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Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Bernstein Study-Storage Center

Hood Quarterly, autumn/winter 2009-10
Katherine Hart, Associate Director and Barbara C. and Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming

In 1989, the fledgling Hood Museum of Art opened a classroom in its storage area that houses three-dimensional art and artifacts as well as large paintings. Although it is a simple enough concept, this type of teaching space is actually quite rare in museums. The Bernstein Study-Storage Center, named after Jane and Raphael Bernstein, Dartmouth parents and generous donors to the college, can accommodate classes of up to twenty students and also serves as a space for study of works of art by individual students.

The Hood is distinctive among its peers in that it makes all types of objects available for teaching in its classroom. The space functions much the same way as a print room, except that painting, sculpture, and artifacts are shown in addition to prints, drawings, and photographs.We arrange for requested objects to be available at a particular time for a class or individual faculty or student visit. During the last twenty years, this classroom has seen active use by Dartmouth College faculty and classes, averaging between 300 and 400 student visits (and on occasion as many as 500) per term during the regular academic year. Between 1996 and 2007, the museum served 1,547 class and 14,625 student visits to the center. While in many museums objects are seen only in static display spaces, the Hood’s collections circulate regularly through its storage teaching space.

The program’s success is in part due to the significant amount of staff time the museum dedicates to the classroom. The assistant registrar, with the help of a part-time assistant, pulls between 3,500 and 5,000 objects per year for viewing by students and faculty from thirty academic departments.

Recently the Hood worked with the firm of Randi Korn and Associates to evaluate the museum’s fulfillment of its purpose, which its director and staff have indentified as “cultivate teaching with objects” and “create learning encounters,” many of which take place in the Bernstein Study-Storage Center. In October 2007, the firm conducted intensive interviews with Dartmouth professors who use the museum. One response stated:

I think particularly in our age where people tend to think that everything they need is on screen, it is essential to show them that there are many other qualities of physical art that are important and exciting.
The way I teach is very sociohistorical, wherein aesthetics and formal appreciation are important, but they are byproducts of just learning how to really grab all the complexities of the visual document. I am hoping, more importantly, that they will attain a kind of confidence in their ability to see something new, maybe put it in context or feel like they have the skills to analyze it and have an opinion about it.

Faculty members need to know about objects in order to teach with them. Many professors come to the museum to select objects for their classes, while others use the museum’s online catalogue. It is during these meetings with faculty, or during longer faculty residencies, when most of the creative thinking occurs about how an object can be used for a particular class. Discussions take place about the media, history, meaning, origins and purpose, context, aesthetics, and condition of an object, and about its relationship to other objects in the collection and to the course. To best engage with faculty, the museum pairs professors with staff members who know the collection well and have expertise in certain areas. When we do not have someone on staff, we have used Andrew W. Mellon Foundation endowment funds to hire an expert to come in. Our goal, whenever possible, is to empower the faculty member to be the person who stands in front of a work of art and teaches. At the end of the residency, they create a written blueprint for the objects they will use for one or more class sessions, for a student paper topic, or for an exam.

As we move forward into the next decade, the museum will continue to engage faculty and students by making works of art available through the Bernstein Study-Storage Center. We will increasingly engage students by teaching visual literacy and imparting to them tools they can use to not only look at, but really see the object before them. This is a vital skill for students living in a media-saturated world, and it is our goal that by the time they graduate, all Dartmouth students will be able to navigate the visual, as well as the textual world, with skill and dexterity.

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