Meaning in Materials (Video)

In partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, History of Art graduate students participate in an object-based learning workshop.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

By Louisa Shepard
Video and photos by Alex Schein

Eight graduate students leaned forward with anticipation as the cart was wheeled into the workshop in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Upon it was a unique bronze sculpture, created by an Italian artist in the 15th century, of a triumphant David, his foot on the head of the giant Goliath.

Each student would have a chance to hold the bronze, feel its weight and examine it up close, during this day-long “object-based learning” workshop in March, made possible by a partnership between Penn and the Museum.

Discovery is the goal of the partnership, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, allowing students in the History of Art Department to study the Museum’s collection in person, up close, and in many different ways to foster a greater appreciation of the direct study of works of art.

Francesca Richman, a first-year master’s student, grasped the foot-high bronze with her glove-covered hands as it was tipped forward onto a small muslin pillow.

“Wow! There is a whole other scene on the bottom!” she says, eyeing the deeply carved base, a scene of David as a shepherd, slingshot in hand, with sheep and dogs in a pasture.

“This is the only Renaissance bronze that we know of in the world that is like this, with a sculpted relief on the bottom,” says Jack Hinton, the museum’s associate curator of European decorative arts and sculpture. “This clearly demonstrates the point about handling it, manipulating it.”

Perhaps for the original owner, picking it up made sense. But for art history students, touching a rare bronze sculpture would not otherwise be possible.

“To me the workshop is the pinnacle of teaching,” says Sarah Guérin, assistant professor of art history. “It was so rewarding for me to be able to give the students their first experience handling Renaissance art.”

Sarah Guérin, assistant professor of art history (left); Sally Malenka, museum conservator of decorative arts and sculpture, presents one the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Renaissance bronzes to worskshop participants (right).

The Mellon Foundation recently renewed the grant, awarding Penn and the Museum another $500,000 for the next three years to advance and expand the successful strategies developed during the project’s developmental phase.

“This grant gives us the opportunity to deepen and expand our conversations with conservators, curators and museum educators about how to approach different kinds of art objects as material creations,” says Karen Redrobe, the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor in Film Studies and chair of Penn’s History of Art Department.

The bridge between the University and Museum provides students with a “rich and varied toolbox for their own explorations of art's history and meaning,” Redrobe says. The workshops, which include as many as 15 students, are considered “the heart” of the program.

“You can’t overstate its value,” says Penn doctoral student Ramey Mize. “The experience is immeasurably illuminating for all of us.”

Along with Penn professors and museum curators, conservators are also in the workshops to provide expertise and guidance.

“I was a little nervous at first,” says Sally Malenka, museum conservator of decorative arts and sculpture. “But as the students really looked at the objects—handling each one, engaging in discussions—I found it very moving to witness that moment of delight and curiosity and discovery.”

The “Meaning in Materials” workshop started in the Museum’s Cloister gallery examining medieval sculptures from the 12th and 13th centuries. The students were asked what they could see looking at the carved stone up close, using flashlights and magnifying glasses.

“What is masked? What sort of information are you able to glean from an encounter with a physical object in three dimensions?” Guérin asks.

They discussed in detail their discoveries of texture and coloration and aspects of the carvings not visible in the photos.

Moving to a room near the conservation workshop in the Museum’s employees-only area, the students handled the bronze David, and a 15th-century bronze of Venus, signed by its Italian maker, Adriano Fiorentino. They inspected them with the naked eye and magnifying loupes, and examined x-rays, which showed otherwise hidden interior structures, flaws, and repairs.

"David with the Head of Goliath" is a unique 15th Century bronze (left); Ph.D. student Ramey Mize inspects the David bronze with Prof. Guérin (right). 


“Having that kind of focused and attentive time with a series of objects with conservators to me was profound,” says Mize, who is in her first year of the Ph.D. program. “To me the technical aspects were pretty dazzling.”

The Museum’s Hinton says the importance of the workshop collaboration “is about being able to share our treasures with a future generation of scholars.”

“I feel it is a duty of the museum and of art-history professionals to educate students in that way, directly in front of an object,” Hinton says.

“It is a visceral sensation,” he says, especially with bronzes. “You get to touch these works of art, you start to get an understanding of materials, how they were made.”

Hinton says he remembers the first time he held a bronze sculpture when he was a student, at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

“That really great sense of wonder and excitement is something that is transformative,” he says. “Why do we have museums? Why do we preserve these objects? It is to share them.”

The students also had the opportunity to try sculpting and modelling wax, working with tools heated by a small flame, the first step in creation of bronzes through the process known as “lost wax” casting.

“You got to really put yourself in the shoes of the artist,” says student Richman. “Realizing how difficult, laborious and time-consuming the process is and the skill necessary to be able to work with the wax.”

The students even looked at the works of art with a microscope, “to allow us to see how the artist interacted” with the sculpture, Guérin says, like finishing touches done on the cold bronze after it was cast.

“The students can start to see the traces of the process of its making to understand the challenges that were posed to the artists as they were forming these objects,” Guérin says. “The take-home message is not just how it was made and the techniques surrounding it but how artists worked around the problems that were posed by the specific technique.”

With the renewed funding, the partnership will hold additional object-based study workshops for Penn graduate students at the Museum, and regular seminars co-taught by Penn faculty and museum staff.

“I think it’s particularly appropriate in these first decades of the 21st century when we are surrounded by digital media and images that are completely ephemeral, that there has been a swing in the history of art back to object-based learning,” Guérin says.

In 2016, two workshops were part of the object-based learning initiative: one involved works of art from the 15th to 20th centuries, focused on panel paintings and the artistic process; the other incorporated a museum exhibition of 19th-century painted American furniture.

Richman says it was a “little overwhelming and scary” to hold the David bronze, even though she has worked in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and in Venice.

“Being the one to see it first was great, and seeing my peers who were so excited to get an opportunity to look,” she says. “Sarah and the other experts in the workshop provided us little clues but let us find the way to let the object tell its story and what it could tell us.”

The David, created by Bartolomeo Bellano of Padua, Italy, in the 1490s, is the perfect example of the object telling its own story, Guérin says.

“It’s really great; you get the two moments, going back and forth, the slingshot being used in both,” she says. “It allows you to fill in the story between what’s being represented and the pre-history of David. It’s great.”