When I found out that I was nominated for student exchange in the UK, I was ecstatic. As an art historian studying at McGill University in Montreal, I believe there is nothing more exciting than studying an artefact in its original state. That said, Montreal, despite being the second oldest city in all of North America, is still young in terms of its history and the production of art. I felt as if I needed to immerse myself in the seat of Western art and explore its provenance.
I arrived at the University of Birmingham in the mild British winter of January armed with a luggage full of hope and expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see how quaint the campus was.
I was staying at the Vale which was beautiful but to me seemed slightly out of the way: the twenty minute walk each way to campus was something I was not accustomed to back at home. However, this walk allowed me to catch a glimpse of the neighbourhood and other facilities which the University of Birmingham boasts such as Winterbourne House.
Needless to say, all aspects of this exchange have contributed to my overall experience. So, even before the course lecturer walked in the room on the first day of my course, I had learnt something from my peers. Forgive my bias but I’ve always thought art history students dressed better than those from other departments and it was no different here! Basking in the different sense of fashion and the array of accents, I quickly processed how the small number of students matched the equally small Barber Photograph Room where our lectures and seminars were to be held. This would, however, prove to be advantageous. The large hall back at home suddenly seemed too formal when compared to this intimate setting. In a short period of time, I have reassessed my presentation skills, developed a group friendly work ethic and engaged in this peer-learning environment.
Let’s rewind to that moment when the course lecturer walked in the room. I immediately felt the difference of approachability in that she prefers to be called by her first name instead of referring to her status of a doctor. I soon realized that all my lecturers were not only specialized in their fields in regards to the artefacts being studied and their histories, but are also fluent in the languages of their context. Their hands-on experience with objects led to the ‘hands on art’ teaching that I was soon pleasantly faced with. The three courses I took were Inside the Gallery, Introduction to Art and Architecture in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, and Power, Society, Politics: Religious Art in Northern Europe, c. 1400-1600. These three courses were all very different to each other and at the same time all reflected a different teaching style to Art History at McGill. Inside the Gallery was a practical course where we were evaluated on an exhibition we had to curate. Power, Society, Politics gave me a good survey on English and North European religious art. Lastly, modernism, which was never my forte, was simplified and enriched through Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.
Compared to the mediated experience of artefacts on projections and screens, my interior exploded with joy when centuries old manuscripts and documents from an extensive archive were plopped onto my lap during seminars. The fact that I was touching original materials and could actually feel the texture of manuscript pages would not have been possible at home where the closest proximity anyone could get was a nose inch away… from the thick glass encasing. This was not exclusive to the resources of the University’s Barber Institute, but seems to be a feature of the way galleries across Britain present their art objects. It is obvious that the UK is a country that cherishes and preserves its own history. There is no doubt that as an art history student, I am soaking up every inch of this wonderful opportunity.