By Emily Gold Boutilier

For a math class, Curatorial Fellow Katrina Greene gingerly holds a tape measure an inch away from the surface of a painting.

When art is math

The college’s Mead Art Museum has always been a place to look at art, but in recent years it’s become much more, including a classroom. Professors in many disciplines—from music to German, from chemistry to English—now bring their classes to do work at the Mead.

Some courses visit once a semester, to look at a Tiffany lamp or a Mayan artifact. Last semester, Writer-in-Residence Daniel Hall taught some sessions of his poetry course at the Mead—fitting, says Mead Director Elizabeth Barker, since it’s where Robert Frost used to give readings of his works in progress.

Luca Grillo, assistant professor of classics, had students in Classics 28, “Life in Ancient Rome,” adopt and research ancient artifacts at the Mead, including a pair of Roman earrings and a coin minted in Alexandria, Egypt, during the later part of Nero’s reign. Those students created a Web exhibition, wrote text for a series of gallery installations and, with the help of the Center for Community Engagement, presented their research to schoolchildren.

Students studied this glass double unguentarium, by an unknown artist, which was probably used to hold perfume. (Reproduced here with permission of the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, President Charles Cole Collection)

Students in intermediate calculus have calculated the volume of objects in the Mead’s collection, figuring out, for example, that a Greek terracotta amphora, decorated with scenes of a drinking party, holds exactly 4.14 liters. Their instructor, Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics Benjamin Hutz, has also taken students in Math 13, “Multivariable Calculus,” to the Mead, to produce mathematical formulas and three-dimensional models based on museum objects. “In our painting, we modeled a watermelon, a pear and a peach,” says one Math 13 student in a Mead audio tour. “The watermelon we had some difficulty with, because leaves were covering up some of the key points. We determined it was a cylinder intersecting with a paraboloid.” For several Math 13 students, the class visit was their first time in an art museum.


Special events in March, April and May include meditation sessions, gallery talks and Evenings at the Mead, which are hosted by student docents and feature art and live music. For a schedule, go to The Mead is free and open to the public. Hours are 9 a.m. to midnight Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 

Top photo by Jessica Mestre '10

Click for audio tours by the Math 13 students, the Web exhibition by the classics students and other student projects.

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