There is nothing like the feeling of walking into an exhibition that you have worked towards for nine months and seeing a crowd of animated people engaging with the works that they are encountering. These works were chosen, researched and carefully arranged by myself and eight other History of Art postgraduate students from the department, as part of a module called Curating Research. The months that preceded the private view of our exhibition, Lasting Impressions, were challenging at times, but also so much fun! We all learnt a great deal and we have come away with the fantastic experience of working as a team to transform academic research into an exhibition that we hope will captivate the Barber Institute’s audience.
We were given the opportunity to work on the exhibition as part of the ‘Curating Research’ module offered by the University of Birmingham’s MA programme in Art History, Film and Visual Culture. The academic year began with module leader, Dr Richenda Roberts teaching us about the history and evolution of museums and galleries around the world from private collections to public institutions, including various current issues that affect them today. Gaining theoretical and historical knowledge on museums and exhibitions was fascinating and is important for anyone hoping to work in the museum sector. However, we were itching to get down to the practical aspect of the course. One of the wonderful things about the module is that we were taught not only by experienced, knowledgeable University of Birmingham staff, but also by members of the team from the stunning Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Sessions were led by the Marketing, Learning and Access, and Exhibitions and Loans departments.
The Barber worked in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, which provided many of the exhibition loans for Lasting Impressions. As part of the exhibition planning, we went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the prints up close and personal and to make our selection of loans. This was a great opportunity to delve behind the scenes. It is not surprising that almost everyone doing an Art History MA in 2013-14 took the Curating Research Module!
However, it was not all fancy trips and talks. The course has also been a lot of hard work. The incredible prints on offer to us somehow needed to be narrowed down, the themes had to be worked out, and it all had to live up to the Barber Institute’s excellent reputation. (And, of course, the visitors had to like it!) Met with a whirlwind of new information and exciting prints it was easy to get caught up and forget the most important part – what would become Lasting Impressions, the exhibition itself.
Previous student-led exhibitions had all done something a little different and we wanted to follow suit. Our earliest ideas ranged from abstract themes, like arrangement by colour, to more specific ideas, like displaying only artists’ self-portraits. It was only upon visiting the National Portrait Gallery for the first time and looking around and seeing the works available to us that we decided upon our focus: printmaking as an artistic, expressive form. The twentieth century saw numerous artists produce prints, many of whom were experimenting with different, and sometimes unusual, printmaking techniques, combining different methods or using new materials. The works we chose were all fascinating individually and captivating aesthetically – we thought they would certainly make a ‘lasting impression’ on our visitors! I fell in love at an early stage with the portrait of Robert Plant by David Oxtoby. The print is vibrant and expressive of Plant’s musical passion (I confess to being a big Led Zeppelin fan).
The works we chose were diverse and, as such, the resulting exhibition juxtaposes prints such as a 1907 etching of William Booth by Francis Dodd, a wonderfully vibrant and technically fascinating self portrait by Michael Rothenstein (1981, coloured woodcut), and a group portrait of politicians at the House of Commons by Chris Orr (1986, aquatint and etching). Within the exhibition, works such as these provide an overview of British portraiture in print during the twentieth century, and highlight the various techniques and styles used to develop the expressive potential of printmaking.
We wanted to make this exhibition as accessible as possible, and knew from our own experience that the technical aspect of printmaking can sometimes be a bit of a mystery. On display in the Lady Barber gallery, alongside the prints, we have included a selection of printmaking tools as well as an information sheet outlining various printmaking techniques. You can even try out drypoint with Birmingham Printmakers at the Barber Institute’s workshops.
Alongside that of the National Portrait Gallery, we were also given the opportunity to explore the fantastic collections here at the University of Birmingham, including the Research and Cultural Collections and the Cadbury Research Library. In fact, the visit to the Research and Cultural Collections led to the loan of my favourite work in Lasting Impressions – a charming plasticine print by Hans Schwarz (1922 – 2003). Schwarz was an experimental artist and this self portrait with his wife expresses perfectly his sense of humour and innovative style.
It was exciting to reach the point of having chosen the works and established the theme, but our work wasn’t over. The chosen works would need to make their way onto the walls and into the cases. But before that, we had to summarise all the research we had carried out about the artists and sitters into a one hundred word label – possibly the hardest task in curating an exhibition. And all of these tasks had to be done to a deadline. To me, though, this is just another reason why the module is so fantastic – it doesn’t just teach you ‘exhibitions in theory’, but it teaches you how to overcome the real life challenges you must inevitably deal with if you wish to put on an exhibition. As an aspiring curator, the knowledge and practical experience I gained during this module has been invaluable.
Thankfully, we did manage to get everything on the walls and in the cases, and we even managed to write the labels! With a big thank you to Dr Richenda Roberts and all of the Barber Institute staff that gave us so much help – we are all incredibly proud of what we have achieved, and could not be happier with how the exhibition has turned out. You can see it for free at the Barber Institute until the 28th September.
If you’re interested in studying the MA in History of Art and the Curating Research Module click here to find out more.
Oliver McCall, one of our previous MA graduates, has reviewed Lasting Impressions here.