Captured Creatures - an interdisciplinary exhibition seminar

Lesley Wright
Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College
Author Profile


"Captured Creatures" is a model of an interdisciplinary seminar that utilizes one or more campus collections as the catalyst for both academic and curatorial learning. Using a thematic approach and selected works of art and material culture, students explore a body of knowledge, and use it to curate an exhibition. In this case, the subject was animals and the focus collection was the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College Art Collection. Students learned different disciplinary ways of seeing, brought their training to share with the class through co-teaching, investigated animals through various disciplinary lenses, and created a multidisciplinary exhibition.

Learning Goals

Consider animals through a number of different disciplinary approaches.

Be able to look at and analyze a work of art.

Learn the rudiments of curating an exhibition.

As a group, create an exhibition about animals, using works of art and other sources, that presents animals through different disciplinary lenses.

Prepare and teach a class.

Work together in teams.

Create a written piece of scholarship that can be published.

Be able to "see" like an art historian, a biologist, and an anthropologist.

Read, analyze and discuss material about animals from many disciplinary approaches and apply that material to works of art.

Context for Use

I recommend working with juniors and seniors. They need to be able to bring disciplinary training to the course so that there are viable differences in the discussion. I asked each of them to take a topic and teach it from their subject area. They also need to be able to engage with unfamiliar material and move quickly, since there are a wide range of tasks required to curate an exhibition in one semester. And their writing needs to be proficient enough that they can write for publication in a catalog.

While I did not require any background in art or art history, it would have been helpful for some of the students. Instead, I wanted a range of backgrounds (history, biology, anthropology, art) at the table. Strong speaking and writing abilities were important, along with a willingness to conduct research in what was for some an unfamiliar discipline.

Description and Teaching Materials

The course syllabus alternated between class discussions focused on various topics about animals, and workshops to develop the exhibition. Students co-taught 10 of the classes and added readings of their choice. Workshops, and even discussions, were often held in a space where we could look at works of art. Following many of the classes, students continued the discussion on a course blog. Students worked together in teams on many of the curatorial tasks required. Each student developed a topic for the exhibition catalogue based on works of art, researched the topic and wrote an essay. In addition, s/he crafted a 300-word wall label for the exhibition. Captured Creatures syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 227kB Dec20 12)
Course Blog (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 13kB Dec20 12)
Teaching a Class (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Dec20 12)
Writing a catalog essay and an exhibition wall text (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 16kB Dec20 12)
Organizing an exhibition (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 17kB Dec20 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

As often as possible, hold class sessions with the works of art or objects. The students' understanding of the works will deepen as they look, and look again, and hear their peers' insights.

Introduce the idea of careful looking and analysis of a visual object early in the class, particularly if not all students have had art or art history classes.

Provide opportunities for writing about art, and give guidance on how to use art as evidence.

Bring in outside experts from other disciplines to enhance the interdisciplinarity.

Draw on the students' expertise.

Books assigned for this class included a text on exhibition design, which is typically the most difficult part of curating for students.

Plan to present the exhibition in the following semester to provide time to matte and frame works of art, finalize the catalog, collect works from other campus collections, organize programming. Some students may stay involved while others will be unable (or unwilling) to put in more time. Encourage their participation in the exhibition installation and in programming if possible.


In teaching a class, each student had to select a reading to complement those already on the syllabus, and had to write a response paper following the teaching experience in order to reflect on what s/he learned in the process. The grade for teaching was based on all three parts.

Through class presentations, I was able to monitor the work of groups (and who was, or wasn't, pulling their weight).

Because not all the students were proficient at analyzing works of art, they had to submit a rough draft of their final essay and wall label. Their ability to synthesize both their discipline and their selected work(s) of art determined their final grade on the written work.

The development of the exhibition was truly a class project and all students participated widely in creating a complex final product.

References and Resources

The texts for this course are all listed in the syllabus.