Curating Art and Science

syllabus by Claudia Bohn-Spector and Peter Sachs Collopy, Claremont Graduate University, 2022

This is a syllabus for Curating Art and Science, a course offered in museum studies, history, and cultural studies in fall 2022 at Claremont Graduate University. This course will explore the history of interactions between art, science, and technology, and how to curate exhibitions on the subject. It is partly based on the instructors’ work, as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time 2024 program on art, science, and LA, to develop a multi-sited, campus-wide exhibition at Caltech on Caltech’s own uses of visual culture over the last century to produce science, to communicate it, and to foster scientific identity and community. Our readings will emphasize the 20th century US, and sometimes specifically Caltech’s own history, but student projects may extend beyond this geographical and chronological context.

The course will be divided into three modules:

  1. Art and Science: During the first part of the semester, we will think about the relationships between art, science, technology, and visual culture more generally, studying foundational texts on scientific illustration, the influence of science on modern and contemporary art, technological art, and the architecture of scientific institutions.
  2. Curating: The second part of the semester takes an in-depth look at the history of exhibitions, both in the science and visual arts realms, and explores the nature and roles of archives and collections as sources for display. We will pay particular attention to contemporary curatorial theory and practice as it has evolved from the 1960s to the present. There will be site visits to the Benton Museum at Pomona College, where we will see an installation by California Light and Space artist Helen Pashgian; the Huntington Library, where we view a site-specific installation by artist Lita Albuquerque and meet with senior curators working on art and science exhibitions; and the Caltech Archives and Special Collections, where we will explore the records kept by scientific institutions. Other guests will join the conversation to deepen our understanding of discourse and standards in the field.
  3. Disciplinary Histories and Student Presentations: During the third part of the semester, we will focus on the histories of visual culture in specific scientific disciplines, as well as art and architecture, often reading case studies from Caltech’s own history. Students will curate, design, and present possible exhibition displays on these topics drawing on the Caltech Archives and other local collections.

Throughout the semester, students will investigate a range of visual practices at Caltech and other scientific institutions according to the specific scientific, artistic, and institutional functions they serve. What kinds of information do scientific images convey, and how do we best look at them in their varying contexts? How do we account for the choices scientists and artists make when they represent their work, and what cultural biases or preferences might their images contain? How do scientific images relate to other images in art, technology, and popular culture?

This course does not require any specific background preparation. For those unfamiliar with the academic study of visual culture, additional reading in James Elkins and Erna Fiorentini, Visual Worlds: Looking, Images, Visual Disciplines (Oxford University Press, 2020) may be useful for context.

Student Learning Outcomes

Upon successful completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. Understand the complex interactions between art, science, technology, and visual culture in the 20th and early 21st centuries, especially as they relate to the California Institute of Technology, other American science institutions, and Southern California.
  2. Navigate art and science discourses in the humanities.
  3. Reflect on and engage critically with trends and issues in contemporary curatorial practice.
  4. Collaborate with project partners.
  5. Strengthen research, writing, and presentation skills, communicating in a variety of formats and for diverse audiences.
  6. Create compelling exhibitions with an understanding of different spaces and their design, as well as the selection, care, and management of display objects.
  7. Know artists, scholars, curators, and design professionals working in the field.

Assignments

  1. Exhibition review (500 words) of a local exhibition of your choice which engages with both art and science. Specific guidelines for this review will be posted online and discussed in class. Reviews are due electronically before class on October 24, 2022.
  2. Exhibition proposal of a concept, items, didactic text, and layout for a small display on an art/science theme either chosen from a list provided by the course instructors or proposed by the student. Elements of the proposal will include a short introductory text (500 words), a checklist of 15–30 display items, a sample wall text (250 words) and didactic exhibition label (100 words), and space selection and layout/fabrication ideas. You may work independently or collaborate with one or more partners. In addition to handing in proposal materials, each student will present on their proposal during the third portion of the semester. Your presentation will be assessed based on the comprehensiveness and originality of your ideas; their viability in a real-life gallery, museum, or library setting; and your creative communication skills. Specific guidelines for a successful exhibition proposal will be posted online and discussed in class. Proposals are due on your assigned presentation day, between November 7 and December 12.
  3. Curatorial essay (15–20 pages, no more than 5000 words) providing historical, cultural, aesthetic, or other scholarly analysis of your proposal exhibition, or, with permission of the instructors, of another topic. Specific guidelines for the creation of a curatorial essay will be posted online and discussed in class. Curatorial essays are due electronically on December 16.

Your grade for the course will be based 20% on the exhibition review, 30% each on the exhibition proposal and curatorial essay, and 20% on your engaged and insightful participation in class.

We’ll discuss readings during every class, so please read everything assigned before the class meeting it’s listed under. Please submit assignments by email to both instructors.

Schedule of Class Topics and Readings

Art and Science

Curating

Disciplinary Histories and Student Presentations

Subjects: art, astronomy, biology, chemistry, media, physics, science, technology, visual culture
Category: teaching