The sun shines brightly outside over the Barber Institute and inside the tables are lined with wine glasses. Canapés are circulating and a convivial atmosphere greets me as I mingle amongst familiar faces and unfamiliar smiles. The date is June 6th 2013 and at 6.30pm our exhibition ‘Defining Faces,’ along with another exhibition ‘About Face,’ will be officially opened for inspection by the wider public. Up until today only Barber staff and other students studying for an MA in History of Art at Birmingham know what was going on behind the closed doors. Whilst a flurry of activity and busy excitement had accompanied the installation at the Barber, I felt a nervous anticipation at wanting to know what other people thought. Had we achieved our aims in curating this exhibition? Did people like the portraits we had chosen? Was the interpretation on labels insightful? More importantly, do people like it?
Along with nine other MA students and lead curator of the Barber, Robert Wenley, I had worked since October 2012 to put this exhibition together and now standing here at the private event I thought back to the many hands and faces along our journey that helped bring this exhibition here. I also had time to reflect on all the experiences that helped define our exhibition and as a result has made me feel more confident in applying for jobs directly relating to gallery and museum work.
‘Defining Faces’ is the second in a three part instalment, working in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), and features a selection of twentieth-century portraits recently acquired by the gallery. The fifteen NPG loans that we had selected for our show originally came from a larger exhibition called ‘Life Lines’ (2009), and were first introduced to us on a trip to London in October 2012 where we were told that it would be left to us to interpret and create something new. With this in mind, and having just viewed the portraits in person, it made it more possible to choose which items we liked the best for our exhibition. Some of the portraits that were offered to us and that we selected for our show featured sitters such as Henry Moore, Ted Hughes and Stephen Hawking, and artwork by Sylvia Plath, Percy Wyndham-Lewis, and Oskar Kokoschka.
Quite early on in the process we decided to do something new. Rather than focusing on a biographical interpretation of the artist or the sitter we decided as a group to curate a show that would offer a new and insightful way of looking at portraiture. One of the hardest parts was agreeing on a theme, because that dictated the course of events for the rest of the show and so, getting it right sometimes meant sacrificing personal preferences for a cohesive flow of ideas. However, once all the research into the portraits (the biographical, historical and artistic movements) had been accomplished it was lot easier to decide how we could build our show around four distinct functions – Practise, Personal, Preparatory and Published& Presented. After we divided our portraits into one of these categories, everything else seemed to come together quite easily and gave us time to build ideas for events to coincide with the exhibition.
During the course we also had the opportunity to see behind the scenes at the Barber and learn about the daily goings-on; we learnt how to write interpretation labels from the Barber’s former director Ann Sumner, learnt how loans are processed, and saw how artworks are wrapped up and delivered to other institutions. For those who were interested in getting more experience, volunteering in one of the Barber’s departments was an excellent opportunity to gain a new set of skills. I volunteered in the Marketing Department and enjoyed working closely with Naomi and Andy who gave valuable advice during the exhibition. For me, it was a great way of getting to know more about the gallery, understanding how decisions are made and also contributing a little bit more to ‘Defining Faces.’
“I had a positive experience. I was able to understand better the work of curators and other departments that help make an exhibition possible and was also able to refine my organisation and leadership skills as group representative; I know that I wouldn’t have had this unique experience at any other university.” – Jas Lally, MA student
Our show was further enriched by loans from the University’s Cadbury Research Library and the Research and Cultural Collections, which we also visited during the course of the programme and which helped to produce diverse range of portraits. Both collections proved to be rich in material and at one point we thought we might have too much to display, but a large amount from these Collections fitted into the vitrines to complement the portraits on the wall. What I found particularly exciting was that a lot of the material that we had chosen from these sites, which included original letters and books, had never before been publicly displayed in Birmingham and meant that we would be displaying and creating new research around these artefacts.
For the MA students who participated on this programme and curated their first exhibition, this show will serve as an experience that will remain with them for a long time. Walking around and talking to some of the guests, it was nice to see people enjoying themselves. I know the next time I come I will look at the visitor book to see what new comments have been written about ‘Defining Faces.’
Defining Faces is on at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts until 26 August
Find out more about our MA programme here.
By: Katie Wilson