The concept of a “field trip” fell off my radar sometime around my sophomore year of high school. After that point, all of my teachers seemed convinced that my academic growth depended exclusively on lengthy readings, writing assignments, and rigorous testing — all things that took place inside of a classroom. You can imagine my surprise when, during my first week of college, only a few moments after walking into the first meeting of Professor Bob Ousterhout’s freshman seminar, he invited his class to gather our things and leave the classroom. We were going on an excursion — the first of many that semester.
The class that I had enrolled in was ARTH 100 – The Afterlife of Things: Art, Objects, and Collecting in the Museums of Philadelphia, one of about thirty seminars that are offered every semester to first-year students. Of these, a handful are Art and Culture seminars, designed to introduce freshmen to intellectual discourse at Penn and cultural opportunities in Philadelphia in a more intimate setting than that offered by most large, introductory-level courses. My class had only ten students, meaning that each of us got to work closely with Professor Ousterhout, and that as the semester went on, we came to be a tight knit group. Student Caroline Clark described the benefits of the seminar format, “The size allows for close interaction with the professor, classmates, and the subject at hand. This provides the opportunity to make good friends with similar interests while developing a better understanding of the subject.”
Indeed, the size of the class is what enabled our group to, from the very beginning, truly immerse ourselves in the material that we were studying. After our initial departure from the classroom, return visits were few and far in between. Our first several meetings took place in the Penn Museum, where we explored the Iraq’s Ancient Past: Rediscovering Ur’s Royal Cemetery exhibit and spoke with Kate Quinn, the museum’s Director of Exhibitions, about her curatorial choices and the challenges that she faced in designing the exhibit. At the Penn Museum we were also afforded the opportunity to explore part of the institution’s storage facilities, which actually house about 97 percent of their permanent collection. Here we saw artifacts from Near Eastern burial sites, such as Beth Shean, as well as several of the museum’s 30,000 Sumerian clay tablets. Two of my favorites among these were a portion of the original Epic of Gilgamesh and the earliest known record of the Great Flood.