On a chilly, sun-filled morning in early March, eight Upper School students and their teacher, Esther Krell, left Chapin and walked west along 84th Street to one of the city’s most celebrated treasures: The Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue’s “Museum Mile.” As the group ascended the exterior stairs and entered the grand building, the students’ excitement was palpable.
After all, these seniors – members of Ms. Krell’s AP Art History class – are knowledgeable and curious art enthusiasts who delight in exploring cultural institutions like the Met, which boasts vast holdings encompassing 5,000 years of art, from pre-history to current times, and from every corner of the globe. Far more than a casual visit, this special outing included a challenging and thoroughly engaging assignment, which the class received in advance.
Specifically, the students were asked to choose three unique works from anywhere in the Met’s 17 curatorial departments* and to link all the pieces to a shared theme**. Later, after making their selections, each student wrote an essay that analyzed the three pieces from the vantage point of aesthetics, craftsmanship, cultural context and historical framework.
With backpacks slung over their shoulders, the class assembled around the towering pharaoh sculpture in the Great Hall to listen to Ms. Krell’s last-minute instructions. Because the Met had just opened, only a small number of museum-goers were inside, making for an unusually quiet information-gathering session.
The students were free to peruse any genres and time periods they desired, such as 19th century portraits in the American Wing, decorative objects in the Islamic Art department or the ancient marble statues within the Greek and Roman Art collection. In other words, they were limited only by their imaginations – and the allotted two-hour time frame.
On Ms. Krell’s cue and with the help of a museum map, they headed off in a variety of directions, determined to discover a small but significant sampling of the magnificent paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, coats of armor, jewelry, metalwork and costumes on display throughout the two-million-square-foot museum. A few students traveled in pairs; others set out on their own.
This writer shadowed several as they strolled purposely through the collections, taking in stunning masterpieces of medieval prints, Dutch paintings, carvings from the Hellenistic period and many other pieces. Navigating the exhibits, the students paused here and there to examine works more closely and to take notes. Their focus was impressive.
Before long, the productive research period came to an end. The students put away their notebooks and ambled back to the Great Hall’s pharaoh to meet up with the others and Ms. Krell. Over the next week, they worked on their essays, highlighting the art they learned about during their visit to the Met, and uniting the works thematically.
Ms. Krell shared that her students wrote far-reaching, sophisticated papers that explored a wide range of topics, including “Mortality through a German still life, a medieval German rosary, and the outer coffin from ancient Egypt”; “Religion through the Statuette of Amun, the Buddhist savior Tara, and Crown of the Andes”; and “The female body through a Greek statue of Aphrodite, the Diana sculpture in the American Wing, and a Yanda (African) female figure.”
It is evident that these young art historians approached this fascinating assignment with verve and passion. “I chose my theme because cosmology and the human experience are especially interesting to me. Thus, I have a particular affinity for art where the artist is exploring related themes and questions about the meaning of their own life,” commented one student, who wrote about the impermanence of life to tie in with works she selected in the Asian Art Department.
She continued, “What I enjoy most about Art History is analyzing art on a technical level, first looking at choices made with color, shape, composition, etc. and then finding out why said choices are significant or make sense given the time period and cultural background that the art comes from.”
Another student investigated Asian, Egyptian and American art for her paper on religion and cosmology. “I was most excited to explore different cultures and art that we hadn’t necessarily talked about in our class. The essay was an opportunity for me to use the skills I had cultivated throughout the year and apply them to new art I had never seen before,” she remarked.
“I really like how art history is a tangible manifestation of the time periods,” she added. “You get to experience history in a way that’s different from solely learning the facts and context. The art encapsulates the past in a visual way so that you can literally see and experience history.”
Curatorial Departments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
The American Wing
Ancient Near Eastern Art
Arms and Armor
Arts of Africa, Oceana, and the Americas
The Costume Institute
Drawings and Prints
European Sculpture and Decorative Arts
Greek and Roman Art
The Robert Lehman Collection
Modern and Contemporary Art
**The students chose from the following themes:
Individual and society
Religion / cosmology and belief
History / memory
Power and authority
Browse photos from the trip below: