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Smith’s Museum of Art: A Powerful Place

By Jessica Nicoll ’83

When I returned to Smith this past fall to become the director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art, it was with a very personal understanding of the impact the museum and its collection can have on the education of a Smith student. The opportunity to study directly from original works of art—many of them the finest examples of their kind—had swayed my decision to declare my major in art history and American studies during my sophomore year at Smith in 1980. In studying the museum’s paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings and photographs, I became curious about the nature of the institution that housed those artworks and the kinds of work that took place within it. The Smith College Museum of Art gave me my first behind-the-scenes glimpse at the world of museums and started me on the path to my career as a curator and, now, director.

Now, in my brief time back at Smith I have learned that I am not alone in having these associations. Most of the alumnae I have met have strong memories of favorite artworks in the collection and speak of the intellectual enrichment and spiritual sustenance that the museum provided them as students.

It is no coincidence that the museum and its collection occupy a powerful place in the experience of Smith’s graduates. From its founding, the college has had a visionary commitment to the importance of the arts in the curriculum. The official circular for the college written in 1876 by Laurenus Clark Seelye, the first president of Smith College, asserted that “the study of Art and Music has been made…a part of the regular intellectual work of the College.” It also announced the establishment of an Art Gallery where reproductions of masterworks could be studied. Within three years Seelye had begun purchasing original paintings—chiefly the work of contemporary American artists—establishing the foundation for the museum’s collection. Seelye understood that the opportunity to explore an artwork firsthand, to experience directly its scale, texture, composition and tonalities, was essential to the study of both the history and practice of art. Smith College took a progressive position in according the visual arts equal stature with more traditional areas of study, giving them an unprecedented place in the American collegiate curriculum.

That commitment has remained strong as evidenced not only by the college’s exceptional academic programs but also by the continued growth in scope and quality of the museum’s collection and the creation of the new Brown Fine Arts Center. The museum today is a dramatically different institution from the place I knew as a student, in the increased range of its offerings and in its broad engagement with Smith’s community. No longer an exclusive resource for the art department, our collection supports the pedagogy of faculty across campus.

In the current academic year, faculty in the departments of chemistry, education and child study, French studies, and mathematics are using the museum’s collections in their courses. The next 12 months will see collaborations with the departments of landscape studies and engineering around two special exhibitions.

Each semester an average of 40 classes visit the Cunningham Center for the Study of Prints, Drawings and Photographs to work directly with artworks in the collection. And each year dozens of students seek out individualized learning opportunities in the museum through special research projects, internships and participation in our Student Museum Educator program in which students are trained to teach in the galleries.

This interdisciplinary use of the museum’s collection reflects a growing appreciation for the importance of visual literacy to successful learning. As our understanding of different learning styles has expanded, so has the recognition that learning in the arts has broader benefits to general cognition. These include developing reasoning, imagination, descriptive ability and argumentation skills while nurturing active engagement, disciplined and sustained attention, and risk taking.

Further, the museum setting fosters experiential learning, a highly effective method that involves participation and reflection on the part of students. Students develop skills through experience, viewing art in the galleries and gaining on-the-job training through internships.

Visual literacy and experiential learning have obvious benefits to students of art, architecture and engineering, but there is compelling evidence that these can also enhance the academic performance of students in virtually every discipline. Beyond the academic realm, these methodologies equip students to read images critically and think visually, skills that are crucial to negotiating our image-saturated world.

Consistent with its progressive origins, the Smith College Museum of Art has evolved in tandem with the college’s curriculum and pedagogy. The museum’s new facilities in the Brown Fine Arts Center provide galleries that showcase more of the permanent collection and that accommodate special exhibitions, both large and small; four on-site classrooms; workspaces for students; and common spaces such as the atrium. The museum strives to be a resource for all Smith students, whether it is in helping to train them for a career in the arts or to develop their capacity for thinking creatively in other disciplines.

In August Jessica Nicoll became director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art. She is the first Smith alumna to head the museum.

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