We are fortunate to live in an area with a plethora of museums and other institutions that offer rich learning opportunities for our students. We love taking our students to such places because they engage so eagerly with the exhibits and docents at a very high level, asking insightful questions, sharing keen observations, and making (sometimes surprising) connections. 

Recently, students in Grayson’s 4-5 and Middle School cohorts were able to explore the Barnes Foundation, an extraordinary art collection in Philadelphia. A glance at their website highlights Albert C. Barnes’s collection of works “by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Modigliani [as well as] African art, Native American ceramics, Greek antiquities, Pennsylvania German furniture, and decorative ironwork.” 

Beyond its impressive catalogue, the Barnes offers a unique museum experience in that Albert Barnes grouped his pieces into what he called “ensembles” — spanning multiple eras, cultures, locations, and media — that are invitations to find links between items that, on paper, might seem unrelated. These ensembles are displayed today precisely as Barnes arranged them in his own home, so they reflect the idiosyncratic taste of their collector, as well as a tantalizing peek into the psychological and aesthetic reasons for — and effects of — these choices. 


Education is an integral part of the Barnes Foundation’s mission, and when their education team invited Grayson to offer feedback on a new program they had developed, we jumped at the chance for our students to engage with their staff and collection. The interdisciplinary, three-part program is comprised of a pre-visit lesson from museum staff, an in-person, docent-led visit, and a Barnes expert visit to Grayson to lead students in art creation of their own.

From a pear study by 4-5 students.

Prior to the students’ visits, the Foundation offered a virtual “pre-lesson” to our students to contextualize what they were going to see. In a very Grayson-flavored twist, this session offered in-depth information on a surprising and technical topic crucial to our understanding of art, but invisible to museumgoers: the emerging applications of science to museum curation and art history scholarship. Students learned about the use of x-rays, digital imaging software, and other techniques that allow researchers to essentially see “behind” the visible layers of paint for a genuinely “inside” view of how a particular artwork was constructed, from blank canvas to finished work. 

The Foundation’s three-part program was tailored to elicit the highest possible degree of engagement from our students, whose interests and background knowledge span so many different domains on many different levels. Its “deep dive” into the highly specialized digital tools used in art history scholarship introduced exciting new ideas about the work behind museum curation and built excitement for the visit to the collection; the expert docents on site provided invaluable guidance allowing our students to synthesize their own understandings from critical thinking and analysis; and after the visits, students were able to play with the ideas they had developed and to experiment, themselves, by producing their own artworks. 

One of the particular benefits of the lesson prior to our 4-5 cohort field trip was that the Barnes’s expert was able to get a feel for what our students knew, as well as what they wanted to know more about; the on-site docents had been briefed regarding the specific level(s) of discourse the expert had observed during the lessons and were able to engage each cohort at an appropriate level of complexity. The Barnes’s program design aligns beautifully with a best practice in gifted education that we employ across our curriculum as well: pre-assessment prior to differentiated instruction. 


During their on-site field trip, our Middle School students were broken into small groups that each worked with a docent to discuss the ensembles in detail. Ms. Angelillo, our PreK-12 Art teacher, shared that students analyzed the “curious symmetry” of Dr. Barnes’s arrangements, applying what they had been learning about elements of art and principles of design: “They were encouraged to find and analyze symmetry in style, shape, size, and subject matter in the paintings and metalwork on the walls… and had the opportunity to discuss their observations, opinions, and perceptions of art with the Barnes’s incredible staff and with each other.” Many of our students were surprised to discover how different the pieces looked — and felt — when experienced in person compared to images they had seen ahead of time, a contrast many of them remarked upon while asking and answering questions about the collection. 

Happily, the timing of their visit also allowed our Middle School students to see an exhibit called Water, Wind, Breath: Southwest Native Art in Community, featuring art by the Pueblo and Diné (Navajo) peoples from the American Southwest. Ms. Angelillo was delighted by this “beautiful opportunity for our students to have mature, meaningful discussions about culture, appropriation, and form versus function in Native American art.” 


Dr. Albert Barnes and the curators and docents at the Barnes Foundation invite the kind of wide-open but laser-focused flavor of inquiry that we see every day at The Grayson School. In guiding our students to look into the heart of artwork they’d previously only seen in two dimensions, they remind all of us of the magic that’s possible when we look at things a little differently. We are grateful to the Barnes Foundation and its remarkable staff for continuing to be such an invaluable partner to Grayson and the entire educational community.

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