By Craig Clunas, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and Gervase Rosser, Professor of the History of Art
What would it be like to study art history at university? This is a difficult question for most students at school and their teachers to answer: the subject is not taught at most schools, and if it has been heard of at all, this tends to have been in contexts which are quite misleading. The History of Art Department at Oxford continues to be active in encouraging interest in a university subject which offers a training in core skills for employment in the modern world: the means to understand and to critique images of every kind.
This year the Department ran a variety of programmes providing insight into art history and the BA course in Oxford. The first of these was under the banner of the Oxford Pathways series, in which Year 12 pupils are invited to spend a day in Oxford and to experience taster sessions in two academic subjects. They are also mentored for the day by a current undergraduate. A dozen participants came to a session on art history run by Gervase Rosser, who got the group talking with a short series of diverse images. The themes of political art and idealised feminine beauty generated animated debate, and led to expressed interest in the subject among participants who had signed up without quite knowing what they were in for.
The UNIQ programme for History of Art, which has been run for nine years, has the joint aims of inspiring interest in the subject, of encouraging aspiration to study at university level, and of introducing students at lower-sixth-form level to the academic and wider cultural environment of Oxford. Fourteen participants, arriving from all parts of the United Kingdom, stayed for a week in Worcester College, where they were mentored and befriended by two undergraduate ambassadors, Evelyn and Ani, both students of History of Art.
© Department of History of Art
The academic programme, led by Gervase, mimicked in concentrated form one of the core elements of the first-year BA programme, which involves choosing an object or building in Oxford, about which the undergraduate – with the supervision of a curator – writes an extended essay. In groups of two or three, the UNIQ participants were allocated an object in the Pitt Rivers Museum or in the Ashmolean Museum, and in the course of the week they studied it in the Bodleian Library, participated in a tutorial on the subject, and finally gave a presentation to the group as a whole. The quality of these final presentations was tremendously good. As the student ambassadors generously admitted, they were of undergraduate standard. But this was on the fourth day: at the outset, everyone was a little daunted.
Participants came with diverse experience and expectations. One had never visited a museum before. Even for those who had done so, the initial encounter with the Pitt Rivers was eye-opening. The astonishing richness and strangeness of that global ethnographic collection, still in its nineteenth-century display cases, never fails to amaze the first-time visitor.
Later in the week the group extended its exploration of Oxford galleries by visiting an exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, the permanent collection of Old Master paintings in the Christ Church Picture Gallery, and the newly opened gallery housing the Pembroke College Undergraduate Collection of twentieth-century British paintings. Gervase also took them to the Divinity School, the architectural heart of the late medieval University.
© Evelyn Earl
Criss-crossing the city on foot over the course of the week, participants had the chance to compare the architectural styles of the diverse colleges which offer places in History of Art, from the medieval core of Worcester and the Tudor great hall of Christ Church, to the seventeenth-century buildings of Wadham and St John’s, to more modern structures at St Peter’s and the Scandinavian Modernist design of St Catherine’s. There were jokes about the epic distances covered by the group – and some good times just sitting in college gardens with sandwich lunches and the opportunity to chat.
To judge from some of the comments volunteered by participants as they left at the end of the week, the UNIQ programme had been worthwhile:
I was so nervous to come, but I had the most amazing experience and you all made me fall in love with History of Art.
You are the loveliest people I’ve ever met! Definitely made my first academic experience of history of art very interesting and engaging.
I will remember this experience for the rest of my life. Thank you for being the loveliest, most understanding and down-to-earth ambassadors and tutors.
In addition to the UNIQ Summer School this year History of Art took part in two other initiatives designed to broaden and diversify the pool of applicants to Oxford. The first was a contribution to the Humanities strand of the UNIQ Spring weekend, again open to Year 12 students, and was run jointly with colleagues in History. Craig Clunas took the fourteen students who had expressed an interest in these areas to the Ashmolean.
© Ian Wallman
Getting the students to think about the ways in which a museum frames the past, and the questions we ask about it, Craig started in the ‘West Meets East’ Orientation Gallery, asking students to pick an object in pairs, think up a question about it to share with the whole group, and then together consider the question, ‘Are objects evidence?’.
In the afternoon the group met for a class in the History of Art Department, on the theme of ‘Global Encounters’; this was run jointly with Alexander Morrison of the History Faculty, a specialist on the Russian empire in Central Asia. Alexander took the class through a range of documents giving the differing perspectives of participants in a seventeenth-century treaty between the Tsars and the Manchu emperors of the Qing dynasty, which set the boundaries between these two Eurasian superpowers for centuries. Craig then took up the theme of ‘Encounters’ by encouraging the class to discuss images produced for the Qing emperors by the Italian artists who worked for them in the eighteenth century. Both these sessions got students to focus on how it might be possible to write a global history that doesn’t assume Europe as its natural centre.
Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Portrait of the Qianlong Emperor on Horseback. Palace Museum, Beijing © The Palace Museum
Craig touched on some of these same themes when he had a chance to run one of the academic sessions for the Sutton Trust Teacher Summer School this July, on ‘Art, History, Art History’. Although there are important initiatives to get art history teaching into state schools (Art History in Schools being one), and make qualifications in it available to state school pupils, realistically it is the chance to explain the subject to teachers in other subjects which is going to make a difference. But it would be foolish to try and tell a group of classroom-hardened teachers stuff that does not connect with their working experience. So it was great to welcome fifteen teachers from history, politics, geography, psychology and a range of other subjects to hear Craig discuss with them the ways in which thinking about a broad range of visual culture can appeal to pupils who might be put off by too narrow a definition of ‘art history’.
Using two paintings which raise the theme of ‘viewing’ as a historical practice (one from nineteenth-century France, one from Ming China), Craig tried to show how critical skills join with historical information to make interpretation possible. He also learned that the new A-level Geography syllabus requires students to consider the representation of place and space in art – one teacher present talked about taking a class to The Lowry in Manchester as a way of thinking about representations of the urban environment. Another way to get young people engaged is always good to hear about.
Both these activities were highly worthwhile, but the opportunity in particular to show teachers, who may go on influencing students’ application choices for decades, that Oxford is there for all who can benefit from it, and that art history is as challenging and rigorous, was a special privilege, and one the Department looks forward to taking up again in future years. We remain committed to using every avenue open to us, doing as much as we can to widen access to Oxford University as a whole and to broadening interest in the discipline of art history.
For more information about the BA degree, please see the Department’s Undergraduate Admissions page.
To attend our next Open Day on Friday 14th September 2018 please see the Department’s Open Days and Access Events page for details on how to book a place.