Wheaton’s Permanent Collection for years has been a resource for teaching students, for faculty research and for sharing with a variety of local audiences. Now, the reach of the collection is bigger than ever since the creation of audio podcasts in which students share their insights about the art they are studying in a way that is easily accessible via the World Wide Web.
The series titled “Watson Conversations” is designed to showcase digital interpretations of objects from the collection. Virtual visitors can listen to students talk about the works of art as images are displayed on the screen. Currently, the series features seven works and “conversations” by 12 students, but there are plans to add more in the future.
“The collection has always been an essential teaching tool, and students often work with it in their art history courses. This is an extension of that practice, a new way to share student work,” says Assistant Professor of Art History Ellen McBreen. “The project was part of the coursework for ‘Art of the Avant-Gardes (1900–1945),’ so we selected works by artists who were also members of the early 20th-century avant-garde movements we studied.”
By the Numbers
- 4,500* items in the Permanent Collection: Not including coins, postcards and stamps, which number in the hundreds (coins and postcards) and thousands (stamps).
- 2500–1100 BCE age of oldest item: a Cycladic figure, .
- 214 paintings
- 100 objects were exhibited in student-curated mini-exhibitions
- 175* objects used for class or student teaching/research in the fall 2011 semester
- 58 sculptures
- 42 objects were exhibited in the exhibition “The Art of Intellectual Community: Early Modern Objects and Pedagogy.”
- 66 objects in the Kilham basket collection
- 54 candlesticks
- 8 to 12 students who help take care of the collection each semester
- 3 works by Rembrandt
- 3 works by Picasso
McBreen came up with the idea for the project and worked with faculty technology liaison Patrick Rashleigh to bring it into fruition. “I wanted to give students an appreciation for how rich in ideas a single work of art can be. We also learned that different audiences require different approaches to communication. A podcast and an academic paper, for example, should be conceived with their different functions in mind,” she says. “I wanted students to understand that there is no one way to practice art history, or any discipline for that matter. The questions you ask, and the methodologies you use, depend on what function you want your research and writing to have.”
Students worked in pairs to create podcasts, which challenged them to effectively mesh their ideas without losing the focus or concision for the podcast.
Betsy Cronin ’11, who is manager of art events at Wheaton, worked with anthropology major Alexandra Barie ’13 on a podcast about two prints from the collection, “Eve, no. 11 from the Unité Series, 65/130” and “The Snake, no. 15 from the Unité Series, 100/130” by Le Corbusier, both gifts of Dr. and Mrs. Harry L. Kozol (Ruth Massell, Class of 1925).
“I felt as though I learned more about this artist and the period by doing a project that involved an interactive element rather than by just writing a paper,” Cronin says. “Our charge was not only to research a work of art on our own and write about it, but also to teach others about our discoveries. The most challenging part was recording the podcast—making it sound interesting, informative, engaging and natural all at the same time. We had to do a few takes, but I was grateful for such a great partner in Alex. We basically just tried to have a conversation with each other about the work.”
Barie found it fascinating to see how Cronin interpreted the art in a way that was different than she had. She says she also welcomed the opportunity to share her research with a larger audience, which doesn’t often happen with a research paper. “In class, we discussed how museums are creating podcasts to increase their online presence and to appeal to a wide range of people. I enjoyed talking about what I learned and condensing it into a short podcast that I could share.“