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Students Take a Trip Into the Past at Drew University Special Collections

Art history capstone students visited the school’s Special Collections and University Archives to learn about the history of collecting

April 2022 – Drew University juniors and seniors in the art history department’s capstone course recently visited the Special Collections and University Archives to uncover the history of collecting.

Students explored medieval personal metalwork objects from the Yuan Dynasty, known as “Nestorian Crosses.”

“Being a hands-on learner, it makes it a lot easier and more interesting to interact with the material or sources you’re working on or with in the classroom,” said Becca Safi C’22, who is also a Special Collections student worker.

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Students handle the Nestorian Crosses and archival letters from the collector's family.

“I look forward to every visit to the Archives because there’s so much to work with and learn about that you wouldn’t otherwise get the opportunity to experience.”

For this class visit, Candace Reilly, manager of Special Collections, explained how the collection was created in the 1920s and 1930s by Mark W. Brown T1914 and how it came to Drew in the 1950s as a gift from his family in his honor. The students were able to view and handle the bronze objects and study the archival material related to the collection, including letters from Brown’s family.

“The Mark W. Brown Nestorian Cross Collection is one of our more unique collections,” explained Reilly. “This is the second largest collection of medieval Yuan Dynasty personal metalwork objects in the world. A few years ago, the collection was digitized. The class reviewed the archival files of the collection and was able to handle the fourteenth-century bronzes.”

“This kind—and size—of collection is very unusual for a liberal arts college and it provides an invaluable opportunity for students to have first-hand exposure to works of art,” said professor Rita Keane, associate professor of art history.

“In-person visits to see works of art are an important part of any art history class, so in addition to our trips to museums in New York City and throughout the state of New Jersey, we build in visits each semester for every class to see the art in Special Collections. Unlike places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Brooklyn Museum where the works can only be seen behind glass, in Special Collections the students (with appropriate precautions and supervision) can pick up historical objects and turn the pages of rare books.”

Safi has experienced the Special Collections from both sides, and can attest to its educational and experiential value.

“As a student worker at the Archives, we all love when classes come in, because as we help Candace set up for these classes, we get to learn a little more about Drew’s own collections, which are so extensive that we wouldn’t really get the opportunity to become as familiar with if we didn’t host class visits,” she said. “This experience is invaluable and has helped me a lot in preparing for and securing jobs, internships, and in my applications to different graduate programs.”