On Saturday 28th September, the Barber Institute opened its doors to welcome a group of prospective undergraduate students to experience a taster day – ‘Art History at University and Beyond’ – to see what University of Birmingham’s department of History of Art, Film and Visual Cultures has to offer them. The sixth form students had the opportunity to be History of Art students for the day and take part in mini seminars and lectures to see what a great and exciting department we have to offer them!
After a welcome by the Admissions Tutor, Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange, the day began with a lecture given by David Hemsoll on Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and was followed by a lecture from Dr Alex Marlow- Mann on ‘Film as Art: The Last Days of Pompeii’. Both lectures, although on very different topics, suggested how artists and film makers referred to well-known works or visual traditions as a way of appealing to a particular audience. Later in the day, Professor Matthew Rampley gave a lecture entitled ‘The Artist as Entrepreneur: Damien Hirst’ in which he argued that Hirst’s artistic practice – often vilified in the press – in fact draws on and references more classical artistic genres and scientific traditions like still life and collecting. All three lectures were an opportunity for the students to see the diversity of subjects which the course has to offer and also to get a feel for what it is like to attend a real lecture at the University of Birmingham in the Barber Institute.
Following the morning’s lectures the students took part in two mini seminars, one with Dr Elizabeth L’Estrange on ‘Women and Art’ and the other with PhD student Jamie Edwards on ‘Paintings as Objects’, upstairs in the Barber Gallery.
In the ‘Women in Art’ seminar the students were presented with two Impressionist paintings showing a woman in front of a mirror and were told that one was painted by a man and the other by a woman.
The students were asked to discuss in groups if they could tell who painted which picture. The groups were divided, leading to an open discussion about whether it is possible to tell whether a painting reveals the sex of its painter, and about the position women have occupied in art history. Although this was an unfamiliar area to some, everyone showed an interest and got involved in the debate.
In the ‘Paintings as Objects’ seminar in the Barber Gallery the students were each given extracts from Cennino Cennini’s fifteenth-century Craftsman’s Handbook to read. These extracts describe how a Renaissance painter should prepare a panel for painting, and advice on how to paint drapery. The students had the opportunity to read the extracts and discuss it in front of a real Renaissance panel painting, Simone Martini’s St. John the Evangelist.
The gallery session replicated the kind of work that students would be doing when they study History of Art at Birmingham: doing preparation before a seminar, applying it to a particular piece of art, sometimes first hand in front of the painting in the Barber Institute.
The Barber is a great resource for Art History students at the University of Birmingham which few other universities can offer. The students really enjoyed doing work in the gallery and some students even said they would have liked to have spent more time there so we’ll definitely keep that in mind for next year’s Taster Day! Overall, both the seminars and lectures gave the students an opportunity to experience the variety of ways in which they can be taught here and also gave them the chance to develop their own skills in analysing works of art and being active in group discussions.
We asked the students to express how they felt the day went, any positive impact it had on them, and what they most enjoyed about the experience. It was clear that the students loved the variety of the lectures and mini seminars, with one student commenting ‘I enjoyed the wide range of topics covered – film, Renaissance, women and contemporary art – as it provided a wide range of information and catered to people of all interests’. The students also enjoyed being able to see what a lecture and seminar are like, and as one person commented ‘the best part of the day was seeing how the style of teaching can differ. I particularly enjoyed the women and art seminar as it opened my eyes to the general theme of masculinity in art’.
In addition to the lecture and mini seminar experiences, the event also featured a talk from David Rice, Student Recruitment Officer, who discussed how to write a successful personal statement as well as Jen Ridding and Alex Jolly who spoke about volunteering opportunities at the Barber, and Charlotte Clark, a graduate of our History of Art programme who discussed her career since graduating. This gave the students a well-rounded and informed idea of applying to university, what our department has to offer, and where a History of Art degree can take them.
There was also the opportunity to talk to current students who were more than willing to express their enthusiasm for the course and answer any questions from the perspective of a student. One of the volunteers, Sophie Ross, a second year student, felt that the event was a huge success, and even felt the benefits for herself: ‘It was great to work with the lecturers on this and get to know them better outside of teaching and, for the prospective students, it was good for them to be able to speak to them too’. Another volunteer, Josh Roy, a third year student, said ‘I thought the open day was a success and catered well to the needs of prospective students. It was nice to be able to talk to them and see how they enjoyed it too – especially getting a taster of what it is like to learn inside the Barber. Despite not having attended a History of Art taster day myself- I believe I would have definitely swayed more towards taking the course at Birmingham!’.
Overall, the day gave the sixth formers a great insight into what art history is all about, especially at the University of Birmingham. Judging from the feedback, which was entirely positive, I think it’s safe to say that the day was a success! We look forward to welcoming some fresh and – and perhaps familiar – faces into the department next September!
For more information about studying at Birmingham, click here.