Using the NCMA’s Collection for Literature

By Carol Cross, Home-School Educator

For the past two years, I have taught a literature class for home-school students in middle or early high school. I like to have them connect the books they are reading with music, current events, cultural tropes, and other aspects of their lives. So every year, we make at least one field trip to the North Carolina Museum of Art to find linkages among the themes we’ve studied in books and the state’s premier art collection.

Last year, one topic we covered was the shift in literature between the romantic and realistic era. Of course, it is hard to read a lot of books in one year’s class to get to know numerous examples from both periods. However, art was going through the same transition at about the same period. So I took them to the Museum for a “Romanticism vs. Realism” scavenger hunt.

I broke them up into groups of four students and instructed them to search among the NCMA’s American, Portrait, and European galleries for examples of both American and European Romantic and Realistic paintings. I restricted them to works from the late 17th and entire 18th century and had each group start on a different category (American Romanticism, American Realism, European Romanticism, European Realism) so they wouldn’t all be clustered around the same paintings at the same time.

We reconvened an hour later and compared results. Each team got points for the number of paintings they had correctly classified. However, mostly the teams had identified the same paintings–for example, John Singleton Copley’s Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family or Albert Bierstadt’s Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite for American Romanticism versus Winslow Homer’s Weaning the Calf or Jean-Francois Millet’s Peasant Spreading Manure as Realism, both American and European.

The students really enjoyed the field trip, and they always like these kinds of “contests” we have periodically in class. But most of all, the difference between Romanticism and Realism became clearly evident to them in a way that is easier to achieve than reading a single example of each kind of literature.

This year, however, we didn’t have a scavenger hunt–we had a Huntzz. Huntzz is a free IOS(Apple)/Android app that can be used with smart phones or tablets. This allowed me to develop a technology-driven, rather than just a paper-based, activity.

Our class this year is focused on analyzing literature using the concept of universal characters or archetypes, as theorized by psychologist Carl Jung and popularized by scholar Joseph Campbell. I had presented a set of twelve major archetypes to the students, and we were discovering that our stories–not only books, but TV shows, movies, and even video games–were replete with these recurring character types. But where else can we discover these archetypes?  In art, of course.

So for this activity, I organized things in a little different way. Using Huntzz, I gave them “clues” that led them to a particular art piece, and they had to figure out what archetype was shown in that work. For example, one clue I gave them said, “This well-known American hero, found in the Contemporary Gallery, is an unconventional example of which archetype?”  This may sound fairly vague, but those who are familiar with the NCMA’s Contemporary collection may recall that there are very few actual people displayed in that gallery. (I told them I was only directing them to people or characters they would all be familiar with, not any obscure biblical figures or ancient European monarchs who aren’t typically covered in American history classes.)

In fact, there was only one famous person I discovered in that gallery, found in Harriet Tubman by Aaron Douglas (work on loan). She is depicted as breaking the chains of slavery, so I characterized her archetype as “Warrior,” (albeit, as I said in the clue, an unconventional one, since she was fighting a systemic injustice rather than a military force).

However, Huntzz also has a map component for each clue. So when I was setting up my Huntzz, I went to the Museum and Huntzz recorded the GPS location for each artwork or gallery to which I sent the students. Therefore, students could check the map section to see if they were in the correct area for the piece they were searching for.

Once again, I broke the class up into teams of four who worked together to figure out the clues and the answers (which meant only one of out every four students needed a smartphone or a tablet, since not everyone has this technology yet). Huntzz kept track of their score, awarding them five points if they gave the right response on the first try, four for the second attempt, etc.  If they couldn’t figure it out, they could “break” the virtual treasure chest with their virtual ax and get the correct answer, although they wouldn’t earn any points for that.

The Huntzz was a great success!  They loved getting to use the technology, although they soon learned the value of supplementing their GPS-driven directions with the good, old-fashioned paper map of the collection the Museum provides. And with this topic, we got to go through all the galleries and figure out the archetypes of a range of artwork, from a classical marble Hercules (another “warrior”), to medieval Madonnas (“caregiver”), to the figure of Horace (“ruler”). The Huntzz demonstrated one of Campbell’s major points–that these same archetypes can be found throughout the world, throughout time, and throughout different types of artistic media.

It’s an old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words. As a literature teacher, I’m addicted to words. But I’ve found that a trip to the NCMA is a great way to mix things up a bit, and to approach the same lesson we are studying in our books in a different way, using a different learning modality. We are so fortunate that this great resource is open to all the students of North Carolina without charge!

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