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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Examining The Hood Museum’s Environmental Art Collection

The Hood Museum’s Environmental Art Collection plays an essential role in directing campus attention towards environmentalism.

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Dartmouth’s emphasis on nature is undeniable: From its slogan “vox clamantis in deserto” to its lone pine mascot to its nickname “The Woods,” environmentalism is relevant to the College. The Hood Museum’s Environmental Art Collection — consisting of photographs, models and landscape paintings — is another example of Dartmouth’s engagement with environmentalism. 

The Hood runs a program called Museum Collecting 101, led by Curator of Academic Programming Amelia Kahl ’01, Associate Curator of Photography Alisa Swindell and Associate Curator of Academic Programming Elizabeth Mattison. The program selects 15 students from across departments to participate in researching artists and selecting work to be permanently featured at The Hood. The theme for each year’s selection changes, with this year’s group focusing on landscape photography — a prominent genre within environmental art.

Mattison described the Hood’s role as a “teaching museum” within the realm of environmental studies. 

“We’re really excited about this opportunity to bring students into the process of acquisitions, particularly as it relates to the environment and the strong environmental art collection we have here,” Mattison said. “We almost always have a waitlist [for the program] because it really gives [students] hands-on experience, with students being able to acquire a work of art.”

Kahl also discussed the advantages of the firsthand exposure the program provides. 

“It helps to give us a better connection to contemporary student concerns and priorities, as well as giving students the chance to be empowered, to feel some ownership of the collection, and to leave a physical mark on the college,” she said. 

Classes focusing on environmentalism have begun to use The Hood’s spaces for students to directly engage with works of art, called the Bernstein Center for Object Study. Dartmouth faculty members bring their students to the Bernstein Center, which is also managed by Kahl, for exhibition tours and private customized classes led by museum curators who are intimately familiar with the pieces. These curators aid in guiding the students as they interpret and interact with the material observed, utilizing the five-step “Learning to Look” process. 

“[Learning to Look] allows students who may not be familiar with or even comfortable talking about images to be able to think through what an image says to us and how it might be useful to the content of a course,” Mattison explained. “We find that this works really well with faculty across campus as a means of integrating art into teaching.”

Anthropology professor Maron Greenleaf said she has brought her students to The Hood for several years and discussed the importance of introducing art into the curriculum for her cross-listed anthropology and geography class GEOG 39, “Environmental Justice.”

“I think that art can help us understand issues, understand ourselves, understand our world, understand people who are very different from us or very similar to us … both as a complement to learning in other ways that are more traditional to academic classrooms, but [also on its own],” Greenleaf said. 

Milanne Berg ’24 — an art history major with anthropology and sustainable energy minors — took Greenleaf’s class in the fall and said she still recalls their class discussions after nearly two terms. She also noted that studying art alongside environmental issues strengthened her understanding of the subject. 

“I kind of understood more about how, in a class that talks about environmental justice heavily, it’s really important to bring in art to visually capture ideas and concepts that are not as easily translatable through words,” Berg said. 

In recalling a particularly resonant piece, Berg spoke about “Oxford Tire Pile #1, Westley California,” a landscape photograph by Edward Burtynsky, one of the most renowned contemporary photographers working today. The photo is of the Westley tire dump located in California, the largest in a state already notorious for massive tire fires. 

“We were talking about the environmental impact of having all those tires and [how] there’s nothing really to do except incinerate them, and just how bad that is for the environment,” Berg said. “So, the justice part of it was about the location that it was in, and how it affects the communities that are nearby.”

Ali Bauer ’25 also stressed that observing the Hood’s environmental art collection was impactful. She highlighted one painting, “Living With Nature,” as particularly insightful.

“From first glance at this large painting … I think, ‘Oh wow, this is so natural, it’s so untouched.’ And in reality, it is touched, if you look closely,” Bauer said. “Places that humans don’t often go to, we like to say that these places are untouched, [that] these places are not really subject to human damage and degradation. But that’s not true, because we still impact them whether we do it directly or indirectly.” 

Environmental art, in this sense, seems to convey both the broader consequences of climate change and pollution while also subtly alluding to the everyday human decisions which underlie such effects. Professor Greenleaf illustrated how in Subhankar Banerjee’s piece “Known and Unknown Tracks,” the viewer is disoriented by the very large, green space that cannot easily be discerned. Greenleaf explained that the photo was taken in Alaska, and it connects the issues of oil exploitation, animal migration and Indigenous rights, prominent interests within class. 

Kahl called this facet of environmental art “making visible what is invisible,” referencing newer acquisitions from contemporary visual artist Michael Namingha, a Native American of the Tewa-Hopi tribes.

“He is using drones to capture these landscapes, and then he’s coloring them with colors that are not true to the landscape,” Kahl said. “This area is under a very high concentration of methane, so he’s thinking about how when [scientists] test methane using satellites, there’s a kind of faux color spectrum.”

In considering the Environmental Art Collection, the lingering question is: Why art? That is, why use photographs, portraits, paintings and models to teach about environmentalism — a subject that most wouldn’t associate with art? 

“I think there’s huge importance in introducing art to non-art disciplines … Students can come up with questions they may not have otherwise and start to think about angles and approaches that are novel and new to them,” Kahl said. “They can [also] take a theory they’ve been reading about or a concept, and they can see how that might map on to different art objects and use that as a way to deepen and further nuance their thinking.”

Mattison emphasized the relevance of environmental art to all Dartmouth students.

“We have to think, too, about ways in which the landscape and the environment and natural resources have affected the land around Dartmouth, the economies around Dartmouth,” Mattison said. “[Dartmouth] has long had such strengths in its environmental studies … so it’s great to have a collection that can suit the needs and interests of courses taught on campus.”