By Robert Vander Poppen (Associate Professor of Classical Art & Archaeology at Rollins College, DeeP Collaborative Member)
The Deliberative Pedagogy (DeeP) Faculty Collaborative consists of 20+ faculty from Davidson College and five other Associated Colleges of the South institutions who are committed to learning and implementing new ways to improve and deepen the quality of their class discussions. These faculty come from a wide array of disciplines and backgrounds. They come together to study and discuss different deliberative pedagogy methods, share their ideas and questions with one another, and work to embed deliberation in their classrooms. In this special blog series, members of the Collaborative describe and reflect on their experiences developing and teaching their deliberation-involved courses.
In Spring 2023, 25 students at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL walked into ARH 215 – Art and Archaeology of the Greek World. Few of them were expecting the class to be anchored in the pedagogy of deliberation. Art History, on its surface, doesn’t seem to be a field that would lend itself to the kind of debates that easily arise in other disciplines. After all, what is there to debate about art and artifacts that are 2,500 years old?
In truth, the deliberative process is at the heart of what we as Archaeologists and Art Historians do in our scholarship. Archaeological and Art Historical research is aimed at deciphering meaning from visual objects based on their internal formal characteristics (what they look like and what is depicted on them) and interpreting them by analyzing them in their cultural, historical, and physical contexts. Not surprisingly, it is rare, especially with regard to ancient art, to be able to construct such context in its entirety. Much relevant information that would aid in the interpretation of images and objects is unknown, and much Art Historical and Archaeological scholarship is an exercise in the explanation of incomplete data.
This phenomenon of missing context is especially prevalent when one moves beyond the cannon of well-known masterpieces and into attempting to understand the decisions that went into creating (and using) more mundane sites and artifacts such as the dinner dishes, or a private house, or a craftsman’s workshop. As a result, Archaeologists and Art Historians constantly engage in the exercise of deliberation and reason giving based on visual evidence.
The reason-giving found in Art History and Archaeology classes may look a bit different than that found in other deliberation-involved courses. Whereas in a Philosophy or Ethics class students might be developing their arguments based on the rules of formal logic, the system of argument in Art History and Archaeology is predicated on the logic of visual analysis. Students in ARH 215 spent the semester honing their skills in this specialized type of argumentation that they then used to inform their deliberations. Students worked in small deliberation groups to determine where an artifact fits in a stylistic sequence, what constitute the salient features of a typology, and which amongst a suite of possible readings of an artifact or interpretations of an archaeological site should be preferred.
All of these skills are important to the discipline as a whole, but there is also a second area of focused deliberation within the fields of Art History and Archaeology. Although artists create meaning when they produce an artifact and contemporary viewers add a second layer through the use of the object in its original context, a final layer of meaning is imparted to an object through its display. That is to say that the modern deposition of objects in museum collections is a function of a series of political, cultural, and historical trends that often lead to ethical debates. Museums are not neutral. They are active participants in the creation of narrative surrounding the artifacts that they display and the choice of text, as well as the very ownership of objects have contemporary political implications.
One of the primary concerns surrounding artifacts from antiquity is the question of ownership. Starting in the 1970s museums, universities, and cultural institutions began to wrestle with legacies of colonialism that underpinned the system of foreign excavations and the movement of objects away from their places of excavation via the art market. Since the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Heritage was adopted, the entities mentioned above have had to wrestle with the implications of possessing the physical and material culture of someone else’s past. Within ARH 215, students engaged in debates surrounding issues of repatriation and exportation of cultural patrimony. Such issues are rarely clear-cut. Often several competing claims on objects exist and what is right is not always determined strictly by the law. In other words, just because it might be legal for an institution to keep an object or artifact, it doesn’t mean that it is ethical. Throughout the course, students familiarized themselves with international cultural heritage law, the codes of ethics of relevant professional organizations, as well as key scholars including museum professionals as they attempt to frame such debates.
The cornerstone of the course was a series of class-long debates on several controversial issues related to ancient Greek Art. Students placed themselves in the role of a museum curator and decided whether they would buy the Getty Kouros. They adopted the role of trustees of the British Museum and members of the Greek Government and decided what to do with the Parthenon Marbles.
The debate surrounding the disposition of the Parthenon Marbles was the most intense and the most productive. Students were asked to consider the problem through a variety of lenses. At first, students researched the historical context of the removal of the marbles and the current state of museum infrastructure in both Greece and the United Kingdom. Based on recent solutions to other cultural property disputes, the students developed several practical and workable proposals for moving the controversy forward and building trust between the institutions involved. As a second phase of the deliberations, students were asked to familiarize themselves with the legal implications of the major treaties on cultural property, as well as the state of British law with regard to the marbles. After this research, many of the students were surprised to note that many of the solutions that they had proposed for moving the discussion surrounding the Parthenon marbles forward in an equitable way could not be accomplished due to the current legal framework.
Their observations were that a group of reasonable people willing to commit to a genuine deliberation could solve the controversy in a satisfactory way, but the current political and legal framework was operating to prevent these conversations from happening in a meaningful way.