Arts & culture, Campus & community, Events at Berkeley, Visual arts

More exciting than a term paper: Student exhibition highlights art, science and new pathways

The BAMPFA pop-up exhibition was the final project for Professor Sugata Ray’s Art and Climate Change, a course offered as part of a new program for first-year students by the College of Letters and Science.

students point to a piece of art on a table at an exhibition
First-year student Virgil Chamblas (right) points to the photos he chose for Five Tables of Art & Climate Change, a one-day pop-up show he helped curate at the campus’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

Brian Wollitz/UC Berkeley

It’s almost unheard of for a first-year college student to curate an exhibition at a prestigious art institution. Yet, on a recent December afternoon, three new undergraduates at UC Berkeley — Raena Chan, Emma Cusimano and Caitlyn Liao — guided visitors around Five Tables of Art & Climate Change, a one-day pop-up show they helped curate at the campus’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).

In a section of the museum normally reserved for archival research, the students showcased artistic depictions of environmental themes from BAMPFA’s collections on and around a group of five tables. There were historical photographs, paintings of animals and a 10-foot-long handscroll, all selected by the trio and a dozen of their classmates. The exhibition was the group’s final project for Professor Sugata Ray’s Art and Climate Change course.

“It was a refreshing change from the average lecture course,” said Chan. “We had a lot of flexibility about what we wanted to study and the pieces we chose.”

When students enrolled in Ray’s course, they were not expecting to learn to be curators. Several doubted they’d even have discovered BAMPFA as a resource on their own. Ray sought to promote awareness of the museum through the exhibition project, along with the lesson, he said, that students should treat museum collections “as artifacts of history, rather than rarified works.”

“When we teach art in class, students are seeing images on a PowerPoint, and you just don’t get the experience of actually seeing and handling materials,” said Ray, an associate professor of South and Southeast Asian art

two people look at art displayed on a white table
The student-curated exhibition at BAMPFA was the final project for the course Art and Climate Change, taught by Professor Sugata Ray (right).

Brian Wollitz/UC Berkeley

“We are fortunate to have a university museum that has a space for students to work with objects and curate a show. It’s a wonderful experience. Programs that directly engage students allow them to claim the space as theirs and understand that what they’re seeing in the gallery space is actually part of their history. This is their institution, as well.”

The College of Letters and Science (L&S) is attempting to make unique experiences, like the student exhibition, more common through L&S First-Year Pathways, a new pilot program that offers small classroom settings, close peer networks and out-of-the-box excursions.

First-Year Pathways launched in fall 2023 to experiment with new ways to welcome students to campus. Those who sign up for the program take three thematically linked courses with a small group of their peers their first semester: a hub course capped at 25 students and two lecture courses featuring discussion sections with their cohort. 

The pilot program is a sizable undertaking involving over a dozen academic departments. The initial launch featured five course clusters arranged around topics, such as neuroscience and technology. Ray’s students were part of the Art, Environment and Economic Policy cluster, which included courses in art history, environmental economics, and earth and planetary science.

The Pathways program’s ultimate goal is to identify successful pedagogical tactics that can scale across the entire college, which represents 70% of Berkeley’s undergraduate population. Similar programs at other universities have increased graduation rates, decreased time to receive diplomas and boosted satisfaction ratings. Berkeley students said they especially have appreciated the streamlined registration process that allowed them to sign up for the three courses at once.

a person gestures toward a piece of artwork on a wall
Student Caitlyn Liao discusses a painting about the Californian mining industry that depicts Chinese immigrants and Native Americans.

Brian Wollitz/UC Berkeley

“As a first-semester student, it’s a very good introduction to Berkeley as a whole,” said Liao, one of the student-curators. “It reminds you that keeping an open mind and learning from a multitude of perspectives is very important and part of the reason why you’re here. A lot of my STEM friends jumped into their prerequisites, and in comparison, I feel very happy that I ended up where I did, having fun learning about topics that I’m truly passionate about.”

A key component of First-Year Pathways is extending the curriculum outside the classroom. Professors receive grants to lead students in hands-on learning and bonding experiences off campus. First-Year Pathways provided the funds to print the students’ exhibition catalog, which they wrote. Other Pathways courses this semester brought students to tour a biology museum, attend a participatory Bobby McFerrin performance and conduct field research at the Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Sierra Nevada.

“Five Tables of Art and Climate Change perfectly exemplifies the learning experiences that the L&S First-Year Pathways program makes possible,” said Nathan Sayre, a geography professor who manages the college’s initiative. “By examining the climate crisis from three different disciplinary perspectives — geophysical, political-economic and humanistic — the Pathways students have produced a tapestry of ideas and images that is at once beautiful and challenging, richly layered and deeply unsettling.”

“This is far more exciting than writing a term paper,” said Ray, who previously coordinated with BAMPFA on a similar student-curated exhibition that examined the global, cultural and ecological histories of the Indian Ocean. Ray and his colleagues in the Division of Arts and Humanities value art curation as a teaching method and are constantly thinking of ways to devise teaching strategies that actively engage the many art museums in the Bay Area.

Earlier this month, as the BAMPFA exhibition on climate change progressed, and students Chan, Cusimano and Liao ended their shift, another trio arrived to provide visitors with context about each student’s chosen artwork. Each of the three student curators seemed to have found a personal connection to the art.

First-year student Sofia Santos linked Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs of Depression-era migrant workers with the drought she experienced growing up in Southern California. Haichao Li, an aspiring photographer, contrasted Ansel Adams’ romanticized natural landscapes with the New Topographics movement’s realistic portrayal of inhabited environments. Virgil Chamblas, a student from France, had selected 19th century photographs depicting glacial decline in the Alps.Today’s students have inherited myriad environmental crises and are seeking ways to be a part of the solution. The Art, Environment and Economic Policy cluster offered an opportunity this fall for first-year students to explore their passions across multiple disciplines.

Photos and other art line a while table
In a section of BAMPFA normally reserved for archival research, students showcased artistic depictions of environmental themes from the museum’s collections on and around a group of five tables. There were historical photographs, paintings of animals and a 10-foot-long handscroll.

Brian Wollitz/UC Berkeley

“I would never have linked art to climate change, or even economics to climate change,” said Cusimano. “I always thought of it as this scientific concept, but it really involves humanities and finances. It’s a very big issue that can be tackled from many sides.”

Many Pathways students entered the program without a declared major, but by taking advantage of the college’s broad and deep expertise, several said they’d discovered the academic fields they now plan to pursue.

“It really solidified my decision to pursue political economy as a major,” said Liao. “Now that I have seen the different perspectives, the one that resonated with me the most was economics, so I feel a lot more confident to pursue that pathway in the future.”

Positive student feedback about First-Year Pathways helped convince leaders at the College of Letters and Science, which prides itself on its interdisciplinary approach to tackling big issues, to expand the program next year. Starting in fall 2024, new students interested in democracy and medicine will be able to join their peers to explore these topics in unexpected and eye-opening ways.