Jeffrey MOSER 孟絜予
Brown University 布朗大學

Teaching without Masterpieces

The concept of the teaching museum is undergoing a Renaissance at major universities in the United States. Since their inception over a century ago, teaching museums have endeavored to mobilize their collections and intellectual resources to advance the research and educational programs of their universities. In recent years, this long-standing mission has been reinvigorated with large-scale museum renovations featuring state-of-the-art study centers, a new generation of research-oriented curators, and surging interest across the academy in object-oriented inquiry. The scale of these endeavors presents a challenge for smaller teaching museums without the financial resources and world-class collections of major institutions like Harvard and Yale. Faculty and curatorial staff at smaller institutions recognize the importance of museum-based education, but frequently find their collections and in-house curatorial expertise insufficient for their pedagogical ambitions.

Using my own participation in the "Assemblages" pilot program at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) as a case study, this paper explores ways in which novel partnerships between institutions can overcome some of the challenges of limited resources. With support from the Mellon Foundation, I am leading a team of students in developing the RISD Museum of Art's small collection of Chinese paintings into a resource for introducing students and museum audiences to the art of connoisseurship. Like many collections of its kind, the majority of the works in the RISD Museum's Chinese painting collection are problematic in one way or another: anonymous works of uncertain date, later paintings incorrectly attributed to earlier masters, and even at least one outright forgery. By gathering the material, visual, and textual documentation necessary to elucidate the problems with each work's attribution, we aim to reveal connoisseurial process. The results of our work will provide raw material for the undergraduate students in my annual Chinese painting seminar, who will work with our team to develop an exhibition of our findings and to archive our data and process for future scholars to access, elaborate, critique, and revise.

Museums everywhere recognize the desirability of making the complex work of their curators and conservators more accessible to visitors. By treating the RISD collection of Chinese paintings as a resource for explaining connoisseurial process, we are transforming what might otherwise be dismissed as an undistinguished and problematic collection into an engaging learning experience. By working across institutions, we are enlisting energy and expertise that the museum could not generate in isolation, and by engaging students throughout our process, we are ensuring that the making of the exhibit is every bit as educational as the exhibit itself. All of this was made possible through a modest, focused grant from the Mellon Foundation, which can serve as a model for other organizations seeking to advance the model of the teaching museum into new institutional settings.