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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