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Northwest students crowded around displays of art during a role-playing game recreating the Exposition Universelle of 1889. (Photos by Lauren Adams/Northwest Missouri State University)

Northwest students crowded around displays of art during a role-playing game recreating the Exposition Universelle of 1889. (Photos by Lauren Adams/Northwest Missouri State University)

April 15, 2022

History students recreate 19th century art exposition


Students recently transformed a classroom in Northwest Missouri State University’s Valk Center into a boisterous festival of art displays and academic presentations as they recreated the Exposition Universelle of 1889.

The students in France Since Louis XIV, a course led by Assistant Professor of History Dr. Devlin Scofield, were participating in Reacting to the Past, a role-playing game during which students adopt the character of a historical figure. The theme for the March 31 game in Valk Center Room 80 was “Modernism Versus Traditionalism: Art in Paris, 1888-1889.”

To prepare for the exposition, students spent weeks studying artists of the Traditional, Impressionist and Avant-Garde schools of thought while engaging in class discussions and presenting papers from the perspectives of their characters. During the culminating role-playing game, Scofield’s students worked to grab the attention of peers passing through the classroom as a milling crowd and profess the virtues of “their” artwork as the original artists would have done in 1889.

Additionally, one of the primary purposes of the Exposition was to give artists an opportunity to sell their art. Secret “buyers” among the onlookers during the game gave the students incentive to present their work in an informed, articulate way and helped determine a winner.

“It gives them a sense of historical contingency because often the way the game plays out is different than it did historically,” Scofield said. “We can sort of show students how individual characters make an experience history.”

Students portraying artists Bouguereau and Meissonier discussed the contrasts of their work featuring cherubim and military battles.

Students portraying artists Bouguereau and Meissonier discussed the contrasts of their work featuring cherubim and military battles.

In one corner of the classroom, students portraying artists William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Ernest Meissonier discussed the contrasts of their work featuring cherubim and military battles. In an opposite corner, students representing art critics argued for artists whose work they admired.

Faith Burtchell, a senior social science education major from Platte City, Missouri, had the task of portraying Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was famous for using bright primary colors to complement each other and brush strokes that showed movement, as seen in “The Starry Night.”

Burtchell, who plans to teach high school history after completing her degree at Northwest, said she appreciated the opportunity to participate in the game as an example of project-based learning.  

“It really engages the students to learn something,” she said. “It takes a lot of work for me to understand art and to be able to process information, so by being able to look at art for my character I can learn not only what art means to Van Gogh but what art means to the academy.”

The students in Dr. Devlin Scofield's course, France Since Louis XIV, adopted historical figures during a study that included class discussions and presentations of papers from the perspectives of their characters as well as the culminating role-playing game.

The students in Dr. Devlin Scofield's course, France Since Louis XIV, adopted historical figures during a study that included class discussions and presentations of papers from the perspectives of their characters as well as the culminating role-playing game.

In addition to character sheets that outlined a historical figure’s traits and beliefs, students were provided a study guide at the start of the project that Burtchell said she reviewed diligently, jotting notes throughout the process.

“That way, when we got to class to introduce our characters to each other and begin the game, I knew what everyone was talking about,” she said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s gratifying. It’s fun.”

The critics in the crowd included Zayne Cook, a sophomore social science history education major from St. Joseph, Missouri, who dressed the part with a bow tie and beard while speaking in a French accent. Cook, who also is looking forward to a teaching career, recreated history regularly as a member of a World War I reenactment group in Kansas City, Missouri.  

During the recreation of the Exposition Universelle of 1889, Cook said he especially enjoyed seeing the artists competing to secure purchases from patrons.

“It’s really fun seeing the alliances form very quickly in a world that, of course, is moderated by the teacher, but the students still have that level of freedom,” Cook said. “It’s really fun watching the students just take off. You give them the tools and they will create their own education.”


Media contact:

Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager | mhorn@nwmissouri.edu | 660.562.1704