A professor and four students pose in front of entrance to art gallery featuring Mary Filer Exhibition.
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Experiential learning deep in the Archer Library Archives

17 February 2023
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Experiential learning is about moving beyond the screen, textbook or classroom. Students in Dr. Sherry Farrell-Racette’s fall 2022 Art History course did just that as they ventured into the depths of Dr. John Archer Library Archives. That first trip into the Archives was just the beginning of a fascinating period of hands-on learning that culminated in the launch of the Meet Mary Filer Exhibition in December at the Archway Gallery on the first floor of the Archer Library and Archives.

“For those in the class because they’re interested in becoming an artist or an art historian, or a curator – I wanted them to be able to go out into the world and be ready to take an entry level job and feel good about being adequately prepared,” said Farrell-Racette, associate professor in the University’s Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance. “And for students who took the course as an elective, it’s about giving insight into the process of curation and getting a chance to brush up on their writing, research, and planning skills.”

I can put on my CV that I have hands-on experience interacting with art work in an archival setting and have experience putting together an exhibition – it was just a great learning experience.

Sage Wosminity, fourth-year Visual Arts student

In the summer of 2022, Farrell-Racette had been engaging with staff at the Archer Library and Archives in an effort to find a way to incorporate experiential or hands-on learning into the fall 2022 course outline and assessment through the use of the expansive Archives. The Mary Filer collection was a perfect focal point for Farrell-Racette’s Visual Culture of Women course and a semester-long assignment where students would learn by doing came into being.

Students gather in a room with artwork displayed on the walls and tables.

Student visitors are taken through the Meet Mary Filer Exhibition with the Art History student curatorial team. Photo: Catherine Folnovic

In 2020, David Lemon and his wife Sylvia L’Ecuyer – friends of the late Canadian artist Mary Filer and her family – donated to the Library and Archives, their collection of more than 4,500 items of Filer’s pieces which highlight more than five decades of her artistic style.

“The opportunity to acquire a collection like Mary Filer’s expands the ability of Archives to engage students in primary source research and experiential learning,” said Crista Bradley, University Records and Information Management Archivist. “The Filer collection, along with the others in our care, provide a body of work that students in many disciplines can use to develop critical analysis, as well as communication and curatorial skills.

The Art History partnership has seen our process coming full circle. After all of the work that our team invested to process the Filer collection, it is extraordinary to have it out in the Archway Gallery and have students over the moon about the chance to interact with these materials. That’s a key part of what everyone was working for when the collection first came in and now it’s out there singing its song.”

The students were tasked with picking three items from the collection to physically study and research. Each student would then write an extended label on the one piece they chose for reproduction and display in the Exhibition, as well as within their online companion project.

“That was one of the best experiences, getting to see the actual works in person because that’s so rare when you’re studying art history, to have the actual piece in front of you,” said Sage Wosminity, a fourth-year Visual Arts student, who was one of four students to take on an extended role in the project. As a member of the curatorial team, she was responsible for writing the Exhibition’s introduction essay and brochure. “I can put on my CV that I have hands-on experience interacting with art work in an archival setting and have experience putting together an exhibition – it was just a great learning experience.”

Other members of the curatorial team were tasked with preparing labels to correspond with the reproductions made by Printing Services, designing the layout in the gallery, moving the furniture, and measuring the wall space to ensure the pieces were presented in a cohesive manner. According to Marnie Archer, the head of the student curatorial team who has previous gallery experience, the entire installation process took eight hours.

“It was an excellent exercise to go through because a lot of courses tend to be learning about history, and you might go visit an exhibition, but putting together an exhibition yourself is totally different,” said Archer, who was a student in Farrell-Racette’s Directed Study class who volunteered to help with the Exhibition. “It was proactive for the students, it was done in a space that just used to look like a regular room in the Library, but was transformed for the exhibition. It was great to get reproductions of those pieces out there for wider consumption.”

Take in the Meet Mary Filer Art Exhibition in the Archway Gallery, Main Floor, Archer Library now until April 15, 2023.  Visit the students’ online companion project.

Banner photo: Catherine Folnovic

Choose UR Own Adventure

Interested in a career in Art History or curation? Visit Choose UR Own Adventure on March 3.

Learn more about hands-on learning at the Centre for Experiential and Service Learning.