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The BAC Reaches Out
There is a temptation to remove one’s hat upon entering the skylit Library Court of the Yale Center for British Art. Massive, gilt-framed, full-length portraits spanning generations of British gentry circumscribe the otherwise serenely simple, oak-paneled space. Here, the 17th-century subject of Paul Van Somer’s James I stares regally out into posterity, while just across the hall Elizabeth Gunning, Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll (the studio of Joshua Reynolds, 18th century), her soft, white shoulders draped in scarlet and ermine, placidly gazes at a rose bush while banks of gray, roiling clouds gather above her head. Sporting portraits of “unknown” English gentlemen, with their spaniels, muskets, and breeches hang side-by-side with the studious Benjamin Moreland, High Master of St. Paul’s School, 1724 (by John Smibert) and George Romney’s supremely civilized John Flaxman Modelling the Bust of William Hayley. In arresting equipoise, a pair of Stubbs’ most famous animal paintings—A Lion Attacking a Horse and A Lion Attacking a Stag—dominate the back wall. The atmosphere is scholarly, the physical setting sublime.
But on a day or two each week, the aristocratic calm is shattered by the chatter of third-graders as they crawl about on all fours across the Oriental rugs, imitating the ravenous Stubbsian lions. On another occasion, members of a local high-school class fan out through the gallery in search of paintings of famous characters and settings from Shakespeare, Hardy, Woolf, and Dickens to amplify their reading assignments. On still another day, a dozen curious middle-schoolers are scrutinizing an exhibit on James Smetham—a fairly obscure Victorian-era British artist, poet, and critic. Without very much prompting, one of the youthful visitors—Nilema Sevier, 11, of Madison—raises her hand to ask, “If he wasn’t well-known, then why are we supposed to care about him?”
Such questions lie at the heart of what mature scholars do for a living, but addressing them in ways accessible to young people can do much to create an appetite for later learning. That, and sharing the answers with as wide an audience as possible, are objectives that figure prominently on the agenda of the Yale Center for British Art, or BAC, as it is better known. While the gallery’s primary mission remains, of course, to serve the needs of higher education, the BAC is increasingly concerned about its ability to make art literally come alive for the 3,600 younger patrons who visit the museum each year. “When those children are crawling about on the floor, imitating the lion, they’re doing more than just looking at the painting,” says Duncan Robinson, the British-born director of the museum and an adjunct professor of art history at Yale. “They’re translating the artist’s intent and relating to the animal’s emotions. I find that most exciting.”
Robinson’s enthusiasm is shared by the curatorial staff as well as by the museum’s 25 docents, or volunteer tour guides, part of whose job it is to introduce groups of school-age visitors to the gallery’s vast holdings. They include the most extensive collection of British art in the United States, and the largest such collection in the world under a single roof (the collection at London’s British Museum is larger, but is divided among several separate buildings). Among the 70,000 items in the collection—which embraces paintings, prints, drawings, watercolors, and rare books—are masterpieces by all the leading artists who worked in Britain from the 16th century onwards, including Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Stubbs, Turner, Constable, and Blake.
Among researchers, the BAC is revered for its reference library, rivaled (outside Britain) only by the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino, California. Hundreds of scholars from all over the world visit the BAC’s library each year to peruse its stacks of 20,000 books and its expansive photo archive, which contains more than 200,000 images, 55,000 of which are accessible via a new computer database. Others come to study such treasures as original Turner and Constable watercolors in the print room, or perhaps dip into the diaries and sketchbooks of Sir Joshua Reynolds in the rare book collection. The BAC also hosts visiting fellows and holds regular symposia, lectures, and interdisciplinary programs on various periods and aspects of British art.
Founded in 1977, the BAC and the bulk of its holdings (the collection has since been added to) were the gift of Paul Mellon ’29, one of Yale’s major benefactors. Mellon’s taste for all things British dates to childhood summers spent abroad in the English countryside, where, as he recalled, his impressions were summed up in a vision of “herds of friendly deer, flotillas of white swans” and “dappled tan cows” arrayed peacefully “against a background of huge golden summer clouds” with “the grey mass of Windsor Castle towering in the distance.”
After Yale, Mellon went on to study at Cambridge Uni-versity, where, during the 1930s, he began collecting English paintings of sporting scenes. Returning to the United States after World War II, he continued to buy British art until his collection was so vast that it forced him and his family out of their brick Virginia mansion and into a nearby farmhouse.
By the mid-1960s, Mellon was searching for a permanent home for the collection, and eventually settled on Yale. The new museum, which was the last and, many feel, one of the finest buildings designed by Louis I. Kahn, opened on April 15, 1977. (It creates a unique architectural companion piece to the Yale University Art Gallery, just across Chapel Street, which was Kahn’s first major commission.) “My objective in giving these collections to Yale was largely to give young men and women an opportunity to enjoy them at a period in their lives before age and familiarity dulled the immediacy of their visual impact,” Mellon recalled in his memoir, Reflections in a Silver Spoon. “I would have been saddened if the only purpose the pictures were going to serve was to replace lecture slides.”
Translating these words into action has, from its opening day, been a primary focus for the BAC, which offers a variety of outreach programs (gallery talks, art workshops, films, concerts, etc.) for both children and adults. And these programs, as well as the reference library and gallery itself, have always been free and open to the public. “We’ve never thought our collections should be exclusive to the Yale community,” says Robinson in response to those who might question why such a specialized institution takes such pains to keep its doors open to all. “Like the University, we recognize that we have a wider civic responsibility and opportunity to share what we have with others.” Adds Constance Clement, assistant director of the BAC’s Department of Education and Information: “Making the community aware of our presence is an integral part of what we are about.”
Sometimes blurred by the public’s perception of art museums as stuffy and elitist institutions, that message has been getting through with increasing force in recent years, especially in public and private high schools across the state. According to Clement, the number of high school tours last year increased 30 percent over the previous academic year as a result of a “concerted effort to reach out to this particular audience.”
Why the focus on teenagers? As Robinson sees the issue, “Education is becoming increasingly visual, what with computers and graphics in the classroom, and so we sat down and asked ourselves what age group could benefit from access to the collection and integrate that visual element into curricula of history and literature.” To this end, the museum in 1990 invited a dozen teachers of English, history, and art from high schools across the state—all of whom regularly brought classes to the BAC—to form an advisory committee.
This group, with the support of the museum staff and a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, staged two highly successful colloquia in 1992—“Face to Face: Art, History, and Literature in British Figure Painting” and “City vs. Country in Victorian Britain”—which brought teachers from public and private high schools together with museum staff and Yale faculty members to explore ways of including the BAC’s collections in their teaching. The sessions immersed the teachers in the works of various artists, as well as related literary selections: Shakespeare’s Richard II in connection with a discussion on portraiture in the Tudor and Stuart courts, for example, or Hardy’s Return of the Native in preparation for a look at paintings of 19th-century industrialized, urban settings. “The colloquia have helped us to build a number of bridges between the museum and the classroom,” says Clement. A third colloquium is scheduled for the spring, and will examine the art, literature, music, and ideas of the Romantic movement from the 1790s to the mid-19th century.
Aside from planning such major events, the museum staff, the docents, and the committee itself periodically meet with teachers to explore new ways to link various curricula to the collections. “We discuss with the teacher what the students are studying prior to the visit so that we can tailor our tours to whatever it is they are dealing with,” says Susan Skolnik, the BAC’s head docent. Readers of the great 18th-century satirists Pope and Swift, for instance, might embellish their understanding of the British class structure of the times as well as the writers’ various targets by examining William Hogarth’s riotous depiction of The Beggar’s Opera or his chaotic The Midnight Modern Conversation. Students of the Romantic period can study watercolors of Wordsworth’s Tinturn Abbey or become lost in Constable and Turner landscapes, which seem right out of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Lovers of Woolf might linger over portraits of members of the Bloomsbury Group, while those studying Blake can have the rare pleasure of coming face-to-face with his original illustrations for Songs of Innocence in the BAC’s print room.
“There’s something magical about viewing a scene which someone from the period once saw,” says Gary Fountain, an English teacher at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, and a member of the advisory committee. “It’s a way of looking at an artifact from the age itself, like holding a first edition.” The exercise, he adds, also helps students visualize the book “as one element in a larger, cultural dialogue,” while writing about the paintings improves their composition skills by pushing them to be more descriptive.
The success of the effort can sometimes be tracked with great precision. “Visiting the museum enhanced my writing a lot; it made me focus more on detail and make more comparisons,” says Joan Thompson ’97, a former student of Fountain’s at Miss Porter’s. She recalls being surprised when Fountain informed her class that a trip to the BAC would be part of their study of English literature. “You don’t think of incorporating a trip to the museum in an English class,” Thompson says. “I used to think that an art museum was a place where older people went on weekends.”
Not so during annual sessions of one of the gallery’s most popular and earliest educational outreach programs, “Picture This!,” a series of Saturday-morning workshops designed for children in grades four through six. The sessions include a discussion of a particular artist or genre and a walk through the gallery, followed by a hands-on art project. This past fall, a dozen or so children from New Haven and its suburbs spent three consecutive Saturdays interpreting Stubbs’ animal paintings, studying, drawing, and building miniature models of landscapes from twigs, grass, and broccoli (as Gainsborough himself did), and exploring the eccentric and eclectic works of James Smetham.
“How did he do that? Is that a watercolor? What does it say?” pipe several of the children as they lean over a display case of Smetham’s unique journal entries, which he called “squarings.” The objects of the childrens’ curiosity are painfully small, boxed sketches of daily life surrounded by Smetham’s commentary written in a tiny script. In a neighboring room, docent Alyson Kluth helps the children connect with Smetham’s landscapes by describing them as “pictures he made while on vacation, just as you might take photographs when you’re away with your family.”
Back in the docent room, Kluth hands out paper, colored pencils, and square pieces of cardboard, and then asks the children to try to create their own “squarings” by summoning up details of their lives. Eleven-year-old Daniel Stambovsky of New Haven sketches a mini-seascape, while 8-year-old Nancy Mu of Hamden draws a detailed portrait of her guinea pig.
Many of the teachers and museum staff members find that for some elementary school students—especially those from low-income neighborhoods—a trip to the BAC is an eye-opening experience. “Some of these kids have never ridden in an elevator or eaten in a restaurant, let alone been inside an art museum,” observes Toni Morrotti, a third-grade teacher at New Haven’s Quinnipiac School. Thanks to the BAC’s participation in the New Haven public school system’s 15-year-old “Third Grade Museum Program,” every third-grader in the city now has that opportunity. As part of the program, all third-grade classes take field trips to both the BAC and the Yale University Art Gallery.
After making it clear to the children that in a museum you “feel with your eyes, not with your hands,” the docents (many of them retired teachers themselves) engage them in question-and-answer sessions on the paintings, sometimes asking them to imitate faces or search for familiar objects such as a ball or characters from stories. “We always start by telling them where England is and explain that this is an art devoted to and reflective of a culture that is different,” says head docent Skolnik. “We try to make it interesting, and show them pictures of horses or other little children at play, which they might relate to.”
Another helpful tool has been a children’s gallery guide, The Great British Art Search, which contains visual clues, factual information, and a map to help young patrons locate nine specific works of art in the museum.
The museum staff has found that such proactive approaches to art appreciation—soliciting responses from the students, involving them in hands-on projects, asking them to step into the artists’ shoes—are much more effective than the standard slide lecture. And the experts support the findings. Becoming actively involved in viewing art enhances creativity and leads to a richer understanding of the subject, according to Yale’s Robert Sternberg, the IBM Professor of Psychology and Education and a specialist in the study of creativity and learning styles. “From an educational standpoint this kind of thing is great in that it gets children to do creative work in a setting that really encourages creativity. It’s a better way to learn than simply by viewing, and a much better use of museums.”
The BAC’s young visitors seem to confirm that analysis. “Knowing more about the paintings, how they portrayed life in the times in which the authors were writing, helped me to come to a clearer understanding of the authors’ message, and made the writing more valuable,” says 16-year-old Matt Landa, a junior at Daniel Hand High School, whose class visited the museum last year.
Robinson finds it ironic that, despite such endorsements, the BAC still has some trouble getting the word out about what it has to offer beyond the realm of high scholarship. In fact, he notes, most people—especially young ones—connect more easily with the naturalistic images of landscapes, people, and animals that constitute the bulk of the BAC’s holdings than with abstract art or art from unfamiliar cultures. But he is optimistic about eroding the lingering perception that with a name like the “Yale Center for British Art,” his institution simply must be snooty and unapproachable.
The optimism is shared by New Haven Arts Council executive director Frances Clark, who considers the BAC “one of most accessible and forthcoming” arts organizations in the community. She says the museum shares the same challenge as every other arts entity in New Haven, from the New Haven Symphony, to the Long Wharf Theater and the city’s other galleries: “How do you stimulate and develop audiences among the people in the community? How do you get them in your doors on a Sunday afternoon and keep them coming back?”
Paraphrasing a current television commercial for an investment banking firm, the BAC might well reply: “One child at a time.”
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