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Collaborative work during your DPhil: My time at Empires of Faith

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe 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.

2Empires 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.

3Choosing 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.

4Public 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.

5Talking 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.

6We 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.

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2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past

By Aidan Mehigan, Current Graduate MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


Caroline van Eck’s 2017 Oxford Slade Lectures, The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities: Collecting Excessive Objects and the Revival of the Past, were announced by a flyer bearing an image of an ornate candelabrum sculpted under the supervision of Giambattista Piranesi and now housed in the Louvre. In just the small part of the object captured by the photo, we can see several tiers of stonework, a lion’s head, acanthus leaves, foliated strigilations, clusters of berries, and much more. Van Eck’s idea of the “excessive object” is immediately clear.

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Close-up of the Louvre Candelabrum, © Hende Bauer

But what made me (and I’m sure many others) particularly excited for these lectures—even though, as the Slade Lectures, they really need no further advertising—is the fact that this object has two siblings in Oxford. The Ashmolean Museum houses two such candelabra, purchased from Piranesi’s workshop in the mid-eighteenth century by Roger Newdigate, who donated them to the University in 1775. They spent a few decades in the Radcliffe Camera before moving to the Greek and Roman sculpture collection at the Ashmolean in 1846.

The first few Slade Lectures this year, then, stayed very close to home, and I think we all relished the opportunity to learn more about a set of objects with which we already had some passing familiarity. Prof. van Eck spent several sessions walking us through the controversial provenance of these complicated works and explored their ancient precedents, initial reception after their supposed “discovery,” and relationship to Piranesi’s other design work and drawings.

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Candelabras in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Despite their imposing form, the Ashmolean candelabra are easy to overlook—because they are placed against a wall, it’s impossible to get a full view of them, and since they flank a doorway, the natural impulse is to keep on moving. The chance to be forced to spend some significant time really looking at them in detail, to see them close read again and again from a variety of angles, was most welcome.

But it soon became apparent that, despite her intensive initial focus on them, the candelabra themselves are not the real focus of Prof. van Eck’s project. Putting on a display of the trademark scholarly versatility and appetite for wide-ranging argumentation that have made her reputation over the years, Prof. van Eck has, in her last few talks, pivoted to an in-depth exploration not of any particular objects but to the birth and intellectual roots of Neoclassicism itself.

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Candelabra in the Ashmolean, © Aidan Mehigan

Patrons, artists, viewers, collectors, and their habits have all had their part to play as Prof. van Eck has probed into the origins of the eighteenth-century impulse to make present an ancient past. Characters as diverse as Wolfgang van Goethe, Caroline van Humboldt, and Aby Warburg have all made appearances. Objects themselves have wielded considerable agency as well, particularly given that, as Prof. van Eck has pointed out, certain works (such as Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix) were perceived by their contemporaries to be truly alive, and were treated as such.

Other topics that have been incorporated into the series include the profusion of animal-related imagery, especially in tableware, and its links to ideas of domestication, totem poles and Rorschach inkblots, the eclectic interiors of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris, and the emergence of the tableau vivant—all of which, Prof. van Eck is careful to repeatedly point out, were conceived, created, and experienced in contexts that predate the museum.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In a conversation with the History of Art Department’s own architectural historian, Dr. Matthew Walker, as part of a reception held at St. Peter’s College on February 21, Prof. van Eck made explicit for the first time just what she’s driving at with this impressively large cast of objects and moments. As one might have suspected, the book project she envisions developing out of this lecture series will not be about the Piranesi candelabra in the Ashmolean or elsewhere, but rather more generally about the formation and emergence of the Empire Style in early nineteenth century France.

The candelabra, fascinating objects though they may be, are, for Prof. van Eck, most useful as summary objects around which to organize both the initial questions she’s interested in asking and the later-emerging concepts her analysis engages with. That they are so striking certainly makes this organizational role a vivid and memorable one, but Prof. van Eck has made clear that her interests here are in higher-order phenomena themselves rather than any particular manifestations thereof.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

The final two lectures of the series elaborated on the ideas previewed at the St. Peter’s reception. The whole audience was especially intrigued by lecture seven, in which Prof. van Eck surveyed a great deal of literature in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral anthropology to familiarize us with the essentially universal human tendency to assign animacy and intentionality to even the most abstract movements and visual stimuli.

Though it took some time to get an audience of art historians and art enthusiasts up to speed on some occasionally quite technical material, this foray into the sciences proved crucial to substantiating Prof. van Eck’s point that the defining feature of the Empire Style is its immersiveness: uncanny animal forms invite us to grasp and control the world of objects. For Prof. van Eck, the Empire Style profoundly entangles humans with things.

Prof. van Eck, at the opening of her final lecture, urged us to consider a line from an essay by Novalis on Goethe: “antiquity is only now coming into being.” In this moment, one of her larger implicit arguments of this series immediately became clear: Piranesi and his fellow antiquarians were not restoring, recovering, or reimagining antiquity—they were creating it. The artistic and intellectual situation in Napoleon’s Paris around 1800 prefigured, she asserts, the material turn currently taking place in the academy—where the obsession is not with ideas or texts but overwhelmingly with things and their thing-ness.

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© Department of History of Art, University of Oxford

In this final lecture, Prof. van Eck wonderfully demonstrated the need for scholars to bring together anthropological ideas about agency attribution and art historical ideas of style formation. Anthropology, archaeology, and art history all have claims on the object, and it is only by uniting them, Prof. van Eck concluded, that we can begin tackling the problems of materiality.

I can’t be alone when I say that I was wowed by the breadth and depth of Prof. van Eck’s lectures and that I left them unsettled and inspired in equal parts. I’m sure our memories and notes from this term will serve us all well for years to come. We’ll certainly need something to tide us over until the book arrives, and I believe I speak for everyone when I say I am incredibly excited for that day to come.


Professor Caroline van Eck was appointed in October 2016 as Professor of History of Art at the University of Cambridge.

Dot to Dot: Drawing Your Own Career Path in the Art World

By Ruth Millington, MSt History of Art Graduate 2011


Following the Art History Careers Seminar, held on 25th January 2017, here are some top tips for students interested in pursuing a career in the art world from professionals in the field.

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© Andy Sedg, via Visualhunt.com 

Tom Ryley, Communications and Digital Officer, Old Royal Naval College

  • Develop your digital skills: Be aware that many arts jobs, including marketing, require excellent digital skills. In his role, Tom uses social media statistics, Google Analytics and Google AdWords to connect with audiences online and increase engagement with the museum’s programme of events and exhibitions.
  • Join student societies: Whilst you are still at university you can lead on projects and campaigns run by societies, which will develop employability skills, such as marketing and communications.

Dina Akhmadeeva, Assistant Curator, Collections International Art at Tate Modern

  • Think internationally: If you are interested in curating, you can apply for curatorial traineeships around the world. Dina took up placements in the USA and the Netherlands before starting to work at Tate Modern.
  • Write: Pitch ideas for articles to editors at magazines and websites to get your writing featured and build up an authentic profile, which employers will take seriously.

Ruth Millington, Arts Internships Officer, University of Birmingham and Freelance Writer

  • Use social media: Many arts organisations post internships and jobs on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. You can also sell yourself and your skills, and engage with employers.
  • Do work experience: Fit work experience around your studies. Within Oxford there are lots of opportunities to volunteer across the seven Oxford University Museums and Collections. In vacations, you can apply for more structured internships schemes, such as placements at auction houses. These experiences allow you to network, develop skills and knowledge, and work out the career you would be best suited to.

Josh Baldwin, Senior Game Designer, Coldwood Interactive

  • Prove your motivation: Research and engage with the industry you’re interested in. This could include blogging, creating visual content, modding (for the games industry) and producing articles. These activities will build up your professional voice and portfolio, and allow you to interact with others in the field.
  • Consider smaller companies: Offer your services (for less than they are worth) to small companies, rather than the big names, as this may give you that first foot in the door. If you are making a speculative application, show real understanding of the work this organisation does and express why you would be the perfect fit for them.
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Limited Edition Print by Damien Hirst, Art Basel Hong Kong 2013 © See-ming Lee, via Visualhunt.com 

Joining the Dots

One important question you can ask yourself, both at the start of and as you progress through your career, is this: what side of the art do you want to be on? Selling? Researching? Making? Finding your place may not be immediate. In fact, each speaker stressed the varied route they had taken after graduation, which often did not make sense until later on. So, if you don’t immediately get a job in an arts organisation after graduating, don’t panic! Employers will value the skills you have developed whilst working in other sectors, and sometimes even prefer this. There is no set career ladder in the art world so be prepared to move around, be creative and play to your strengths.


Ruth Millington, MSt History of Art 2011, www.ruthmillington.co.uk, @ruth_Millington

Dina Akhmadeeva, BA History of Art 2013, MSt History of Art 2014, www.dinaakhmadeeva.com, @DinaAkhmadeeva

Joshua Baldwin, BA Classical Archaeology and Ancient History 2013

Tom Ryley, MSt History of Art 2015

 

Art Beyond the Lecture Theatre: Internships and Opportunities in the Art World

By Nina Foster, BA History of Art Graduate 2016


Studying History of Art at Oxford gave me a fascinating insight into the incredible influence museums and collections have on public interaction with art. Although working in the arts is highly competitive and funded opportunities are rare, Oxford provides the perfect support system for finding exciting internships in all manner of art institutions. I cannot speak highly enough of the wonderful opportunities OUIP (Oxford University Internship Programme) offers for arts and humanities students. Each year OUIP has hundreds of internships around the world and in the UK, all of which are funded or paid. I have been fortunate to complete two OUIP internships and I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in working in the art world to take a look at what they have to offer. The History of Art department also offers the fantastic opportunity of an internship award at Waddesdon Manor; open to any humanities student with a research focus on art.

I hope that this post offers some inspiration and guidance for any current students or graduates hoping to take the first steps towards a career in the arts.

Working Abroad at the State Hermitage Museum

In the summer following my second year at Oxford I undertook a fully funded internship at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg with a fellow undergraduate art historian. The internship was part of OUIP and included a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support a six week period in Russia. The application process involved filling out a form and writing a 600 word personal statement. My internship at the Hermitage mainly involved the organisation of the European Day of Languages Festival 2015, which was produced in collaboration with the EU Delegation in Russia. A typical day would involve heading to the office at around 11am (Russian working hours are quite different to the UK!) to work with the rest of the team to devise marketing ideas and strategies for the festival.

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Experimenting with marketing ideas: a collage of the grand staircase at the Hermitage

This experience gave me so much insight into all the other kind of work that goes on at a major museum beyond curation. I also had the opportunity to take weekly Russian language classes which really improved my confidence to speak in Russian. Also working at the Hermitage gives you free entrance to loads of arts and cultural institutions in St. Petersburg so it’s a great opportunity to explore Russia on a student budget. The team at the Hermitage was made up of inspiring like-minded young people from all around the world – many of which have become lasting friends. Living and working abroad while still at university is such an amazing opportunity and one that employers always ask me about in interviews. It demonstrates adventurousness, curiosity and adaptability so if you think that sounds like you definitely look at the international opportunities OUIP offers!

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Exploring Moscow: Nina and Fania visiting the Narkomfin building

Revitalising Underused Spaces with Ugly Duck

Throughout my third year of studies I became increasingly interested in the use of art to bring communities together and put forward new ideas in public spaces. Not only did this become the focus of my thesis, but I also began looking for opportunities to work in this field. Again I found a brilliant opportunity through OUIP – the chance to do a paid internship with a registered charity called Ugly Duck in London. Ugly Duck’s mission is an unusual but exciting idea – to revitalise underused spaces in overcrowded London. Ugly Duck repurposes empty buildings by opening them up for commercial venue hire for instance for photoshoots or filming. The spaces are also used by emerging artists, directors, activists or dancers through their biannual creative season. As with my Hermitage application I had to fill out a form and write a personal statement, I was also invited for an interview in London. I found this interview quite challenging as the team at Ugly Duck really wanted to know if I had done my research on the position, the organisation and whether I had any bright ideas for their work.

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The Ugly Duck Warehouse: one of my colleagues chatting to a potential client

My internship at Ugly Duck ran from July to September and was honestly an eye-opening experience. My role as City Hunt Coordinator focused on the development of Ugly Duck’s public spaces project. City Hunt is a hyper-local heritage game that operates on digital and analogue platforms. My work involved data analysis, securing new business partnerships and sourcing public funding by writing funding applications. Additionally, as Ugly Duck is run by a small team of only three staff I assisted in the day-to-day running of the business by taking bookings, managing the venue and liaising with artists. The breadth and variety of exciting responsibilities Ugly Duck offered me has given me such valuable experience for future employment and has inspired me to focus on a career that uses art for social impact.

Curating and Cataloguing at Waddesdon Manor

Each year there is a remarkable opportunity for an Oxford humanities student (BA, MA, PhD) to undertake a funded internship at Waddesdon Manor – a Rothschild chateau in Buckinghamshire now owned by the National Trust. Waddesdon is a truly unique place and the internship offers a very rare opportunity to assist in curation at an entry-level position. The position includes accommodation in a beautiful cottage in Waddesdon village as well as a bursary. The application process involved writing a statement about why I was interested in the role. I am particularly interested in the contemporary art at Waddesdon so that was the focus of my application. Also you have to submit written references from two tutors which I left until the very last minute so I would definitely recommend getting organised and giving them at least a week to do this! After submitting my application I had an interview in the History of Art department which was actually a really enjoyable experience.

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Not a bad office! The very grand approach to Waddesdon Manor

I started the Waddesdon internship in September 2016 and have so far found the experience very rewarding. I mainly work with the wonderful and inspiring senior curator Dr. Juliet Carey on the preparation of exhibition proposals and research projects. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with contemporary artists to help them explore the collection and produce work inspired by it. I have also gained experience of working with the collection management database which is a really essential skill for working in museums. I’ve met so many different people here who all share the same passion for Waddesdon and I have to say I now also share that passion!

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The incredible collections at Waddesdon include 18th century French decorative arts of the highest quality

My work experience seems only to have scratched the surface of the complexity and diversity of opportunities within the art world. The great thing about working in the arts is that there is no graduate scheme system, rather you have to find opportunities and devise your own career path. This is honestly really exciting and has led me to places I could never have imagined working. So, if I can offer any advice it’s to think broadly and look at opportunities that take you out of your comfort zone – you’ll probably find them through Oxford’s career network!


Nina completed her BA History of Art at the Department in 2016. She is currently  undertaking the Waddesdon Internship organised in collaboration with the History of Art Department.

Student Placements: Working in the Ashmolean Museum’s Prints and Drawings Department

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.

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Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, called Guercino (1591-1666), St Francis kneeling, c. 1615. Charcoal crayon, heightened with white, on buff paper. Reproduced with permission. © Ashmolean Museum Prints and Drawings Department

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.