Category Archives: Student Experience

The Big Wide World of Miniatures by second year art historian Sarah Theobald

I was asked to do a Gallery Talk to members of the public on Tuesday 4th Feb on a collection of miniature paintings that are currently on show in the Barber’s Print Bay in The Beige Gallery. This exhibition, based on the theme of ‘Family Circles’, contains a wonderful range of miniature portraits mainly on loan from the Daphne Foskett Collection.  It’s a great display, including works by some well-known names such as George Engleheart and Sir William Charles Ross and featuring much-loved miniatures such as Isaac Oliver’s Henry, Prince of Wales of 1612 which became the face of the National Portrait Gallery’s 2012-13 exhibition The Lost Prince (and where the miniature took on much larger proportions on the banners).

From miniature to massive: Isaac Oliver's portrait of Henry on the National Portrait Gallery's front door

From miniature to massive: Isaac Oliver’s portrait of Henry on the National Portrait Gallery’s front door

I teamed up with the Collections Assistant at the Barber, Sarah Beattie, who introduced the collection. I then discussed the technique used for traditional miniature painting, which I know a fair bit about because I still use the same technique today for my miniature paintings.

The beautifully diverse collection of miniatures on display allowed me to effectively describe the stages of traditional miniature painting. Contrary to what might be thought, the technique itself is a lot more complicated and time consuming than just painting something in small scale. The word miniature in this case does not even derive from its size. It comes from the Latin word Minium, the name for the red lead paint used in medieval manuscripts, which is where miniature painting started. The display shows a progression of style from the miniatures on vellum through to ivory. Today ivorine or polymin is used as a substitute for ivory. Apart from the support, the technique for painting miniatures today is the same traditional method and it is not what you would expect when using watercolours. Even though it is called watercolour, the paint is not applied as a wash. The paint is actually applied using a process called ‘stippling’ and what is amazing about miniatures is that every part is made up of individual dots.

Sarah delivering her talk

Sarah delivering her talk

Miniatures are so delicate that paint cannot be applied thickly and neither can the dots be overlapped, because this would cause the paint to flake off. Colour has to be built up by filling in the gaps between the dots. The watercolour as a medium is not used as is. The paint is watered down and left to dry to thin out the pigment. Miniatures are based on colour density, not colour intensity. A great example of this can be seen in the background of Peter Oliver’s, Frederick V, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, 1623. Peter Oliver has used lines instead of dots, however the top of the background is lighter and where more lines have been applied, the background gets darker.


Peter Oliver, Frederick V, Elector Palatine and King of Bohemia, 1623

Another fascinating point about miniatures is that the white seen in paintings is not paint, it is the support. Whether on vellum or ivory, miniatures are very delicate. Antique works have to be conserved carefully or they will be lost forever. You have to paint with your hand resting on a bridge over the painting because even the touch of a hand can smudge the work. This is used as an advantage to painters because anything that is applied can be taken away. Look at the image of Portrait of a Lady, called Mary Queen of Scots (1720) on display to fully appreciate this.


Bernard Lens, Portrait of a Lady, called Mary, Queen of Scots (1720)

It is almost like Bernard Lens was painting backwards. Using this technique of lifting off the paint, to achieve a white colour, paint is taken off leaving the ivory to shine through. Only the highlights on the white are painted on using gouache (or Bodycolour). The difference can be seen in the collars of James Scouler’s two juxtaposed paintings Self Portrait and Alexander Scouler, the Artist’s Brother.


James Scouler (1741-1812), Self Portrait Painting a Miniature, 1763


James Scouler (1741-1812), Alexander Scouler, the Artist’s Brother, 1771

At the end of the talk some antique miniatures from my own collection were passed around and my paintings were on show with step by step pictures to illustrate the process.

This is only a dot on the surface of the process for miniature painting, there is a big wide world of miniatures out there that is not thought about in much detail. Hopefully this will help people to look closer at miniatures in the future.

Stages of miniature painting

Stages of miniature painting

The exhibition Family Circles is on at the Barber until 26th May 2014. Find out more here:

If you would like to know more feel free to email Sarah at or visit

The miniature paintings and merchandise can also be found in the Barber gift shop or commissioned via Sarah.

If you’re quick, you can catch Sarah doing a talk about another miniature at the Art History Speed Workshop on Weds 19th March at 2pm in the Barber

The Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies Annual Colloquium: Curating Art History

UoB crest

Tickets are now on sale for this year’s Annual Art History Colloquium, organised in conjunction with the Journal of Art HistoriographyTickets, priced at £10 for students and £20 full price, can be purchased from the Online Shop here.

“Curating Art History: Dialogues between museum professionals and academics” will take place on the 7th and 8th May 2014 at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts.


Catherine De Lorenzo

(University of New South Wales, Australia)


Helen Shaw (University of York); Andy Ellis (Public Catalogue Foundation); Karen Raney (Engage Journal); Ming Turner (National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan; Vera Carmo (University of Coimbra, Portugal); Elin Morgan (The University of Birmingham; The New Art Gallery, Walsall); Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds (The Warburg Institute; The University of Birmingham); Richard Clay, Henry Chapman, Leslie Brubaker (The University of Birmingham); Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh); Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums Trust)


Ethnography and curating native art:
Australian art history and Aboriginal art; curating Native American art

Knowledge exchange and development:
Providing specialist knowledge to public art collections; gallery education and curatorial strategies

Exhibitions that challenge curatorial practice and art history: 
Post-humanist desire: Innovative research and methods of display; Crash Music: re-exhibiting impermanent art; Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill: a creative curatorial opportunity

Case study at the Barber Institute:
Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts: Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage

Round table - International Iconoclasms network:
Cross-disciplinary debate and Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm at Tate Britain

The poster is available here: Curating Art History Colloquium 7th and 8th May 2014

When in Rome . . . Ella Kilford on this year’s Art History in the Field trip

Some of the group by the Colosseum

Some of the group in the Colosseum

The long-anticipated second year field trip finally came in reading week this February, and what a trip we had! On our return everyone, from the entire department to our friends and family, enviously asked us how the trip had gone – a question to which we all replied positively. In fact we wished we were still there, not only for the fabulous weather in the high 20s but also for the little routine we had got into. Early starts with a quick breakfast at the hotel and then on to visit amazing museums, galleries and beautiful churches. This would be followed by a delicious lunch of antipasti, fresh pizza or pasta, more art, and then an equally sumptuous dinner with a final leisurely stroll back through Rome by night – heaven! Closer to our time of departure and on our return, the trip became collectively known simply as ‘Rome’, and is still referred to now fondly by all of us. The trip is such a great opportunity to study works of art in situ and a really exciting element for any second year Art History student at Birmingham University.

At Gatwick!

At Gatwick…perhaps before we knew the flight was cancelled!!

Arriving at Gatwick to find our flight cancelled was not a fantastic start. Yet witnessing everyone’s – including our lecturer David’s – faces looking up, baffled, at the departure boards, for me, was one of my fondest memories of the trip: you have to laugh! On a positive note, the cancellation resulted in a complimentary night in London’s “best” Travel Lodge and a flight the next day to Pisa, and then a coach through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to our final destination – Rome. The scenic views and buildings we passed were spectacular and allowed the group to bond.

Rome - walking the cobbles

Rome – Walking the Cobbles

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

Rome - pasta and pizza

Pizza and past in Rome

So, why is a Rome a good location for a study trip, then? Well, where to begin…as second year Art Historian Maysie said, there are simply ‘too many reasons’. All of us agreed that the variety of art available in Italy’s capital city was a massive advantage. From antique ruins, statues and sarcophagi to contemporary installations in the Modern Art Museum, there really is something for everyone’s taste and research interest. There’s even a few Monet’s in the Modern Art Museum.

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri's broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna

Student selfie on top of Alfredo Pirri’s broken mirrors installation in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna

As part of our studies in the second year, we take a Research Techniques module which is designed, though a literature review, to complement the Study Trip, by encouraging us to choose and research an object that we will study in situ in advance of the trip. This exercise is also great preparation for our final year dissertation which is also on a single art object. This early preparation for our final year is, for me and my colleagues, one of the many attractions of studying art history at Birmingham University.

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Ruins in the Roman Forum

Students in the statue gallery in the Galleria nazionale d’arte moderna

Seeing the actual objects or art works that we had selected to research for our summer term presentation – the assessment for this module – was a real highlight and pleasure. People in the group have chosen a range of items, ranging from a contemporary photograph by Gabriele Basilico to Bernini’s famous David sculpture, and the façade of San Giovanni in Laterano. The rich diversity of our research interests and objects rendered the trip really interesting, as on multiple occasions we would go and see each other’s object, just out of the desire to learn more from our peers.

Another selfie...this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing. Vatican Museums

Another selfie…this time David elucidating exactly what the Apollo Belvedere is doing in the famous sculpture in the Vatican Museums


Group shot in St Peter’s

One of my highlights of Rome was the day that we spent with one of the PhD students, Jamie, who accompanied us on the trip (read what else Jamie got up to here). We spent the day walking through Rome and visited the object of Sophie’s research, the Villa Farnesina. This villa built by Agostino Chigi, a rich banker and treasurer of Pope Julius II, contains some spectacular frescos by Raphael and his workshop. All of us enjoyed learning about the Chigi’s exciting and extravagant parties which were hosted in the villa in the summer months. There would have been music, dancing, food, and plenty of wine.

Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Raphael’s Loggia, Villa Farnesina

Although we had an itinerary drawn up by our lecturers, Liz and David, including some of Rome’s main attractions, we also had some free time to explore the city. Thus on some mornings and afternoons we visited other areas of interest and soaked up our cultural surroundings. As the hotel we stayed in was central to all areas of Rome, we could walk to pretty much everything on foot. The metro offered a quick and cheap alternative if we were feeling tired, but walking is so much more rewarding as treasures can be uncovered around every corner. The Trevi Fountain takes you by surprise, appearing amongst shops and cafes when turning around a corner, and it is astonishing when illuminated by night.

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

The Trevi Fountain in the bright Roman sunshine

Although the aim of the study trip was obviously for academic purposes, and we all learnt so much, we still had plenty of fun. Rome will definitely be a highlight of my time here at Birmingham University studying Art History.

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

Group dinner on the penultimate evening

Picture of the Month – the student’s choice: Rossetti’s Blue Bower (1865)

As members of the Barber Association and the Department of Art History, Film and Visual Studies, our students get involved in the Barber Institute’s Picture of the Month Scheme.

This month (March), second year student and artist in her own right, Sarah Theobald picked Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Blue Bower which was painted in 1865.

Here is what she says about it:

“This painting is the reason why I chose to attend the University of Birmingham.  I joined ‘The Pre-Raphaelite Society’ when I was fourteen and the thought of being able to study in the same building as this exquisite Rossetti, and see the painting as much as possible, was just too enticing.

The image is a truly striking example of the Pre-Raphaelites’ desire to achieve excellence in the minutest of detail.  Rossetti himself said that it was filled with ‘opulence, sophistication of hue, and beguiling decoration.’

For me, it is one of the Barber’s triumphal acquisitions.”

The Blue Bower, 1865 (oil on canvas), Barber Institute of Fine Arts

The Blue Bower, 1865 (oil on canvas), Barber Institute of Fine Arts

You can find out more about the Blue Bower here and see it up in the Barber Galleries (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm and Sat-Sun 11am-5pm).

Watch this space for Sarah’s report on her gallery talk for the Barber’s display of miniatures!

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Undergraduate Research Scholarships 2014

Every year, the College of Arts and Law funds a number of Undergraduate Research Scholarships that give non-final year students the opportunity to work with a member of staff one of their research projects. This year, three UGRS are available to students in the School of Languages, Culture, Art History and Music in the fields of drama and theatre, centenary exhibitions, and women at the court of Renaissance France.

Each scholar will undertake full-time research supervised by a member of academic staff for a period of five weeks between 23rd June and 26th September 2014.  An allowance of £230 per week will be paid to the scholar for each of the five weeks.

This is a really exciting opportunity to do paid work that will also enhance your academic career, help hone your research skills, and let you see what academics get up to when they are not teaching! Previous scholars have reported that the scheme helped to:

  • refine interpersonal and research skills
  • develop their understanding of academic research
  • boost their confidence
  • identify where their personal strengths lie
  • influence thoughts on what to do after graduation
  • enhance their CV

As part of this year’s scheme, one of our lecturers, Elizabeth L’Estrange, has been awarded a scholarship for her research on Anne de Graville at the French Court: Her Library, her Religion and her Works

Anne de Graville (1490-after 1540) was a noble woman who became lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude of France in the early sixteenth century. Anne built up an impressive library, of which some forty manuscripts – many of them illuminated – are still extant. She also reworked two popular literary works for the Queen: her Rondeaux is a reworking of Alain Chartier’s Belle dame sans mercy (1420), and her Beau roman (see picture below) is a reworking of Boccaccio’s Teseida (c. 1360). Both texts engage with contemporary literary trends and, in particular, with an on-going debate about the nature of women and love (la querelle des femmes). In addition, like some of her noble contemporaries including the king’s sister Marguerite de Navarre and Henry VIII’s future wife, Anne Boleyn, Anne de Graville was a supporter of early evangelical religious reform. Anne’s contribution to French literary, religious and artistic culture has, however, never been studied in any detail. Elizabeth is planning to write a book that looks at Anne de Graville’s role in courtly culture by looking in particular at the books that she owned and the way that she represented herself.

Anne de Graville presenting her book to Queen Claude of France

Anne de Graville presenting her book to Queen Claude of France

The student employed on this project would carry out research into the courtly context of which Anne was a part and into her literary and religious interests. In particular they would be asked to:

  • Find out more about the books that formed part of her library and how this relates to her own writings as well as to contemporary literary interests
  • Carry out bibliographic searches of primary and secondary material to explore the culture of the French court and the people in Anne’s circle
  • Look for further evidence of Anne’s religious convictions
  • Look for and analyse further representations of Anne

This project would give the student, especially one with some knowlege of French, experience of working on a truly interdisciplinary project, offering them the chance to use and develop skills in the disciplines of history, art history, literary and religious studies. In addition, it will introduce the student to the way that researchers approach and interpret women in early modern culture. The project would thus open up a potentially new area for the student to explore, specifically enriching their knowledge of early modern women and of France in the early sixteenth century.

For more details on Elizabeth’s project, you can email her: and download this file: E L’Estrange

You can also read about Holly Wain’s experience of working on a project with Liz in 2012 here.

Details of the other projects are here: Joanne Sayner  and Adam Ledger

And an application form is here: Application Form (LCAHM)

For more details on the scholarship scheme, please go to

If you have any general questions about the scholarship scheme please contact Rachel Canty (

Completed application forms need to be returned to Rachel Canty in Room 203, Arts Building by 12 noon on Friday 4th April 2014.


On the trail of Pieter Bruegel. . . (again)

Doria Pamphilj

Gallery inside the Doria Pamphilj

Researching Pieter Bruegel for my PhD has taken me all over Europe – I know, lucky me (as a colleague and friend of mine joked, it’s a tough old life being an art historian). My most recent jaunt in the name of research took me to Italy. Rome and Naples, to be specific.

We know that Bruegel spent a significant period of time in Italy from at least 1552 to ’55. His southern “wanderjahr” is shrouded in mystery, and we don’t know a great deal about what he got up to whilst in Italy. We can be fairly sure that he had arrived in Southern Italy by 1552, that he was in Rome in 1555 working with Giulio Clovio, and that he headed back to Antwerp, going via the Alps, shortly thereafter. My trip, though, wasn’t motivated by a gratuitous wish to walk in Bruegel’s footsteps. Instead, I wanted to study a couple of Bruegels that are in Italian collections and I’ve never got round to seeing.

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Doria Pamphilj courtyard

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

Bruegel, Bay of Naples

The first was Bruegel’s Bay of Naples, which hangs in the delightful, if not slightly mad, Palazzo Doria Pamphilj. Whenever I’ve been in Rome before, I’ve never managed to squeeze this in, so it was right at the top of my list of priorities. (I was also in Rome to lend a pair of hands with the 2nd year Undergraduates’ study trip, and since they’d got waylaid at Heathrow because of a flight cancellation–post about the trip to follow soon, but here’s last year’s!–I took the opportunity to go straight to the Pamphilj.)

The Doria Pamphilj has a pretty old fashioned way of doing things. The walls are stacked high with pictures (it reminded me of those old engravings that show how how less-good artwork was “skied” at exhibitions put on by the European Academies), and the gold leaf frames usually feature just a handwritten artist’s name, done with a Sharpie, I expect. Anyway, after much squinting to make sure I didn’t miss the Bruegel 7 feet above my head, I saw it, down low, at eye level, inscribed in an elegant hand “Bruegel”. (If you’re interested, the Bruegel is the ninth picture along on the bottom row from the left in the heading photo.)

It’s really a rather staggering picture. It’s fairly small but absolutely crammed full with detail. We know it’s Naples, despite the jetty being circular, which is wrong because it is square, because we can make out certain topographical features on the bay such as the Castel Nuovo. The picture must have been painted from memory by Bruegel, usually, it is said, about 1560, but with the aid of drawings Bruegel made in situ during his Italian sojourn. Scholars have in the past been reluctant to accept this picture’s authenticity, mostly, I think, because it isn’t signed. However seeing it has allayed any suspicions I might have had. So much of the picture is characteristically Bruegel and for me it has a particular significance in relation to Bruegel’s activities as a miniaturist. We know Bruegel did miniatures, and the Bay of Naples is clearly the work of an artist who was comfortable working in miniature; the rigging of the ships is especially remarkable and diligently executed, as are the ships’ crews, clambering about on deck, which, although tiny, are really quite impressively rendered. Exactly why Bruegel should have produced a pretty much accurate, topographical, view of the bay of Naples in the first place is something I’m now curious to explore a bit more: did other people do topographical sea/landscapes in the mid-16th century? And who would want one on their walls?

Museo di Capodimonte

Museo di Capodimonte

Bruegel's Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope

Having looked at Bruegel’s depiction of the Bay of Naples, which is now in Rome, the next day I jumped onto a train from Rome for Naples to see two other Bruegels that are housed in that city’s Capodimonte Museum. Now, I can’t say that Naples is somewhere I’d rush back to for a week’s holiday, but the Capodimonte is a real gem. Perched high up on a hill away from the hustle and bustle, not to mention dangers(!), of the frantic city centre, the Capodimonte is a real haven and full of stellar works of art. It was also practically deserted, probably because of Naples’s bad rep. Masaccio’s really wonderful Crucifixion from the dismantled Pisa Polyptych is there, as is Titian’s Danaë and Caravaggio’s Flagellation of Christ. Particularly wonderful also are some cartoons by Michelangelo (some figures for the Pauline Chapel frescoes and the cartoon for Venus and Cupid composition, which is positioned alongside a roughly contemporary painting after that design). But the real treat was Bruegel’s Blind Leading the Blind and Misanthrope, both from 1568. I’ve written about the Blind Leading the Blind at length before in my MPhil thesis, and seeing it was just great. I learned loads from looking at the picture in real life that you just can’t get from pouring over reproductions in books – there are all kinds of details in the picture that just don’t come across in a book. Meanwhile, I was surprised by the Misanthrope‘s size, which, I’d imagined, would’ve been much smaller than it is. Standing in front of it, you can just picture that painting up on some well-to-do bloke’s or woman’s wall, where it was doubtless gathered around as an object of discussion. All this just goes to show, as I’ve said before on this blog, that you really do stand to gain so much more from seeing all this stuff in real life…


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.

The View from Lyon: French and Art History student Marianne Thomas on French culture and local schools…with a large helping of Chantilly

As a Joint Honours student, I’ve always considered myself very lucky to be able to profit from the variety of opportunities offered by both of my very different subjects: French and History of Art. However, this September, I felt even more fortunate (if also very nervous) because I was getting ready to begin my opportunity of a lifetime: living and working in la belle France!

After some thorough researching of French towns and cities through the ever-reliable medium of Wikipedia, I decided upon Lyon as my city of choice. The photos certainly seemed to hold the promise of a place that had everything: from the cobbled streets of Vieux Lyon, lined with speciality Lyonnais restaurants and crèperies, to the beautiful Romanesque architecture of the Basilique de Fourvière, Lyon appeared to be packed with interesting things to see, do and, of course, eat. Besides which, surely the fact that it’s twinned with Birmingham had to be a good omen?

The Roof Tops of Lyon

The Roof Tops of Lyon

It didn’t disappoint. My first few weeks were busy to say the least, filled up with being a tourist in my new home. After meeting lots of other people who were in the same situation as me, most of my time was spent exploring Lyon, test-driving my French and attempting to maintain the Art History side of my brain with a few trips to the sprawling Musée des Beaux Arts in the city centre. Only time will tell (or, fourth year, to be more precise) as to whether I’ve succeeded with the latter. However, I also faced the fun of tackling the notoriously difficult French administration process; setting up an electricity account in French via a phone call to a mumbling and irritable EDF man who kept putting me on hold had to be the highlight. I also had to brace myself for starting my new job.

Under the archways of ornate Fourvière

Under the archways of ornate Fourvière

Rather than be an Erasmus student in Lyon, I’ve opted to work as an English language assistant, helping students between the ages of 11 and 15 to improve their language and communication skills. I chose this option because I thought it would give me the chance to experience something that I would otherwise never see and, with no prior teacher training whatsoever, it’s fair to say that an ‘experience’ is certainly what I’ve had so far! I work in two middle schools in a suburb of Lyon, where many children face numerous social difficulties at home which, in turn, frequently have an impact on their schoolwork and, perhaps more importantly, on their behaviour. Consequently, there have been many situations where I’ve been standing in front of a class of fifteen Year 10s whose French grammar is worse than mine (and that really is saying something) and the pupils have no interest in learning anything related to English besides whether I’ve met One Direction. When all is said and done, however, I really am enjoying it. I’ve also been very fortunate to have supportive and welcoming colleagues, and in fact, I’ve found that most people I’ve met in France so far have taken the same approach. Even though Lyon is a big city – the 2nd largest in France – it’s often surprising how small and cosy it feels, and that’s largely due to its generally welcoming attitude and multicultural society.

Marianne has also mastered the art of ordering chocolat chaud avec Chantilly!

Marianne has also mastered the art of ordering chocolat chaud avec Chantilly!

All in all, to use the clichéd-but-incredibly-true viewpoint adopted by so many Year Abroad returners: this really is proving to be a wonderful experience. So far, I’ve had the chance to not only become fairly knowledgeable about Lyon itself, but also explore the nearby cities and towns of Geneva, Annecy and Avignon, all of which offered me their own unique insights into aspects of European culture, architecture and history, and I’m looking forward to visiting more Francophone culture hotspots this semester.


Le Palais des Papes, Avignon



Even though it will undoubtedly be very strange to return to Birmingham in September – especially considering that all of my previous History of Art classmates will have already left, dissertations complete and graduate caps in hand – I really would recommend combining History of Art with a language if the option presents itself, however terrifying the thought of a Year Abroad might be. You’ll get an amazing insight into an entirely different culture and even better, you’ll finally be able to pronounce all of those foreign-language Art History terms that no-one can ever say!

You can find out more about combining Art History with a language here. And Single Honours students of Art History are also eligible to study abroad for a semester in their second year!

Another Birmingham student, Clara Mciver, listed her top five reasons for studying abroad in this article for the Huffington Post.

Making the Most of Brum! Art Internship and Experience Opportunities in our City, by finalist Poppy Andrews

As a prospective university student, you have many academic and pastoral aspects to consider when choosing a University. But in my experience, the environment in which you will study and the things you can get involved with in and around a university are just as important as the prestige of the university itself. There are plenty of career-benefiting schemes and competitions available at the University of Birmingham, including the Global Challenge Award, which art history student Emily Woolley won in 2012 and wrote about here). There are also volunteering and internship opportunities at the Barber Institute and the Research and Cultural Collections (which you can also read about on this blog here, here and here). But, only a 5 minute train journey away from the University of Birmingham campus is a vibrant city that also has much to offer a student looking for work experience in the arts sector. So it may also interest you to read about some of the CV-enhancing opportunities that are available with institutions in the city.

The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA):

The RBSA is an artist-led charity that supports local artists and society members through exhibitions and educational workshops. Located in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter, the society has close links with the University of Birmingham.

RBSA Gallery in the Jewellry Quarter

RBSA Gallery in the Jewellery Quarter

There couldn’t be a more exciting time to start at the RBSA, as the society celebrates its 200 year anniversary of the first exhibition staged by the Birmingham Academy of Arts, the forerunner of the RBSA. At the end of 2013, a celebratory exhibition entitled ‘Our Collection, Our Archive and You‘ was curated by 3rd year Art History student Hang Nguyen and Art History graduate Chloë Lund.

The society also enrols University of Birmingham students onto its Young Curators Project, giving students the opportunity to gain valuable curatorial experience in a professional gallery. Several of my fellow art history students have also worked with the RBSA and you can read a bit about the kinds of things that they got up to curating The Art of Clay and the Glisten exhibitions on this blog.

I have been a volunteer at the RBSA since 2011, working as an Undergraduate Archive Assistant. My role is to respond to the many archive enquiries that the RBSA receives each week, requesting research on various artists. Both the general public and academics request enquiries. At the RBSA, you can gain valuable administration experience, whilst being given the relevant training in MODES (a database used by many archives around the country), writing Wikipedia articles and public speaking.

The Ikon Gallery

The Ikon Gallery is Birmingham’s internationally-acclaimed contemporary gallery, situated in Brindleyplace, off Broad Street. The Ikon recruits University of Birmingham students as Student Ambassadors, responsible for spreading the word and encouraging fellow students to visit the gallery. As well as gaining valuable promotional experience, you are also given the responsibility of taking student tour groups around the exhibitions – a great opportunity in an exciting and vibrant modern gallery! The gallery also recruits Student Ambassadors from BCU, so it’s a great opportunity to make new friends outside of the university.

The Ikon Gallery

The Ikon Gallery

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG)

Look out for any working opportunities at the prestigious BMAG. From month-long, and longer, internships to work experience weeks, you are sure to enjoy your experience at this busy gallery. Work can range from invigilating exhibitions to being on restoration teams to working with the curatorial department, which MA art history student Lauren Dudley got to do as part of the Cultural Intern scheme (you can read about that here). I was part of the team that invigilated the Revealed: Government Art Collection in November 2012, where works of art where brought together from worldwide UK embassies and political buildings, including the Houses of Parliament and 10 Downing Street.

The Galleries of BMAG

The Galleries of BMAG

Eastside Projects

‘We do not make art for the public. We are the public that makes art.‘

Culturally diverse, there is a lot going on in Digbeth, Birmingham’s answer to London’s East End. Eastside Projects is an artist run gallery space that exhibits experimental contemporary art. There are student placements and volunteer work to be found here, including experience in production, distribution and operation. This is a chance for you to gain gallery and business experience in an exciting area of Birmingham. Upcoming exhibitions include a ‘World Tour’ retrospective of Scottish artist Bill Drummond who will be visiting and living in twelve cities between 2014 and 2025…and it all starts and ends in Birmingham!

Bill Drummond, forthcoming at Eastside March-June 2014

Bill Drummond, forthcoming at Eastside March-June 2014

So if you want to get involved in the curating, marketing, and archives of the art world from the very beginning of your degree, Birmingham is a great place to do it!

Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things – a review of a new University-wide module reviewed by Chloë Lund

In my final year (2012-13), I was amongst eleven University of Birmingham students who enrolled on a pilot MOMD entitled Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things. The course encouraged students to critically engage with the material world by considering how objects make and reflect culture.

This may sound like pretty familiar territory for the History of Art student, but it demonstrated that art historical methodologies actually occupy a small niche on a broad spectrum of disciplines that ‘read’ cultural objects. Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things is notable for being Birmingham’s first truly interdisciplinary module. Each week, sessions were delivered by a different University department, including the Research and Cultural Collections Study Centre, Lapworth Museum, the Centre for West African Studies, the Medical School, the Barber Institute, the Learning Hub, Cadbury Research Library, and Winterbourne Gardens.

The content of the classes were therefore exceptionally diverse. We had a go at some of the tasks involved in the professional roles of our session leaders, such as writing museum labels and condition reports for objects, considering an application for invasive research on a museum specimen, curating a display of objects from Special Collections, making a wax model for casting, and planning an activity to engage a target group with a work of art. We were also treated to a number of behind-the-scenes style tours and demonstrations, including watching a rock being sliced open to reveal a splendid fossil in the Geology Department, and prototype parts for an airplane being cast in the Metallurgy Department’s foundry. Sessions frequently incorporated class discussions, which were especially interesting because the group was comprised of students from many different cultural and academic backgrounds.

MOMD Jan 31 023

Although academic theory did inform our reading and lectures, the course was unusual in that it didn’t focus on the need for an in-depth understanding of an academic field. Rather, it seemed to be about developing a broad awareness of the use and interpretation of objects. During a review session, many members of the group agreed that the module had given them the skills and confidence to assess even objects that they had no prior knowledge of.

MOMD 21st Feb 048

The assessment of the module allowed us to demonstrate this. Each student was randomly allocated an object from the University’s Collections and asked to produce a number of readings of that object from different perspectives. My own assignment considered a work that I, like most students of the University, was already familiar with: Eduardo Paolozzi’s colossal sculpture Faraday, which is located on campus near the train station. I decided to refrain from an all too obvious art historical reading. Instead, I considered the work as a commodity; assessed how digital media could enhance public engagement with the sculpture; and evaluated the way that the work is interpreted within the context of the University Collections.


We also produced a reflective learning journal upon completing the course. The prospect of being assessed on a piece of work based almost entirely on my own, highly personal reflections was one that I initially found daunting. However, the assignment proved to be a really valuable conclusion to the course. I found that observing the themes and connections between the diverse sessions revealed a number of things that I had not necessarily been taught, but had learned as a result of the course.

As well as improving my understanding of the use and interpretation of objects of culture, I would say that taking Making Culture: New Ways of Reading Things actually served to enrich my University experience. It was a fantastic opportunity to learn about the University beyond my own department, and presented the privileged chance to explore its rich collections.

Making Cultures is now available as an MOMD (Module Outside the Main Discipline) for second year students and you can read more about it here.


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