Teaching with Collections in an Online World

Special Collections continues its work pandemic notwithstanding.

In a typical semester, dozens of classes visit Special Collections and use art, cultural, and historical materials to design student projects. COVID-19 interrupted those plans, but in a number of cases, students were able to continue with projects on a remote basis.

In the case of Museum Studies Director Monique Scott’s Exhibiting Africa course—in which students were learning to catalogue previously unidentified African figures—we scrambled to produce videos of objects in the round that would simulate the experience of looking closely, and in person, at three-dimensional objects.

In other cases, such as for History Professor Ignacio Gallup-Diaz’s Telling Bryn Mawr Histories course, we were able to call on the substantial amount of digitized documentation in the College Archives to help students with their research projects. For other classes, we referred faculty and students to the rich collection of digital images in our Art and Artifacts Database, Triarte, at triarte.brynmawr.edu.

Assistant Professor of Italian Alessandro Giammei planned to have his Gendered History of the Avant-Garde course visit the collections multiple times last semester, but the class visited only once before the move to online teaching. Giammei embraced the online experience by enfolding it into the revised version of his assignment. The problem of working with suddenly inaccessible objects, particularly ones that are also conceptually obscure, drove students to produce a publicly available virtual gallery based on their remembered experiences of their selected objects. Their lived experience of a disruption of normal systems gave new weight to the calls for revolt of their avant-garde authors. Working with curator Carrie Robbins, M.A. ’09, Ph.D. ’13; the class produced an inventive set of interpretations rooted in their shared readings.

Even with classes returning to campus this fall, our normal practice of bringing classes in to work with collections will not be possible due to social distancing regulations. Instead, we are working with a number of faculty to find ways to combine class sessions elsewhere or remotely, with individual student visits to Special Collections to work on assignments using primary sources.