As part of a fall 2023 course, dance professor Munjulika Tarah and her students will be spending time at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), studying an exhibition of works curated specifically for them.
The course, Historical Research in Dance and Performance Studies, is an ideal fit for the museum’s Object Lab—a hybrid gallery-classroom that visualizes the Williams liberal arts curriculum through works from WCMA’s collection. The museum’s holdings include 15,000 works and continue to grow and evolve in response to global cultural shifts, changing curriculum and student body, and evolving artistic and museum practices.
Since it began in fall 2015, the Object Lab has grown in both size and scope. At first, the space accommodated about six faculty members’ courses. Today, approximately eight faculty members work with Elizabeth Gallerani, curator of Mellon academic programs, each semester to select one or several works of art that illuminate key ideas from their courses. The fall semester’s Object Lab, on view through Dec. 17, includes 40 works supporting classes in American studies, art history, art studio, computer science, history and dance.
Class of 1956 WCMA Director Pam Franks says a growing interest in weaving art across the curriculum is driving a need for even more educational space. The Williams College Museum of Art has been in its current space in Lawrence Hall for almost 100 years, but a new, larger building is slated to open in tandem with the museum’s centennial celebration in 2026.
“There’s teaching that happens across every discipline, and collection connections that just could go far beyond what we’re able to do in our current space,” Franks said in an interview about the college’s decision to build a new museum. The new space will create optimal conditions for display and conservation. It will also support growth in educational opportunities and innovative work in collections, exhibitions and community programming.
The Object Lab is one of the programs that will benefit from the new space. Gallerani and Tarah, who studies music and dance traditions from Bangladesh, selected artworks for the current Object Lab exhibition that showcase a range of dance movements from across cultures, media and time periods. Among the eight pieces are a lithograph by Chinese artist Hung Liu, a South Asian watercolor circa 1700 and a photograph of Black dancers in New York City from the 1930s.
Tarah says the artworks will be used to start conversations about the use of color, weight and gravity in South Asian dance in comparison to ballet and other Western forms that might be more familiar to students. They’ll also learn about the practice of analyzing still and moving images and have the opportunity to develop competency in historical research.
“In dance, the first step to analysis is watching the same thing over and over again,” Tarah says. “But in order to do that, you have to have a particular kind of training to understand the traditions. South Asian dance has specific types of lexicons and idioms in terms of movement. So looking at a still image for a long period of time really helps with understanding those movements.”
Daniel Barowy, assistant professor of computer science, is also participating in the Object Lab this semester. His course, Principles of Programming Languages, teaches students how to design and implement a computer programming language that produces art in the style of a particular artist. Using Josef Albers’ 1959 painting “Homage to the Square: Warming,” which features multiple inset squares in varying shades of orange that are set against a gray background, students learn how to communicate exactly what they see in the artwork—irregularity of lines, range of textures, shades of colors—so that a computer can closely replicate a work.
Gallerani says the connections Barowy’s class makes between programming computers and making art illustrate why students are excited to study computer science at Williams: “That’s one of the main goals of the Object Lab—experimenting and connecting interdisciplinary ideas in the liberal arts.”