Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, more than 50 Hamilton classes have engaged with the Wellin Museum’s current exhibition Michael Rakowitz: Nimrud through visits and tours of the show.
As you might expect, we welcomed art and art history classes, but it was further gratifying to see the exhibition’s themes connect to many other disciplines including anthropology, Arabic, archaeology, Asian studies, classics, dance, environmental studies, French, literature, religious studies, Russian, and sociology, often in conversation with the artist, Michael Rakowitz, and guest curator Katherine Alcauskas.
In my role as the museum’s liaison to the faculty, I saw how a visit to the exhibition could spur thought-provoking, relevant conversations in a class. Seniors in classics, for instance, used Rakowitz’s installation — which connects different periods of time, history, and geography — as a catalyst for discussing the ways that history is tangibly enshrined and memorialized through the construction of monuments, from the ancient Mesopotamian site of Nimrud to the Confederate monuments that stand in our country today.
Students from multiple environmental studies courses similarly connected different eras of time while discussing Rakowitz’s work in the gallery, by considering how the geopolitics of the 19th century, which allowed for the removal of much of Nimrud’s carved reliefs, have influenced the current laws, regulations, and international policies that shape the political landscape today.
Viewers of the exhibition have the opportunity to “see” at least two languages since Arabic and English both appear on the food wrappers and newspapers that Rakowitz uses as the source material for his work. But this past year we were fortunate to “hear” multiple languages in the gallery too. Professors from the Arabic, French, and Russian Studies departments brought students to the exhibition for tours in their respective languages led by Wellin staff and docents. Students’ language skills were expanded in their attempts to describe both the visual and conceptual elements present in the Nimrud exhibition.
Many of these conversations carried over into the digital realm for virtual class visits with the artist. Over the span of about 20 sessions, Rakowitz engaged students in discussions regarding art, repatriation, and cross-cultural exchange. A professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, the artist characterized Hamilton students in a recent conversation as being “some of the most thoughtful and prepared students” with whom he has ever had the opportunity to work.
From facilitated visits to follow-up with faculty, it became apparent that the exhibition also elicited empathy for the people and cultures highlighted within the gallery. Using our exhibitions to foster that among Hamilton students throughout their time at the College is one of the ways we fulfill our mission as a teaching museum, and after seeing the impact of Rakowitz’s exhibition on students and faculty this past year, it will be bittersweet to see it come to an end when the exhibition closes on June 18.