Museum collections: Using objects to teach the abstract

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Racha Kirakosian, Assistant Professor of German and of Religion, selected works of art for an installation at the Harvard Art Museums for students in her freshman seminar, Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Finding Justice and Truth in the Middle Ages.

Museum collections: Using objects to teach the abstract
Assistant Professor Kirakosian encourages students to have a last look at the course installation prior to the final class discussion. (Photo by B.D. Colen)


She planned three visits—one to introduce the works depicting justice and truth in the University Study Gallery, another for student presentations of assigned objects, and a final Art Study Center session where students debated their personal definitions of justice. “I like the parallel of moving into different physical spaces as we move from historical cases and medieval law texts to more abstract concepts.”

The benefits: Kirakosian says that by studying paintings, drawings, and sculptures, students can better understand how concepts of justice and truth were established in medieval Europe, and compare those historical concepts to their own. Learning with museum objects helped students explore theoretical concepts beyond their historical definition.

The challenges: Despite significant support from museum staff, she initially found it difficult to narrow her object list from the extensive database in order to meet course objectives. Ultimately, the process improved the course: “I found that it was a good exercise for me to determine why the object is important and then guide my students in their own discovery of its relevance for the course.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Afford multiple moments for discovery. On each page of the course site, Kirakosian included an image of an object suited to the topic to familiarize students with primary sources in the digital sphere. For their written assignments, they drew from real life experience with the material—in class, in Houghton Library, the museums, and beyond. Students also revisited their personal definition of justice, authored at the start of the semester, in the final class discussion.
  • Utilize an existing collection. Each semester, instructors can take advantage of mini exhibits curated by others. Kirakosian extended the impact of her installation by holding a session for students of a colleague’s law and literature course.
  • Introduce a new layer of skills. In future courses, Kirakosian hopes to collaborate with students to develop museum exhibits, empowering them to experience the curative process.

Bottom line: These course-related displays get students into the museums and create a special link to the space, broadening their perspective on the subject matter: “They experience the complexity of a given topic and understand that they are part of a research discussion.”