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UD students get hands-on experience with gallery’s arts and artifacts

Katie Payne, a senior majoring in art conservation, examines a piece of African art from the University Gallery collection.
Photo by Eric Crossan
1:38 p.m., Dec. 11, 2003--Located in Old College, the University Gallery uses its collections and resources to create exhibitions for the public and to educate students in various disciplines about the pieces and about all aspects of museum work.

Peter Weil, associate professor of anthropology and director of the University’s African Studies Program, uses the gallery’s art and artifacts as a teaching resource for his cross-listed anthropology/art history class on African art, allowing students to work with the gallery’s collection while leaving a legacy for others. He begins the course, which he has taught four times, by reviewing conceptual issues and methodologies that will be valuable to students when they choose specific objects from the University Gallery and conduct in-depth research and analyses of original pieces.

The objects from which students can choose have been donated to the University over the years—from the last half of the 20th century—and have had little to no previous documentation.

“First the students identify the object by name, which can sometimes be very difficult for them to do,” Weil says. “For example, there’s a piece from Nigeria that looks like it’s part of a doll, but it’s not a doll. The students have to make judgments based on the evidence they discover through library research.”

After identifying the objects, the students place them into a cultural historical context. “They find out where in Africa the objects are from, when they were made, how they were experienced and their meanings,” Weil says. “The goal is to have a cultural biography of the object.”

Peter Weil, associate professor of anthropology and director of the University’s African Studies Program
Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson
Katie Payne, a senior majoring in art conservation, took Weil’s course last spring. For her project, she researched a Senufo mask from the northern Ivory Coast that was part of a men’s coming-of-age ritual. “The mask resembles a full human face, but it has long, pointy features that are either ears or horns. The wood it’s made of is dark and the mask is shiny and smooth to the touch,” Payne says.

The opportunity to physically handle works of art—not merely view them on slides—is an important aspect of the course. In addition to using the University’s collection, Weil gathers objects while doing research in Africa and brings them to class to train students in how to study them. Though handling the objects results in wear on the materials from which the objects are constructed, Weil said he believes it is valuable for the students to interact with the pieces, to actually see the colors and textures that a slide may not fully convey.

“He wanted us to handle the pieces—that’s why he bought them,” Payne said. “We learn about the pieces by seeing them, and, when we handle them, we become a part of their histories.”

The opportunity to engage in original research is just as profitable for the students as the opportunity to handle the works of art. According to Weil, “The students become part of the process of research. The documentation they do matters because future researchers will use their work.” The groundwork Weil’s students establish through documenting and researching the pieces also will enable the University Gallery to better incorporate them in future research and into exhibits, he said.

Article by Lila Naydan

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