By Ella Letort, Second Year BA History of Art Undergraduate
One of the Oxford History of Art Department’s great strengths is the extent to which it makes use of the city’s world-class collections. From the start of our degrees, students are familiarised with the art and objects offered by local museums and galleries. Oxford’s collections remain at the core of the undergraduate programme’s layout, with tutorials frequently held in the University’s Ashmolean Museum, as well as a first year extended essay requiring independent research on an object held within the city. Second year collections placements, organised through the Department, aim to build upon this by offering us the opportunity to see Oxford’s museums and galleries in fresh light through a placement within one of the many available departments.
My placement alongside the Ashmolean Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department, taking place one afternoon per week throughout Hilary and Trinity terms, has fitted comfortably around academic work while being substantial enough to accommodate individual projects. Thus far, my work has largely involved digitally cataloguing etchings and engravings from the School of Fontainebleau – a period in which I had, and have, little expertise. One of the reasons for my application to the Print Room was the appeal of close encounters with works of art; mounted prints and drawings can be handled with gloves, and this encourages up-close observation. My lack of specialist knowledge certainly necessitated careful examination of the prints and written sources at hand. Far from being monotonous, this method of cataloguing has been, for me, an exercise in observation and has given me the chance to work closely with objects I would not have otherwise encountered. Each print presented its own challenges; often the work of art would require further research or, at times, the identification of the artist or subject matter. This enabled me to feel that, although my role within the Print Room was relatively small, I was nonetheless able to make a contribution to the Department.
From the very start of my time working alongside them, the staff have been exceptionally welcoming and helpful. As well as cataloguing, I was given numerous opportunities to view works of art relating to current courses of mine, which reflects the Department’s commitment to fostering greater interest in the arts with as many people as possible. For example, I was able to study John Ruskin’s watercolours – which are part of his Teaching Collections, and are housed in the Ashmolean’s Print Room – alongside the second year ‘Victorian Intellect and Culture’ module. Besides the support it provides to History of Art students, the Print Room’s diverse collection caters to the varied interests of University academics as well as members of the public, both of whom could frequently be found viewing the prints and drawings on offer during my working hours.
The collections placement has deepened my knowledge of how large museums and galleries like the Ashmolean work; in particular how they strengthen the academic and public understanding of art across Oxford. The cataloguing and research skills I’ve taken away from my time in the Prints and Drawings Department have put me in good stead during interviews for summer internships and have lead to future opportunities. The History of Art collections placements not only help undergraduates to engage further with the collections they frequently use, but also offer us a foot up in a competitive career sector with a growing demand for prior experience.
The Ashmolean Museum’s Print Room is home to one of Britain’s finest collections of European graphic arts. Find more information on their holdings, opening hours, and contact details here.
John Ruskin’s Teaching Collections have been digitised by the Ashmolean and made available online here.