Monthly Archives: July 2013

George Catlin’s European Adventure: The Gallery Talks!

Here is the third instalment in Joint Honours student Sophie Edwards’ experience of working on the George Catlin exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibition is now on in Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery until 13th October 2013!

After working on the planning of the exhibition and then making films about it for the website, the day had finally been set for the next part of our Catlin adventure: the gallery talks! These were scheduled for Thursday 30th May and, as any University student, and indeed lecturer, knows, the Summer Term is by far the busiest. Therefore, it was only after my exams had finished that I suddenly realised that, along with the rest of my group, I would be speaking at one of the major art galleries in London. I thought that I would have been riddled with nerves, but I managed to surprise myself by feeling pure excitement.

When the day came, I and my fellow group members met up with the project leaders Dr Sadiah Qureshi, from the University of Birmingham’s History Department, and gallery staff Lesley Rivett and Esther Collins, in the National Portrait Gallery. They all said they were very excited to hear our talks and that in fact the talks would also be signed for the hard of hearing. This fascinated us all, as neither me, nor any of my group members had ever experienced this before!


Lesley very kindly gave us a tour of the George Catlin exhibition, although our group of five quickly expanded to include everyone else visiting the exhibition, she was that inspiring to listen to! This was so useful in helping us to identify how we were going to deliver our talks, especially with regards to effectively linking in information with works of art. After Lesley had finished the tour and given us some advice on the ‘do’s and don’ts’ on giving gallery talks, (such as not to stand in front of the work of art when you are talking about it!) I looked at my watch and worked out that we had an hour and a half grab some lunch and put together a gallery talk. It was then that I started to feel a little nervous.

As a group we had to organise what we were going to say, how we were going to work this around the gallery layout, how the information would translate to the portraits in the exhibition, and ensure that we were pronouncing the Native American names correctly! As a student of both History and History of Art, this task was one that certainly utilised both aspects of my degree!


At 7pm the signer arrived, to clarify Native American names and go through how the signing process works. At 7.30, we looked around the gallery floor and gave each other a positive nod, as the turnout for the talk was very good. So good, in fact, that moving around the gallery to talk about different portraits became a great challenge! As a bit of a perfectionist, I was almost convinced that because I did not know the talk inside out that my mind would go blank and I would be left with nothing to say. I’m glad to say that I proved myself completely wrong as the talk itself went very well! We discussed different topics such as George Catlin himself, Native American culture and Catlin’s exhibition when it first came to London in 1839, whilst also relating this to the portraits in the exhibition. We all thoroughly enjoyed delivering the talks, presenting them with enthusiasm and confidence as well as working effectively with the signer. The response we got was very positive, with many of the attendees approaching us in order to congratulate us and to remark positively on our enthusiasm for the topics discussed. Some of my group members even said that they felt like a celebrity!

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the talk and this is certainly an experience that I will be able to carry with me throughout my life. For this, I just wanted to thank the University of Birmingham, in particular Sadiah, as well as the National Portrait Gallery for making this possible. This research project has given me and my group the confidence to speak to an audience outside of the seminar room: this is a tool that is of great importance, especially with graduation only being a year away! It has also inspired me to pursue gallery work as a possible career path. I know that the rest of my group and I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this research project and would absolutely recommend it to anyone if they get the chance!

Entrance to American Indian Portraits is free. There are lunchtime talks at BMAG starting at 1pm and cost £3 (available on the day).

Wednesday 4th September: Exhibition curator Dr Stephanie Pratt discusses curating George Catlin: American Indian Portraits. She will also explore how Catlin’s images have been thought to construct an idealised view of Native American peoples. The talk will also look at the role of Catlin’s paintings in the recovery of Native Americans’ past histories and cultures.

Thursday 19th September: Dr Robert Lewis, Lecturer in American History from the University of Birmingham, discusses George Catlin and his time in Birmingham with the ‘Indian Gallery’ in the 1840s.

Wednesday 2nd October: Dr Sadiah Qureshi, Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, explores Catlin’s career as a painter, showman and political campaigner and why his paintings are still important for historians and Native Americans today.

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Mortar boards weren’t the only thing to leave the ground: Celebrating success (and lifting-up a lecturer!) with the Class of 2013

the undergrads lifting their lecturer and founding member of the Department, David, into the air outside the Barber

It was smiles all round last Friday when staff, proud families and friends gathered to celebrate as our undergraduates, and a handful of postgrads, had their art history (with various combinations) degrees conferred on them! To share the joy, we’ve put together here a little album of pictures taken on the (gloriously sunny!) day–thanks to all of you who have contributed photos, and others can be sent to us at We especially like the ones showing our very own David being lifted into the air by the undergrads (for our outsider readers, David is a founding member of the Art History Department at Birmingham, senior lecturer and respected Renaissance scholar)!

We’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all every success in your futures, whether you’re going on to further study, internships or taking the first steps in your chosen careers. And we hope that you won’t forget about us, either. We love to hear from our alumni and encourage you to keep us informed with your many triumphs after Birmingham… some of you might even want to write about your experiences and adventures for this blog.

Again, many congratulations to you all. We’re all very proud.





some of the graduating postgrads (minus, unfortunately,  Dr. Richenda Roberts and Hannah Carroll)

some of the graduating postgrads (minus, unfortunately, Dr. Richenda Roberts and Hannah Carroll, who is in the picture below)

Hannah Carroll

manhandling David

And the obligatory mortar board throwing….


Mortarboard throwing


Graduating mortarboards

mortar board

mortar board 2

My first 12 months as an art historian at Birmingham by Georgia Levine

It's not all hard work being a fresher...

It’s not all hard work being a fresher…

I have just completed my first year studying History of Art here in Birmingham. I was surprised how quickly I befriended my course-mates, acquired skills relevant to my degree, and became comfortable both on this attractive campus and in the Barber Institute in particular.

The course is based in the Barber Institute, the University’s own art gallery. Attending lectures and seminars in the Barber enhances the university experience since we share the building with visitors who come to visit the gallery and enjoy music concerts and regular academic talks. The Barber’s resources provide stimulating academic opportunities that are available at few other universities in the UK!

The small size of the department and the group projects we undertook in our modules allowed my course-mates and I to get to know one another much more quickly than our friends on courses in other departments. We also became quickly acquainted with our lecturers! The course includes both group and individual presentations which has developed my confidence and has helped to form friendships within our year group.

First year course modules are structured to give a wide-ranging introduction to Art History. They range from teaching us about historical developments, such as the evolving concept of the artist and the academies, to the most successful ways in which to curate an exhibition and to conserve and restore paintings, sculptures and artworks in other media. Such a varied choice of topics covered throughout the year has given me the chance to learn more about my favourite art styles and periods and become more familiar with artists and concepts that I had not previously understood such as Clive Bell’s treatise, ‘The Aesthetic Hypothesis’ which discusses the concept of aesthetic emotion experienced by the spectator of an artwork.

The workload has most definitely been manageable, problems only ever arising when I found myself drawn into fresher-related distractions! Bar crawls around Harborne and nights out on Broad Street certainly diverted many a fresher’s head in the first few weeks (ok, all year long) from course-related work! Whenever I did have concerns I felt comfortable approaching my lecturers, the student reps and also the post-grads by whom we were lucky enough to be taught for a number of our seminars. The post-grads are extremely easy to discuss work with as they sympathised with our workload, assignments and, sometimes, confusion as we learned to follow certain academic writing styles and study methods, besides trying to grasp often complex theories and ideas.

The collection displayed in the Barber gallery, which is just upstairs from the seminar rooms and lecture theatre, is a great resource that allows us to analyse artworks up-close. I have also wandered up there in my spare-time to fully appreciate works of widely different genres and periods ranging from rare Renaissance works such as Simone Martini’s egg-tempera painting of St John the Evangelist, to my personal favourite, the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Young Woman Seated. I appreciate the ease and frequency with which I can see and study such illustrious works of art.

Simone Martini, St. John the Evangelist, 1320, Barber Institute

Simone Martini, St. John the Evangelist, 1320, Barber Institute

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Woman Seated, 1876-77, Barber Institute

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Woman Seated, 1876-77, Barber Institute

I was also fortunate enough to grab the chance to work as a gallery assistant for the Barber gallery over a period of four months. I became more familiar with the layout, and learnt useful, contextual, knowledge of both temporary and permanent exhibitions. I also took advantage of opportunities to give workshops that were available for children at the weekends, volunteering to help them with hands-on art-related activities. Working closely with the gallery staff has also allowed me to tap into their knowledge, experience and contacts. The whole experience has given me a fascinating insight into the workings of a gallery, besides boosting my CV!

During my first year we also visited other Birmingham-based galleries including BMAG and MAC to learn more about curatorship and exhibition layout which we all found immensely helpful. We appreciated the opportunity to gain practical knowledge and hands-on experience, on top of our always-increasing theoretical knowledge.

Overall, my experience as a first year art history student at Birmingham has been a mixture of nervous anticipation as well as an excitement about learning new things and meeting new people. But our fresher bewilderment was always smoothed out by approachable lecturers and older students who made themselves available to alleviate any of our (sometimes nutty, sometimes more understandable) concerns! I have truly enjoyed my first year studying the History of Art, becoming familiar with the Barber Institute and its staff, and learning how I can develop skills I already possess to advance further in the art world and university life in general.

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