The students sit silently around a work of art that one of the curators has chosen and observe it for a few minutes.
After the initial observation period, the curator asks the students questions about the work, which may be a painting, sculpture, ceramic, photograph, or another type of art. The work might be realistic or abstract. The questions probe the students to describe what they see in terms of color, shadow, light, texture, setting, costume, and story.
Each student brings a different background and different way of seeing the art—and that’s what makes the experience so powerful, Weisbin said.
“When you are able to discuss the art with the group and you hear what other people are seeing and thinking, all of a sudden you weave together something that you may have missed on your own,” she said.
As they learned about the collection this fall, each student decided on a tour theme and chose five objects to research. They then developed a talk into a 30- to 45-minute tour, which they practice in front of the group before presenting it to the public.
Each student brings a personal interest to the selected objects. While some students are art history majors, others are English, politics, anthropology, and history majors. As a result, the themes this year include Picturing Gender, The Artist’s Perspective, and The Political Frame.
Bush’s tour is called Visualizing the Sacred, which she will give on Saturday, February 13, at 1:30 pm. Bush is particularly interested in material culture, which she defines as looking at cultural artifacts with both artistic and historical lenses. She likes that the Student Guide Program allows her to focus her tour around her personal interests.
“A material culture piece wasn’t made as a piece of art, but we now look at it and see it as beautiful,” Bush said. “You feel a connection to it. It may not be the traditional paint on canvas, but if you get a feeling from it, it’s art.”
Her tour looks at the portrayal of religion in different cultures and includes the Taoist Chinese scroll; a Veronese painting called “The Adoration of the Shepherds” that represents Christianity; a Navajo weaving; a Hindu Ganesha statue; and a Nasca ceramic vessel from Peru, a shamanistic culture.
“Kristina’s tour encapsulates what’s exciting about the tours in general,” said Weisbin. “Visitors can get a real sense of the Museum’s highlights. She is going to look at the Veronese and talk about the Virgin and child. But she’s also going to show them the ancient Peruvian ceramic and a Chinese scroll.”
The yearlong, noncredit, volunteer program is a wonderful opportunity, said Olivia Barry ’16, an art history major who plans to work in museums. Her tour is called Living Spirits: Reflection and Memory in Art, which she will give on Saturday, February 20, at 1:30 pm.
“Kendra and Ellen show us how to interact with an audience, how to keep the discussion going,” Barry said. “We’re there to guide it. We want them to engage with the artwork to get the most out of the tour.”
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