Category Archives: Careers and Alumni

AAH Art History Careers Day: Saturday 25 October, Barber Institute

We’re delighted that this year’s Association of Art Historians (AAH) Careers Day is taking place at our very own Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham on Saturday 25 October.

The event will introduce a range of careers opportunities which are available to art history students. There will be a series of informal talks by speakers from leading cultural institutions who will share their professional experiences and expertise in areas including curatorship, art management, gallery marketing and education, and research. 

Tickets (includes lunch and refreshments):

AAH members £8; non-members £12

Places are limited and tickets must be bought online in advance: 
Reyahn King (Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, West Midlands)
Dr Connie Wan (Pop Art Curator, Wolverhampton Art Gallery)
Sarah Shirley-Priest (Senior Specialist and Branch Manager, Bonhams)
Jane Thompson Webb (Conservator, Birmingham Museums Trust)
Alex Jolly (Learning & Access Assistant, Barber Institute of Fine Arts)
Hannah Carroll (Marketing Officer, Birmingham Museums)
Carly Hegenbarth (Doctoral Researcher, University of Birmingham)
Chris Packham (Careers Consultant, Arts and Law, University of Birmingham) 

This event is supported by the Careers Network at the University of Birmingham.

Join our Facebook event:

For enquiries, please contact the event co-organisers:
Imogen Wiltshire:
Charlotte Stokes:
Ana Bilbao:

AAH Careers Day Barber Institute


Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections Internship by Holly Wain

After finishing my final year I was lucky enough to undertake a month long internship at the Cadbury Research Library which is the home of the University of Birmingham’s Special Collections and holds approximately 200,000 pre-1850 books and 4 million manuscripts. I had seen the advert through the careers network earlier in the year and I had been using the library during the research of my dissertation, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity for me. I had been interested in rare books and manuscripts during the final years of my degree and the advert mentioned heritage which seemed to fit into other work experience that I had carried out in museums. I realise now, however, that at that point I really had no clue about the work involved in libraries and archives! Throughout the four weeks I learnt an enormous amount about the way libraries and archives differ and I have had a real insight into the role of an archivist, something I am now seriously considering as a career path.

The Cadbury Research Library’s Main Reception, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston Campus, Muirhead Tower Lower Ground Floor.


The Heslop Reading Room. Open to students, academics and the public.

The Heslop Reading Room. Open to students, academics and the public.

I was chosen along with Hannah Hickman, a Masters student studying at the Shakespeare Institute, to work towards an exhibition and a cataloguing project. As soon as we arrived we were welcomed in as part of the team. Our supervisor, archivist Jennifer Childs, had organised a very detailed schedule for the entire four week period in which she planned time for the exhibition, cataloguing and sessions with each member of staff. This approach was so refreshing and I really appreciated how she had planned the internship to benefit us instead of leaving us feeling like spare parts. During the internship we worked towards an exhibition for the centenary of The First World War which will open in September and will be placed in the Main Library. Jenny and the team offered helpful guidance and trained us in different skills but we were also given the freedom to determine the nature of the exhibition. Jenny planned the schedule so that we had time to work on every part of the exhibition and we were able to experience all the steps involved, from selecting material and narrowing down a theme to working in the conservation studio with conservator, Marie Sviergula to prepare our chosen materials. We also worked on two digital exhibitions on Flickr and the archive catalogue CALM’s image gallery which involved experience in reprographics and Photoshop.

In the conservation studio we discovered that making mounts for photographs is a lot harder than it looks.

In the conservation studio we discovered that making mounts for photographs is a lot harder than it looks.

We were also able to see the work of Hoa, an intern from Melbourne University. Here she is working on watercolours of skin diseases!

We were also able to see the work of Hoa, an intern from Melbourne University. Here she is working on watercolours of skin diseases!

The second part of the internship was spent working with an archivist on a cataloguing project. I worked with Anne George on the Save the Children collection and had the opportunity to sift through the papers of Dorothy Buxton and her sister Eglantyne Jebb, who founded the organisation. The papers, from the early 1920s, were not catalogued and I worked on putting together a more detailed list of items to then catalogue them on the programme CALM. I was trained to use the programme and by the end of the internship I had catalogued just over 500 items! It was hard work looking through folders of small papers and trying to make sense of handwritten scribbles but I found it incredibly interesting. It was a privilege to be able to read through her notes and see history playing out in such a personal way. I really enjoyed making links between figures and events because with every new newspaper cutting or letter I was getting another glimpse into the time period. I also felt very lucky to be able to work with an archivist and contribute to her project.

I am so grateful to the team at the Cadbury Research Library for making the internship so worthwhile in terms of the skills gained but also the knowledge I now have of career paths into archives. Each team member was so interested in our plans and offered invaluable advice. I have enjoyed working at the Special Collections so much that I plan to continue volunteering there during my MRes course starting in September.

Our exhibition, ‘Rest and Recreation: volunteering during the Great War’ opens September 4 in the display case in the Main Library foyer.


Cultural Internships 2014-15: an opportunity not to be missed!

Are you a UoB graduate looking to gain experience in the cultural sector? Then look no further, applications are now open for this year’s Cultural Intern Scheme, so get yours in now!

Successful applicants will be given the opportunity to work in one of the region’s fantastic cultural institutions, with the added support and training offered by the University of Birmingham’s Cultural Engagement team. 6-month paid internships are available at:

BBC BirminghamBirmingham Museums Trust, Birmingham Opera Company, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), Flatpack Film Festival, Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, Performances Birmingham (Town Hall/Symphony Hall), Sampad, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

For more information on how to apply go to the Cultural Internship webpage, the deadline for applications is 21st July 201UoB crest4.

Having benefited from being a Cultural Intern, I can thoroughly recommend applying for this fantastic scheme, if you would like to read about my experience at Birmingham Museums Trust, see my post here. Read about some of the other interns’ experiences on the UoB Culture blog.

Good luck to this year’s applicants!

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Why I like this module…Women and Artistic Culture in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Period

Joint Honours student, Holly, tells us why she enjoyed this final year module…

Holly Wain, finalist, BA French and History of Art

Holly Wain, finalist, BA French and History of Art

Women and artistic culture is a very interesting and well-formulated module. It has given me a new perspective on medieval art and culture as it draws upon the recent growth of scholarship on women as active subjects of the period. In lectures and seminars we are encouraged to look at art critically and I have been able to see images in a new light. Instead of rewriting past historians’ views we are able to develop our own, through carefully chosen reading lists that enable us to apply contemporary writing on gender to the medieval period.

The module has also helped with my dissertation as it has given me a more in depth understanding of the medieval period and it has tied in with a module in the French side of my degree on contemporary female fiction. I have enjoyed the module as it is not limited to one type of art or one methodology.

Read Holly’s post on her research project on a manuscript in Liège here.

madonna and childThis final year special subject:

•is taught by Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange, a specialist in art and manuscripts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries

•explores works of art in relation to ideas about sexuality and gender in the medieval and early modern period

•Focuses on the different social, political, and religious roles played by women and how this shaped their art patronage

•Examines works produced or commissioned by women such as Sofonisba Anguissola, Isabella d’Este, Margaret of Austria, and Elizabeth I


More posts to follow from the undergraduates, so watch this space!

Why I like this module… Inside the Gallery: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Museums and Galleries

If you’re heading into Year 12 or 13, now is the season of Open Days and all things Uni-related. As part of that season, we’ll be showcasing a few of our modules here on The Golovine to give you a sense of what they involve and what our students make of them. First up, Romy and Sophie give us their views on the second year module, Inside the Gallery: Histories, Theories, and Practices of Museums and Galleries.

Inside the Gallery’ was one of the most interesting modules that I took in my second year. The module looks at the role of museums and galleries and the practicalities of exhibiting art works. Over the course we visited various museums across Birmingham and had talks by individuals working within fields such as curating and restoration. The assessment of the module requires the group to create their own hypothetical exhibition, using the knowledge gained to plan out an exhibition in its entirety, from loan requests and installation procedures to budgeting and marketing the show.

Romy, Second Year, BA History of Art

Romy, Second Year, BA History of Art

I really enjoyed the active basis of the course that required me to think about art differently. As I am very interested in the possibilities of working with art, meeting those people who have incredibly exciting roles has given me insight into where I may take my future career.”


This second year module:
•draws on the expertise of our own gallery, the Barber Institute
•explores other collections in and around Birmingham
•offers an insight into museums’ curating, marketing, education and finance departments
•is assessed by a virtual exhibition


Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Barber Institute of Fine Arts









“I recently had a great opportunity to put the skills I learnt from taking ‘Inside the Gallery’ into practice when I worked with South African artist Cathy Layzellto develop and organise an exhibition of her work. After securing the venue, the exhibition had to be marketed, the artwork organised for display and priced. The exhibition was a huge success, with Cathy selling much of her work and it was an enjoyable day for all.

Sophie, finalist, JH History of Art and History

Sophie, finalist, JH History of Art and History

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to take this course, which just shows the range of topics available to students of Art History at the University of Birmingham. Not only is there great diversity in the type of art that we study, but we also learn how to apply our knowledge in the modern day art world.”


To find out more about Inside the Gallery and other courses on offer, click here.

If you want to get a real feel for studying History of Art with us amongst the fantastic collections of the Barber Institute, come along to our History of Art Taster Day on 20th September – find out more here and check back for the full programme soon!

Calling all HoA Graduates…Barber internships are now available!

Barber logo


The Barber Institute is offering six museum internships over the coming year. The internships are designed to provide work experience for graduates with a degree in History of Art or a related subject, who are seeking a career in museums and galleries. Internships last twenty weeks and start in either September 2014 or February 2015. Interns work 21.5 hours per week and will be paid at a rate of £7.53 per hour.

To get an idea of what an internship can involve, read Sophie Rycroft’s post about her time working as a Collections in term.


The Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts


1)        Collections Internships

 We are offering two internships working with our Collections team. Interns will gain experience in all aspects of curatorial work, including research, documentation and the planning, organisation and installation of exhibitions. They will also be given the opportunity to curate a small display of prints and drawings and to give gallery talks.

2)        Learning and Access Internships

 We are offering two internships working with our Learning and Access team. Interns will gain experience in all aspects of the planning, organisation and delivery of learning activities, which encourage the study of art and enable our visitors to enjoy, understand and reflect upon the Barber’s unique collection of paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures and decorative arts.

 3)        Communications and Marketing Internships

 We are offering two internships working with our Communications and Marketing team. Interns will gain experience in all aspects of the planning, organisation and delivery of targeted marketing, social media, media relations, public relations and other communications campaigns aimed at encouraging different sectors of the community to visit the Barber and participate in its events and activities.

How to Apply

Applicants should be able to demonstrate a strong interest in, or knowledge of, History of Art, preferably supported by a formal academic qualification. In addition, they should have excellent communication and computing skills and a commitment to working in museums and galleries.

For further particulars and an application form, please visit the University of Birmingham’s website The closing date for applications is Monday 9 June 2014. Interviews will be held in the week starting 23 June 2014.

The Barber Institute’s Internship Programme 2014/15 is sponsored by NADFAS (through the Patricia Fay Memorial Fund), the Chris Gait Endowment Fund and the Patrons of the Barber Institute.


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A Year on from Brum…2013 graduate Sapna Patel tells us about her internships and new job!

A year ago, life seemed so different: I remember this time last year I was stressing (like every other final year student) about our upcoming exams that were to take place in 3 days’ time. As well as cramming every quote, date, and title I could possibly fit into my brain about Visual Representations of the Body, 16th Century Venice, and Interiors and Interiority, there was also the worry about what I would be doing work-wise after exams were finished and university was officially over. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only graduate panicking over this, and after attempting to secure an internship during my final year, I finally decided to let go and just focus on my exams which were only going to happen once. However that worry about what I was going to do career-wise just wouldn’t go away and luckily, whilst on a quick revision break on Facebook (typical!) I saw a post on our History of Art page about an opportunity to work at Sotheby’s Institute of Art. After reading up on the role, I realised the deadline wasn’t till the end of May so I made a mental note to go back to this once my exams were done.

With exams finally over, and after having too much fun at Refreshers, I went back to the application. I wasn’t really expecting to hear back or get through to an interview but surprisingly received an email whilst on holiday asking if I could attend an interview that week. I returned from my holiday early and went along feeling very hopeful and so was ecstatic when I was offered an internship with the Careers Department. My first day was the next week!

I commuted from Birmingham initially until I moved back home and started the long trek of a commute from Lincolnshire. Besides the 5.30am starts, and the returns at 8.30pm, my three months in the summer were extremely glamorous and I thoroughly loved working for a company that trusted me to get involved in as much as possible! Working in the beautiful surroundings of Bloomsbury, I was always on the go, going to different places or working with different departments. My line manager, Christina, was very supportive and encouraging to work with and from my first day I was already placing orders for all sorts for upcoming corporate art events without her permission! My first day also involved going to Somerset House to plan last minute things for a talk that was occurring that very evening.

Sapna Sotheby's

Entrance to Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Bedford Square, London













I then soon found out that I would be representing Sotheby’s Institute at Masterpiece London 2013, a prestigious luxury arts fair set in the South Grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Working for Masterpiece was certainly eventful. Running around London, I always had my hands full, from curating our stand, to networking with galleries and art dealers at the fair, and teaching and inspiring young school children about art and antiques, something that certainly tested my patience!

The Masterpiece Banner!

The Masterpiece Banner!










Networking with other galleries was my favourite aspect of working for Masterpiece. I loved seeing galleries dealing with the works of arts that I had specialised in during university and discovering new contemporary pieces that were unfamiliar to me. Having studied Books of Hours and illuminated manuscripts during my second year, I was delighted to see Les Enluminures at Masterpiece who displayed an array of manuscripts and miniatures from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I was fortunate enough to handle a Book of Hours and was astonished at its excellent condition: the pigments and quality of the illuminated designs were still in such a good state.

Sapna MSS 2


Sapna MSS

…and more manuscripts!










Working as a Careers Intern, I assisted with graduate recruitment on a global basis, specialising in the arts and business market, a field of work I did not know much about initially. I was amazed to discover the numerous career paths a History of Art graduate could pursue from working in established galleries, and reputable auction houses, to working on a freelance basis and even working with finance and wealth management with a focus on art. It’s great to know all this is possible with a degree in History of Art – it just goes to show, as long you show your passion and dedication for a certain career, anything really is possible. Most recruiters will look at the skills you’ve acquired during your degree such as analysing texts and being able to put together a coherent argument through your essays. They’re also interested in initiative and innovative methods of researching that you employ for long pieces of work such as your dissertation.

I certainly learned a lot during my three-month internship, from being able to sit in the library reading and developing my knowledge about the History of Art, to attending networking events with employees from the major three auction houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonham’s), and working with our office based in New York. I also learnt about parts of the world that are only just emerging in the contemporary art scene such as India (a country close to my own heart, ethnicity, religion and culture). I was really pleased to be able to network with Neha Jaiswal, a contemporary Indian art curator whose work combines traditional Indian art with a contemporary twist. And of course there were the gorgeous summery walks from Kings Cross Station and the buttery croissants I consumed every morning…! Through this placement, I was able to begin my dream of working in London and I can definitely say this internship gave me the right start I needed in building my career.

My daily walk to work...

My daily walk to work…

I was in fact offered the opportunity to extend my internship for another three months at Sotheby’s but I was fortunate enough to gain a six-week position as a Gallery Invigilator and Exhibition Assistant at Richard Nagy Ltd on Old Bond Street. This job really appealed to me as the works Richard deals with in his private gallery cover those areas of art I had specialised in at university, especially on Camilla’s second year module on Fin-de-Siècle Vienna. I owe so much to Camilla’s fantastic course and being able to draw on everything I learnt from the module in my interview with Richard and his fellow Gallery Director, Nina. Working in Mayfair was another great experience: walking through the Burlington Arcade every day and past all the big labels is every girl’s dream! The gallery itself is small and intimate and specialises in the works of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. The gallery also handles German Expressionism: Die Bruecke, and in particular Die Neue Sachlichkeit, as well as more recent British artists of a related sensibility like Spencer, Bacon and Freud. In addition, Symbolist artists such as Redon, Ensor and Kubin, are also frequently available. The gallery also handles many artists in the modernist canon. The gallery hosts an annual exhibition, such as the 2013 one on Georg Grosz entitled ‘George Grosz. Berlin. Prostitutes, Politicians, Profiteers’ I was very excited to be working with works of art that I’d learnt and studied closely at university.

Grosz Illustrious

Georg Grosz, Illustrious Society (1927)

Grosz Inflation

Georg Grosz, Inflation (1928)

Grosz Barracks

Georg Grosz, In Front of the Barracks (1918)

My role at Richard Nagy Ltd was highly varied so as well as working on the gallery floor as an Invigilator, I was also involved with working in the gallery’s office updating and maintaining the company’s client database, handling client money, archiving works and preparing sales reports for any paintings that were to be exhibited and sold at upcoming art fairs. Whilst working at the gallery, I was fortunate enough to participate in the  PAD Art and Design Fair on Berkeley Square during London Art Week where the gallery had its own stand selling an array of its paintings. I was able to work at PAD both independently and with the directors in organising client appointments for those interested in making a sale.

Schiele 1

Drawing by Egon Schiele exhibited at PAD

Schiele 2

Drawing by Gustav Klimt exhibited at PAD

Lastly, I was responsible for selling exhibition catalogues in order to raise as much money possible for a charity the company strongly support, Global Witness, and was able to raise £7,070. I was genuinely sad to be leaving this post but am pleased to say I still keep in touch with the gallery and would highly recommend people visit it. The gallery has rare drawings and paintings by numerous artists and I found it really interesting to see their works in this setting.

PAD Art and Design Fair on Berkeley Square

PAD Art and Design Fair on Berkeley Square

Since leaving Richard Nagy Ltd, I have been busy working as a freelance artist and am excited to be appearing in a local art event and hopefully will be able to sell some of my own works! I am also currently training for Race for Life and will be running the 10K which I am both terrified and excited about!

I’m ending this blog post with a bit of a twist since I have just secured myself a place on a graduate scheme ago working in a field very different to the those I have just described. I am excited to be starting my post at Corporate Executive Board as a Graduate Associate working in Key Strategic Accounts. History of Art really does open up many doors! In fact, my interviewers both studied History and Modern History at university so I feel really reassured about starting this post even though I didn’t do a numerical degree. I look forward to building and shaping my career within CEB in Finance and Accounts, where my role will focus on working with internal stakeholders across the globe, working with the company’s grand client portfolio, including large pharmaceutical companies, and finalising contracts with them. Indeed it is the complete opposite to what most History of Art graduates are thought to pursue but it goes to show that the skills we learnt during our studies mean it really is possible to go into numerous areas with this valuable degree. For students who are unsure of what career field to go into, I’d advise you to look into all sorts of options and see what works out for you. I’d recommend applying for internships to help build your work experience and CV and not to be afraid of pursuing your instincts or changing tack: believe you can excel and any career opportunities out there are yours!


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Old Masters Work Experience at Christie’s, with a bursary from UoB, by finalist Olivia Weightman

Between the 2nd and 13th of September 2013 I was lucky enough to be offered a place to do two weeks’ work experience a Christie’s in London in their Old Master’s department. When I arrived on the first day I was given an introductory tour of the main areas of the building along with the 15 or so other people who were starting work that day as well. We were shown the main auction rooms and galleries at the front of house and then were taken to look at the warehouses and photography rooms at the back. This whistle stop tour of the most important areas of the building was quite overwhelming and left me with the thought that I would be spending half my time there just trying to find my way around.

Christie's in King Street, London

Christie’s in King Street, London

Once in the Old Master’s office it did not take me long to get a sense of the international scale that Christie’s works on. Each of the four specialists in the vicinity of my desk was talking to clients and other offices in a variety of different languages: most of them were able to speak more than two languages fluently and confidently. Each day I was assigned tasks by the graduate interns who had received them from the rest of the department, which meant every task was different. The work I mainly undertook revolved around administrative tasks, for example helping out with expense reports, and researching paintings for clients. The latter can often take a long time: while I was there we had to go through one particular client’s collection and help find the provenance of each piece. In fact, it took us two weeks and five people to go through this entire collection mainly because most of the time all we had to go on were photographs of the collection and very often we didn’t even have the title or artist of the paintings. In this situation we had to take the photograph to one of the specialists who would make an informed guess concerning the artist and then we would go to the Old Master’s library and look through every book they had on that particular artist to try and find any images that had compositional or stylistic similarities.

Working with a relative lack of information meant it could be a very long process that occasionally turned up no positive results. For example one particular piece was an oil sketch of a man’s head tilted upwards which the client believed was a sketch from a copy of a painting by Rubens…this meant we had to go through all of Ruben’s work trying to find a figure with a similar head and at times felt like a history of art version of where’s Wally!  On a few occasions we found ourselves needing a distraction from the books so we would visit the archives to look through sale records for the specialists, although this did mean navigating our way through the  warren like corridors and going up and down the 119 stairs (another work experience girl and I counted) between the office and archives.

Me in the Old Master’s library doing research for a private collection.

Me in the Old Master’s library doing research for a private collection.

Apart from doing research and administrative tasks I was lucky enough to gain some hands on experience during the ‘hilling’ process. This involved examining works that had just been sent in, prior to a sale, to record any signatures, marks and damage on the front and any writing and stamps on the back as this was essential for helping prove the provenance and authenticity of the painting.

During the second week of my placement the department was busy with setting up the auction of the collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, P.R.A, a celebrated collector, architect and President of the Royal Academy (1954-1956). The Old Master’s department was only involved in part of the auction as the 650 lots were made up of examples of Old Master and British paintings, British watercolours and architectural drawings, English and European furniture, sculpture and objects, garden statuary, books, clocks, musical instruments and Georgian costume. I was involved with the research of the Old Master’s pieces and I also helped out with writing up the labels for each piece. However, the most enjoyable part of helping out with the sale was the installation. There was very little time for the actual installation and with so many lots, the six rooms they were placed in were incredibly busy in the build up to the previews. But we did manage to get everything up, whilst also triple checking everything was straight and labelled correctly and in the end the entire collection looked fantastic together and the sale total was over 4 million. The sale was a nice, yet manic, end to two weeks of hard work, research and countless stairs which really gave me an insight into the inner workings of an international auction house and gave me a quick education into the Old Master’s art market today.

One of the gallery assistants admiring the collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson

One of the gallery assistants admiring the collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson

I would like to acknowledge the help that the University of Birmingham gave me in securing this great opportunity. I was only able to do the work experience placement after I was awarded a ‘UK Professional’ bursary by the University. This bursary is designed for people doing work experience during the summer holidays and covers the cost of any travel or living arrangements that are essential to you being able to take part in your placement. I would thoroughly recommend this bursary to anyone planning on undertaking a work experience placement during the summer as you can be granted between £100 and £800 to pay for essentials – for me, the bursary paid for my weekly train ticket and London travel card. You can find out more about the bursary – and other opportunities – on the Careers Network pages.

RBSA: Our Collection, Our Archive and You by Hang Nguyen

RBSA Our collection, Archive and You

The RBSA is Birmingham’s oldest artist-led group and the only artist-led group in Birmingham that owns its own gallery and has a permanent venue for its activities. Located just off the only surviving Georgian square in Birmingham, St Paul’s Square, the Society dedicates three floors of exhibition space to fulfill its charitable objectives: to promote artists and the appreciation of the visual arts.

Since the beginning of 2013, I have been co-curating an exhibition with recent Birmingham History of Art graduate Chloë Lund for the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists. As an Undergraduate Archive Volunteer, I have enjoyed access to the RBSA’s treasures from its Permanent Collection at close hand, and our exhibition displays a rich selection of the artworks acquired by the RBSA in the past five years, as well as some that have never before been exhibited. The exhibition will not only explore the contents of the Permanent Collection but also the relationship between the Society and the local community, which includes students at the University of Birmingham–each and every one of you! Art History students at the University of Birmingham have many opportunities to get involved with the RBSA, and you can read a bit about what other students have got up to with them here and here.

Chloë Lund and Hang Nguyen

Chloë Lund and Hang Nguyen

The RBSA’s substantial archive is an invaluable resource for the understanding of the history of the Society and its relationship with the people of Birmingham, as well as the wider artistic community. Edward Burne-Jones, a Pre-Raphaelite artist, was himself President of the RBSA as well as other notable artists such as John Everett Millais. Included in the exhibition is a work by the acclaimed photo-realist artist, John Salt, whose work can also be seen during the BMAG’s exhibition on Photorealism. The stories of the Archive have been told through the contributions of many different people and have helped us to create a collective memory of the Society. This exhibition aims to reveal the ways that the Collection and Archive have been shaped by our relationships with our supporters, community, local environment which includes the all the students at the university.

During our exhibition, we will be hosting a variety of free events which include a Student Friendly on Friday 15th November . The night is open to everyone and anyone; it will be an informal, relaxed evening where we, the curators, get a chance to talk to our peers about the Society and this exhibition over a glass of wine! There will also be a chance to join us on a walk around the local canals of Birmingham with RBSA Member Paul Hipkiss who will be talking about his prints inspired by the local places on Saturday 16th November. Finally, there will be a free demonstration by RBSA Member John Shakespeare on Saturday 23rd November.

Curating the RBSA Archive Exhibition has been a challenge that I have relished. The project has given me the chance to find out so much more about the thriving artistic culture in Birmingham and as a born and bred brummie, this has revitalised my own interest in the city. I hope to see you all at the RBSA for the Archive Exhibition, helping to write more chapters in the story of the Society as well as the city.

Elizabeth I, her People…and a Guinea Pig: MA graduate Oliver McCall on his recent Curatorial Internship at the National Portrait Gallery


“The Office” for 6 months

When it came to the end of my MA in Art History last September I was struck by that all-too-familiar feeling of uncertainty. The looming question: ‘what now?’. After spending some time working on a PhD proposal whilst also feverishly job-hunting, I was hugely relieved when I spotted a curatorial internship opportunity with the 16th century collection at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG). Given my interests in 16th-century English art, and Elizabethan portraiture in particular, the internship seemed like the ideal opportunity for me to gain some much needed curatorial experience. During the surprisingly enjoyable interview process I was given a tour of the Heinz Archive, which was followed by a fairly standard panel interview and an image test. Shortly after I was offered the internship, and now, six months later, I can say that it was a hugely enjoyable, informative and inspiring experience. Over the course of the internship it was my role to support the 16th-century collection curators with the development of their upcoming major show, Elizabeth I and Her People.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Zuccaro, Federico (1542-1609). c.1557-1609 (British Museum)

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. Zuccaro, Federico (1542-1609). c.1557-1609 (British Museum)

This meant that I had a huge variety range of tasks to do, enabling me to gain experience of many different aspects of the planning and development of a large exhibition. However, most of my time was initially spent researching various portraits and object loans for the exhibition. The NPG is one of the premier centres for research into portraiture in the country; the curators attached to each collection (16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, contemporary and photography) carry out research into portraits that come to the gallery as exhibition loans, deal with enquiries from other galleries, collections and members of the public, as well as researching and developing the collection for which they are responsible. At the heart of the institution is the Heinz Archive, which is open to the public via appointment, and which houses a huge number of images, documents and tomes that anyone interested in portraiture would be thrilled to work with. One of the most useful resources is the collection of ‘sitter boxes’. These large files contain images of all known and supposed portraits of numerous sitters, together with correspondence relating to the whereabouts of various portraits. They are extremely useful as a source of comparison when trying to decide whether a portrait is of a particular person. As curatorial intern I was able to make full use of these resources, which helped me to develop my own skills and interest in 16th-century British  portraiture.

One of the most intriguing of the research tasks I was given involved that humble household pet, the guinea pig. During the planning of the exhibition a portrait had come to light that probably contains the earliest known depiction of a guinea pig in English, perhaps even European, art. The portrait was discovered by one of the exhibition curators in a private collection and it depicts three Elizabethan children, whose identities are unknown. There is a clear family resemblance, however, and their high social standing is clearly indicated by their fine clothes. Although the identities of the children are tantalising, it is the animals in the portrait which are most interesting. One of the boys holds a small bird, possibly a finch, which was a popular childhood pet in Elizabethan England. It is in the arms of the girl at the centre of the portrait, however, that the groundbreaking rodent nestles. This work may be unique amongst English 16th-century portraits in its inclusion of this familiar animal and I was tasked with researching the lives of guinea pigs in 16th-century England. Guinea pigs were imported into the Spanish Netherlands on ships from the New World and it is likely that they were transported to England from here. Since the discovery of 16th-century guinea pig remains at Hill Hall in Essex it had been assumed that these animals were kept as pets only by the wealthy. In 2007, however, a guinea pig skeleton was unearthed at an excavation of a ‘middle class’ home in Mons, Belgium, dated around the end of the 16th century. This suggests that guinea pigs may have been kept as pets by a wider range of social groups. It is likely that, in the context of this portrait, the guinea pig acts as a status symbol, given its exotic provenance. Aristocratic children were also depicted with small animals to illustrate their natural dominance. The portrait has already attracted media attention, and you can see the guinea pig in all its glory below and read more here.

Three unknown Elizabethan children Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1580 Privately Owned

Three unknown Elizabethan children Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1580 Privately Owned

Following on from my introduction to the 16th-century guinea pig, I was tasked with some good old fashioned art history detective work – to try to establish the identity of an Elizabethan warrior whose portrait was to be loaned to the exhibition from a private collection. The sitter, known as Vaughan of Tretower, cuts a striking figure with his huge reddish beard and intricate Italian armour and weaponry. In Dynasties, an exhibition catalogue from a few years back (Tate, 1995), the suggestion was made that the sitter might be one Cuthbert Vaughan, a member of an influential Welsh gentry family. Using this as a start point, I used the sitter boxes in the Heinz Archive to search for other portraits of sitters by that name. By all accounts, Cuthbert was a quarrelsome character. He had spent time in prison during the reign of Mary I, and whilst serving Elizabeth as a military leader he often wrote to William Cecil, one of the queen’s chief councillors, to complain that he had not been adequately rewarded for his years spent on campaign. The inscription around the portrait frame, which states that those who through ‘bludy swets’ defend the realm deserve to gain, seems to fit in with this identification.

Portrait of unknown soldier, thought to be Cuthbert Vaughan (c. 1519-1563), dated 1560

Portrait of unknown soldier, thought to be Cuthbert Vaughan (c. 1519-1563), dated 1560

Although most of my research tasks, like those mentioned above, related to loans to the Elizabeth exhibition, I also had the opportunity to assist with enquiries from a couple of other galleries. I helped identify a mystery countess in a hugely elaborate costume as Catherine Carey, a close friend of the queen. I also hunted through pages and pages of portraits of Sir Francis Drake in the Heinz Archive to decide whether a newly rediscovered portrait of an armoured Elizabethan commander was a good likeness of the famous explorer and buccaneer. In addition, I was able to further hone my research skills by attending a workshop on using online resources and databases, a lecture on Elizabethan and Jacobean ‘pregnancy portraits’ at the very grand Royal Society of Antiquaries, and a number of talks at the NPG’s lecture theatre.

As the opening of the exhibition crept ever closer, loans research gave way to more practical considerations and I became more involved with the design and interpretation aspects of the exhibition. One of the major themes of the show, as the title implies, is that it focuses not only on the queen and her aristocratic courtiers, as so often happens with portraiture exhibitions of this kind, but also gives space to members of the Elizabethan gentry, judiciary, clergy and merchant classes, as well as ordinary people. Thus, in an innovative move that parallels developments in collection display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, among others, the portraits in this exhibition will be hung in themed areas, surrounded by other objects that will help to evoke what life was like for different social groups in Elizabethan society. Each area of the exhibition will be focused on a different social group. A similar technique was used at the impressive show The Lost Prince (NPG, 2012/13).

My role in all of this was to compile a dossier on Elizabethan style (something like a 16th-century design magazine) for the gallery design team to use as a source of inspiration when designing and decorating various areas of the exhibition space. The task was a highly enjoyable one and, surrounded by piles of glossy tomes on 16th-century decoration, I gained a greater understanding of Elizabethan and Jacobean design principles and visual culture. Visitors to the exhibition will be taken on a journey through the world of the nobility and gentry, glistening with fine jewellery, decadent silverware and elaborate costume, and heavy with intricate, classically-inspired wall-hangings and architecture, through into the world of the aspirational ‘middling sort’, where the more reserved tastes of merchants and judges is reflected in more traditional timber-framed architecture and worldly motifs. Some of the fascinating objects from the exhibition include a clear class tankard, which William Cecil, Lord Burghley, commissioned to try to promote glass making in England, a charming coin purse in the shape of a frog and the will of a poor woman, which highlights the desperate poverty in which many Elizabethans lived. All of this and more will be displayed in spaces themed around the original owners of such objects.

Sea-Going Clothing 1590–1650 Image: © Museum of London

Sea-Going Clothing
Image: © Museum of London

The exhibition spaces will also be interactive, with ‘windows’ to allow visitors to gaze between worlds, and a virtual bookshelf, where some of the most famous, and some lesser-known, Elizabethan texts can be perused. As part of the internship I helped to develop a shortlist of Elizabethan texts, ranging from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, and John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, to pamphlets by notorious author and playwright Robert Greene on “Coney-catching” (a name used for thievery through trickery). Thinking about the democratisation of literature in the Elizabethan period, I also selected several fascinating Elizabethan broadsides, full of tales about monstrous births, deadly sea creatures and the exploits of famous figures. After selecting several texts I used online archives, including EEBO (Early English Books Online), the British Library and the Huntington Library to find copies with impressive engravings. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to browse through pages of these texts and get a feel for the literary life of Elizabethan England.

The burning of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, 1563

The burning of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, 1563

In my opinion, no exhibition is really complete without a glossy catalogue to go with it. The catalogue not only serves as a guide to the exhibition, granting the curators a space to go into greater depth about exhibition themes and loan items, it also serves as a souvenir of the show. Its pages should serve as a reminder of the spectacle of the exhibition space itself. The NPG has produced several stunning catalogues recently, and the catalogue accompanying the Elizabeth exhibition is no exception. Packed with high quality images of many of the portraits and objects in the exhibition, accompanied by essays about Elizabeth I and Elizabethan society, the catalogue should serve as a great introduction to Elizabethan England as well as providing a comprehensive account of the show itself. Although I was unfortunately too late on the scene to be able to contribute any catalogue entries, I was pleased to be involved in several rather frantic proofreading and editing sessions. Of course, although all of the work I did at the NPG was interesting, the internship was made really enjoyable thanks to the guidance and assistance of the gallery staff I was working with. I found the curatorial team at the gallery to be really welcoming and helpful, and I certainly seized every chance to ask as many questions as I could think up about my own research, the gallery and those much-desired career pointers. Having completed the internship I now feel that I’m much better placed to negotiate the rough road to building a career in the arts. I’m also left with the sense that, through the work outlined above and many other tasks, I contributed actively to the development of the Elizabeth exhibition. It was also nice to see among the loans list the extraordinary and little-known Portrait of Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, the ambassador of the Barbary States to Elizabeth I’s court, which usually resides here at Birmingham in the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections.

The Procession Portrait  by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1600–3 Sherborne Castle Estates

The Procession Portrait
by Unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1600–3
Sherborne Castle Estates

 Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, unknown artist, c. 1600

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud, unknown artist, c. 1600

I really recommend that you follow the Ambassador down to London and see him alongside other Elizabethan gems, including the huge and impressive Procession Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which I wrote about for my MA dissertation. The inclusion of this mysterious portrait, which shows the queen in procession surrounded by many of the most powerful figures of her later reign, provided a personal link between myself and the show, which I am very proud to have played a part in.

Elizabeth I & Her People is on at the NPG until 5th January 2014. Admission: £13.50 full price, £11.50 for students. More information and bookings is available here.


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