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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