Each year, the Ackland teaches thousands of university students, in hundreds of classes, across dozens of disciplines. The artwork they study spans geographic, temporal, and material designations and their learning objectives vary. Yet nearly all of these encounters begin with the same question: what do you see?
It is a simple, yet surprisingly challenging question for many. It does not ask “what do you know,” or even “what do you think this is about?” It demands that students — and all of us — slow down and actually look at what’s before us, suspending judgment and assessing what is there.
From there, the process twists and turns. This spring, art history students use the works on view to explore diverse expressions of American identities. Students learning about modernism in Europe examine the innovative styles and subjects that emerged in uncertain times. First year students learn to analyze those same artworks and consider them in dialogue with war and conflict in Europe and America throughout the twentieth century. Students learning about ancient Rome analyze the material culture of everyday life and consider how it sheds light on people’s beliefs and behaviors. Folklore students consider the creation of traditions through North Carolina pottery.
This vast scope of artwork, grouped in themes for students and the public to explore, is usually on view in Ackland Upstairs, on the Museum’s second floor. Each installation highlights how university museums can function as prisms, focusing and refracting the intellectual life of their communities through original works of art. This special presentation on the Ackland’s first floor affords students – and all of us – more space to consider how art shapes and reflects how we see the world around us. We hope it offers a way into, and perhaps also a way out of, our present moment.