CEMERS day trip gives students a look at history

Group visits The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Met Cloisters in New York City

Students and faculty members toured The Met Cloisters as part of a day-long bus trip to New York City sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS).
Students and faculty members toured The Met Cloisters as part of a day-long bus trip to New York City sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS).
Students and faculty members toured The Met Cloisters as part of a day-long bus trip to New York City sponsored by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CEMERS).

An annual bus trip to New York City museums led by the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Centers (CEMERS) has enabled Harpur College students to supplement their classes with an up-close, high-impact learning experience.

This year’s trip took place March 8, as more than 50 students and faculty members spent the day visiting The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Met Cloisters.

“A picture tells a thousand words,” said CEMERS Director Olivia Holmes, who is also a professor of English and medieval studies. “You can have someone talk to you about medieval architecture and how Gothic churches figured out a way to make the walls less thick so they could open the walls to windows and stained glass. You can tell students that in class, but if they’ve never been inside Gothic architecture, they can only imagine it.”

The trip focused on tours and objects that complemented two classes: Medieval 101 (taught by Holmes) and a Tale of Genji advanced seminar taught by Roberta Strippoli, an associate professor in the Department of Asian and Asian American studies.

“More traditionally, we’ve centered on Europe and the Middle East,” Holmes said. “But both this year and last year, we tied the trip to classes taught by Professor Strippoli.”

The day began with a visit to The Met Cloisters, a branch of the The Metropolitan Museum of Art located near The Bronx in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. The Cloisters – which opened in 1938 – specializes in European arts, architecture and sculptures, particularly from the Gothic and Romanesque periods.

Visiting The Cloisters gave students the opportunity to not only see medieval art, but the architectural settings of monasteries.

“I’m not an art historian,” Holmes said. “I’m a literary person teaching the history and supplementing it with a lot of literature. Going to The Cloisters is wonderful because it’s what things would’ve looked like on the ground.

“A lot of our students are from New York City, but so many have never been there or heard of The Cloisters. It’s my favorite museum in the city.”

Holmes and some of the students received an unexpected surprise at The Cloisters when their tour was led by Binghamton University alumna Carol Schuler ’75. Holmes said she was introducing the group to Schuler when Schuler said: “I went to Binghamton! I know what CEMERS is!”

The group traveled in the afternoon to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it observed Islamic galleries and received a tour of the just-opened Tale of Genji exhibit from Strippoli.

Based on Murasaki Shikibu’s celebrated 11th-century work of Japanese literature, the Tale of Genji exhibit features manuscript scrolls, paintings, calligraphy, silk robes and art seen for the first time outside of Japan. The exhibit, which runs through June 16, also includes works on view from Ishiyamadera Temple — where, according to legend, Shikibu started writing the tale.

Having a scholar of medieval Japanese literature and theater such as Strippoli lead a tour of the exhibit was a thrill for the group, Holmes said.

“She gave the tour without (previously) seeing it herself,” Holmes said. “She went in about 30 minutes before us and said ‘I’ve got to go look around!’”

“The exhibition was indeed amazing, with carefully selected pieces showing so many aspects of the reception of the Tale of Genji,” Strippoli added. “It gives the viewer a sense of how the Tale of Genji was an important feature not just in the literary canon, but in the daily life of people who owned these beautiful objects.”

Strippoli said she tried to give the group a sense of what it means to organize an exhibition such as the Tale of Genji.

“(There are) years of work, the generosity of donors and collectors, collaboration among museums and the cultural agencies of at least two different countries,” she said. “Exhibitions don’t just happen, but require so much work and so many hands to come together. This I hope helps the students understand how art is relevant to so many of us and that being serious about art is not a light pursuit, but something that can have a great impact and enrich the life of everyone.”

Students said they found the trip enjoyable and “mentally stimulating.”

“These items are actual artifacts of history,” said Mark Strazik, a senior biochemistry and medieval studies double major from Apalachin, N.Y. “It is detail, history and craftsmanship that can only be experienced in person.”

Hiram Silsbee, a freshman from Endicott, N.Y., taking Medieval 101, said the trip should be a “required learning experience” for medieval studies students.

“It is not the same to see icons or mosaics on a slide,” he said. “I enjoyed the trip as the settings were always intended to fit the objects. Students should be required to go to these places. I believe that it is not even necessary to be told to look around. Once one gets lost, one has a better experience. Through not knowing where to go, I was forced to look at everything. It is like a lab for the humanities. … You want to know what everything is and why it is on display.”

Dylan Feliciano, a junior PPL major from Owego taking Medieval 101, added that connecting what is learned in class with something in the physical world makes history even stronger.

“It’s one thing to learn about ‘The City of God’ from a textbook, but another thing to see a copy at The Cloisters,” he said. “It links those memories together in the brain so now I will never forget what ‘The City of God’ is. Maybe it is just good for someone like me who is a visual learner and relishes in seeing the Tale of Genji and connecting with it and the people who enjoyed it over hundreds of years.”

The bus trip, which is open to all students, faculty and staff and usually takes place on a Friday in early March, continues to be beneficial for students, Holmes said.

“You just can’t talk about things,” she said. “You have to show it. It’s not the same as looking at a slide. Not everyone can take a year abroad in Europe. But we have these (museums) near here. They make your world bigger. You learn about something in a way that you can’t know just by reading.”

Posted in: Campus News, Harpur