New Commentary on Teaching the American Art Survey


Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Source: Library of Congress)

It seems that summer is the season for new publications to appear! My most recent short essay,  “Teaching American Art to American Artists: Object-Based Learning at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts,” was published today in the Summer 2016 issue of Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art. The essay is part of a roundtable on pedagogy headed by an essay by Jules Prown reflecting on his decades of experience teaching American art and material culture. Alongside Prown’s essay are reflections by three of his students, Bryan J. Wolf, Margaretta M. Lovell, and Glenn Adamson, and five “reflections from the front lines” written by Jessica L. Horton, Kevin R. Muller, Sarah Anne Carter, Jason D. LaFountain, and yours truly. It was an honor to be invited to participate in this issue.

My essay reflects on my experiences teaching the American art survey to studio art students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. I have been a lecturer in art history at PAFA since Spring 2015, and during that time I have developed teaching methods that take advantage of the institution’s rich collection of American art and my students’ natural abilities in visual learning. Specifically, I created the gallery talk, an assignment that requires students to research individual works in the PAFA collection and then to lead their classmates in a discussion of the formal qualities, subject matter, and relevance of the work within the narrative of American art. In writing this piece, I hope to encourage art history instructors to experiment with object-based learning.

A brief excerpt:

The gallery talk proved valuable in several key ways. First, it gave students the opportunity to conduct discussions in formal analysis in front of works from the PAFA collection. This had the added benefit of breaking up our long class sessions: at PAFA, all classes are scheduled in three-hour blocks to accommodate studio instruction. Second, students had a chance to practice public speaking in a museum setting, a skill that will be important in their future careers as professional artists. Lastly, the gallery talk fostered a sense of camaraderie among the students: because each student took a turn in leading discussion, they were highly motivated to participate in discussion during their classmates’ talks. Assigning the students to become the instructors also gave them insight into my role in fostering discussion each week, and class participation improved overall. This sense of belonging extended to include the school itself, as students made connections between their experiences today and to the training of American artists that is the legacy of PAFA.

To access my full essay, CLICK HERE. To read all the other essays included in the roundtable on pedagogy, CLICK HERE. For a full table of contents of the latest issue of Panorama, which includes many excellent essays, CLICK HERE.


When Memory Fails, Part 2: Answers

DSC_4072Last week, I published a blog post about a mysterious abandoned monument on the northbound side of Route 1 in New Brunswick, NJ. The monument is a dilapidated granite obelisk in an overgrown clearing just before the Morris Goodkind Bridge spans the Raritan River, accessible only by snaking along a narrow path right on the edge of the highway. It is missing almost all of its identifying inscriptions, with only the haunting legend “THEIR BODIES REST” carved into the rectangular slab at the base of the obelisk. The monument initially caught my attention as a paradoxical memory space, a memorial that has forgotten the reason for its existence. At the end of my last post, I vowed to find out more about how this site came to be, and I have spent much of the last week thinking about it.

But it appears that I was not the only one intrigued by this monument’s story! Last week’s post was one of the most widely read of any that I have posted so far on this blog, and it seems that many of you are also hungry for more information. And as of today, I have much to report, thanks to the assistance of Dr. Robert Belvin, Director of the New Brunswick Free Public Library, who contacted me last week to share what he knew about the monument. Special thanks also go to my father, Donald Beetham, who spent a lot of time poring over old maps to figure out the early history of Route 1.

World War I Memorial Morris Goodkine Bridge Closeup Home News George Pound 1961 05

World War I memorial photographed by George Pound (courtesy of Robert Belvin)

I can now reveal that the monument is a World War I memorial, dedicated on October 13, 1930 in conjunction with the celebration of the city of New Brunswick’s 250th anniversary. The architect was Alexander Merchant, and he worked with designer George B. Howell and sculptor F. Luis Mora. Originally, the obelisk bore a plaque listing the names of 74 New Brunswick soldiers who died in the war. The names were placed below the inscription “THEIR SPIRIT LIVES IN LIGHT.” This completes the thought remaining on the memorial today that has so haunted me: “THEIR BODIES REST” is carved upon a stone meant to represent a sarcophagus (once decorated with bronze swags), while the plaque bearing the names would once have represented an upper register in which the names of the fallen could live on. The tablet was once illuminated by a beam of light emitting from a cast bowl meant to symbolize the “cup of life.” This bowl was missing by 1979, when the Home News published an article decrying the dilapidated state of the monument. The area across the highway that I noticed on my visit to the monument last week was originally laid out as a parking area for visitors – which means that the planners intended for pedestrians to cross Route 1! I don’t think I’ll be attempting that anytime soon.


Postcard depicting the monument as it once appeared, acquired from eBay (Author’s collection)

I was able to confirm much of the information I learned about the monument’s original appearance with a postcard that I acquired from eBay that shows the obelisk with all of its original decoration intact. The seller listed this postcard as dated 1910, but there is no date on the card, and as I now know for certain that the monument was erected in 1930, I know that the listing date is impossible. Once again, a reminder to treat all eBay purchases of antique material with a healthy degree of skepticism!

DSC_1299So what happened in the nearly fifty years between the monument’s dedication and the 1979 article in the Home News decrying its dilapidated condition? I don’t have any direct evidence yet, but I can speculate. Route 1 is a major north-south highway that runs from Key West, Florida, to Fort Kent, Maine (I once visited Mile 0 of Route 1 in Key West!). Its predecessor was the Atlantic Highway, an auto trail laid out in 1911 that was marked as Route 1 beginning in 1922. The current path of Route 1 through New Brunswick was not possible until 1929, with the completion of the College Bridge, now known as the Morris Goodkind Bridge after its designer. Before the completion of the bridge, this part of New Brunswick was mostly farmland, and a spot along the new highway must have seemed a prime location for residents seeking a site for their World War I monument. Clearly, no one making decisions about the monument at that time predicted the high-speed superhighway that Route 1 would become. This tension between vehicular traffic and monumental siting has become increasingly prominent in the last several decades, as monuments placed in traffic circles and at major intersections have proved to be an obstacle to the pace of modern cars. This juxtaposition is dangerous for the monuments, also, as many memorials are brought down every year due to motor vehicle collisions. In the case of the Route 1 monument, it seems that this site became more and more isolated as the highway widened and cars picked up speed, making it inaccessible to most visitors and ripe for mischief and vandalism.

DSC_4124This is the most likely explanation for the monument’s current state. But thanks to information provided by Robert Belvin, I now know that the monument’s original function as a memorial to the dead of World War I has not been entirely lost. In 2000, Belvin was involved in an effort to rehabilitate the memorial’s bronze plaque and to give it a new home in a space where it is accessible to visitors. The new site is in the center of downtown New Brunswick, where Jersey Avenue splits off from Route 27 (French Street), creating a triangular park. Here, the plaque has been placed on a columnar monument that recalls the original obelisk still moldering on Route 1. The shaft is carved with the same torch an wreath also present on the first version of the monument. And beneath the plaque is a rectangular base carved with the words “THEIR BODIES REST”: thus, the full verse, “THEIR BODIES REST / THEIR SPIRIT LIVES IN LIGHT” is reunited. DSC_4121On the rear of the monument is an additional plaque dedicated to the memory of veterans of subsequent American wars. The plaque has been cleaned and repatinated, and the names of the fallen are once again clearly visible. And the park itself is a bustling hub of activity, a major site for workers’ transportation in and out of the city. If many of these passersby do not necessarily have war memory on their minds – then indeed, in its new site, this memorial plaque faces many of the same challenges of war memorials in town centers across the United States. The memory of these particular soldiers is no longer marooned by highway activity, but instead left to compete for the divided attention of today’s citizens. This is the fate of most war memorials under ordinary circumstances.


But the Route 1 monument retains it emotional pull. Originally dedicated with great fanfare, the site has been so thoroughly stranded by the highway that the decision was ultimately made to abandon it rather than to attempt to rehabilitate it. With the removal of the inscription and plaque to a new location and a replacement column, the memorial function of this site has been transferred elsewhere. Left behind, the obelisk is a haunting relic, a palimpsest of lost hopes and intentions, an anti-monument. And yet, its crumbling stones continue to tug at the mind.