By Stefanie Lenk, current research student in the History of Art Department
Doing a doctorate in a research project is still fairly rare in the humanities at Oxford. The idea polarizes people. Being part of a research project helps connect students to others with similar interests quickly. Getting feedback on your work, a fresh eye on an old problem, or simply a little bit of moral support, are some of the perks that come with project work. If your project is functional, that is. If it isn’t, a research project soon can become exhausting.
The Empires of Faith team
Empires of Faith, my research project, has taught me a lesson. I know now for sure that collaborative work during your PhD can be done successfully, for everyone involved. And I know how much impact it can have on you as a researcher, in ways that you couldn’t imagine at the outset. The key to making it work, I think, is the goodwill of each to be part of a group. For me, this meant putting my energy into group projects, besides my daily DPhil work, and being open to my colleagues’ ideas and suggestions, which often led to research avenues I had not originally contemplated.
I embarked on this journey four years ago, together with most of my DPhil and Postdoc colleagues, simply by responding to a call for applications. EoF is a collaboration between Oxford University and the British Museum, so we also have a BM curator on board, and of course the head of the project, Jas’ Elsner, professor of classics at Oxford. This makes for a jolly team of ten. We all work on religious art in late antiquity (c. 200-800 AD), but from different religious and geographical vantage points. From day 1, we immersed ourselves in the art and material culture of the early Islamic empire, the Sasanian empire, the Kushan empire, and the Roman empire – the latter tackled through Roman religions, the British Isles, East and West Rome. Only a fraction of my colleagues are trained as art historians. The others have backgrounds in history, classics, archaeology and the social sciences.
Empires of Faith at the Kosmos Summer School 2015 in Berlin © Stefanie Lenk
My own DPhil project looks at pre-Christian imagery and architecture used in 5th and 6th century Christian baptisteries in the Western Mediterranean. Many of the issues that I focus on in my DPhil, like questions of religious identity in late antiquity, what material culture can tell us about religion, how important iconographic readings are for the meaning of art, or how we can compare the evidence of different sites to one another, are also of interest to my colleagues. To some extent, this has to do with the similarity of our research fields. Some topics lend themselves more to some questions than to others. But my suspicion is that most of what interests me today is a product of our continuous conversations and the work we did together.
Choosing wall colours for Imagining the Divine with our designer Byung Kim and my EoF colleague Rachel Wood © Stefanie Lenk
We started by meeting up militantly for at least three hours a week during term. This was in October 2013. At the time, few of us were truly engaged with any other fields of religious art beyond our own research areas. Most had not worked collaboratively or across disciplines before. Now, four years later, Empires of Faith has curated two exhibitions, Imagining the Divine. Art and the Rise of World Religions, the Ashmolean Museum’s current lead exhibition, and Those Who Follow, a cooperation with contemporary artist Arturo Soto, also currently up in the Classics Centre of the university. Four of my colleagues and I have co-written Images of Mithra, the first volume of a new OUP book series called Visual Conversations, which OUP offered to run, as they liked the first book so much. Moreover, we have written a historiographical volume altogether on how the different ways of art history writing in our respective disciplines developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the exhibition catalogue for Imagining the Divine. To arrive at this point, we gathered much input from fellow researchers on numerous occasions in Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago.
Public workshop in Those Who Follow at the Ioannou Centre, run together with my EoF colleague Dominic Dalglish © Stefanie Lenk
In our final year, 2017, we opened up Empires of Faith’ research to wider audiences, both in academia and to the general public. My two DPhil colleagues on the programme, Philippa Adrych and Dominic Dalglish, and myself, launched a graduate student workshop series called Talking Religion for ten DPhil students in the humanities. In a series of seminars, held at Wolfson, the Ashmolean and the British Museum, we discussed the question of how to write religious history from objects. The Talking Religion group gives collaborative and interdisciplinary student tours on a regular basis through Imagining the Divine. Currently, we are running weekend workshops for Oxford’s religious communities on Those Who Follow and Imagining the Divine. In Michaelmas term, we held an Empires of Faith academic seminar series, and from 11th to 13th of January 2018 we celebrated our immensely productive time together with the Empires of Faith conference.
Talking Religion student Hugo Shakeshaft at work in Imagining the Divine © Stefanie Lenk
You might wonder how all of this relates back to my DPhil work. Well, I will be finishing this year, my fifth year as a DPhil student (having deferred last year), and cannot pretend that Empires of Faith expedited the progress I have made on my dissertation in terms of getting the words down on paper. I am not sad about this, though, because I consider my work to have become so much better thanks to my colleagues. I have also been involved in terrific publications, and worked as the lead curator of Imagining the Divine.
Most importantly, however, I have experienced the tremendous benefits collaborative work can bring to academia. None of what we have achieved would have been possible, or even enjoyable, on our own. True, not every PhD student has the luck of participating in a project like Empires of Faith. I don’t think, though, that this is necessary for similar experiences. All it takes is a little leap of faith. Under the pressure of DPhil work, it can easily seem too challenging to dedicate energy to experiments with others. But at least in my experience, it works the other way around: collaborative work gives you more energy than it takes.
We made it! Imagining the Divine up and running at the Ashmolean museum! © Stefanie Lenk
Stefanie is working on Baptismal Art in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Western Mediterranean (400-800 A.D.)
DPhil is the Oxford term for a PhD. For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.
Imagining the Divine is currently on at the Ashmolean Museum.
For more information about the Empires of Faith project, please see the project page.