It’s that time of year again when campus is buzzing with excited (and slightly nervous) students, proud parents, and lecturers dressed as you’ve never seen them before! Graduation is a time to celebrate all our History of Art students have achieved during their time at Birmingham, not just on their degree programme but also as members of our department, the Barber Institute, UoB and the city itself. As a department we are pleased to be able to give out two prizes each year – the Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation, and the Emily Rastall Prize for the best overall contribution to the department. Competition is always stiff and there are more worthy candidates than there are prizes: every year, many of our students give generously of their time and energy in volunteering for various events, helping to run open days, applicant visit days, and workshops, and offering peer support. The department really appreciates this because it helps to make the department what it is – friendly, fun, and a great place to study.
Here we’ve put together a selection of photos from the ceremony on July 11th when Single and some Joint Honours History of Art Students graduated. You can read about about our prize winners and also see David, one of the department’s founding members, being given the by-now traditional ‘lift off’!
This year, the Emily Rastall prize, awarded in memory of a student who sadly passed away just after her finals in 2012, was shared by French and History of Art student Holly Wain and History of Art student Caroline Hetherington for their overall contribution to the department.
On receiving the prize, Caroline said: ‘Receiving the Emily Rastall prize was a little surprising (and embarrassing!), but I was very pleased to get it. Being recognised for contributing to the department made me think back over the three years of my course and remember the exciting things I was able to accomplish. It definitely reminded me that there was a lot more to my degree than the final mark.’
How did she feel at graduation? ‘Graduation was a lovely opportunity for all of us to be excited and proud after all the nerves of results day, although for me the best part of the day was my parents turning up about two minutes before we went on stage to receive our degrees.’
Is there anything she’ll miss now she’s graduated? ‘I will miss actually studying art history the most, as especially in final year I have loved the amount of research and interesting conversations that have taught me so much more about the subject. Alongside this, writing a dissertation about a previously unstudied sculpture probably gave me the most satisfaction.’ But, Caroline’s not going very far: ‘I am not leaving the University yet – I’m now a graduate trainee in Professional Services, working on different placements over the next year. I don’t know where I’ll go after that, but I’m pretty sure I’m not done studying yet.’
Holly said, ‘I feel very honoured to be receiving the Emily Rastall Prize as it means the department can continue to celebrate the commitment and enthusiasm Emily had for Art History at the Barber. It also gave me the chance to reflect on my past four years in the History of Art department and how much I enjoyed contributing to projects like the Golovine Blog.’
How was graduation for her? ‘My graduation day was fantastic because I could share all the relief and happiness with my family and friends. My favourite moment was walking out of the Great Hall after the ceremony and feeling proud and excited for the future!’
What is her favourite memory of her degree? ‘My best memory of studying art history at the Barber is working with my tutor Liz for my dissertation. I loved researching using primary sources in archives because I felt like I could genuinely contribute something new and different. I enjoyed it so much that I am coming back to the Barber in September to do a research masters in History of Art.’
And now for the most traditional event of the day…
And now for something more sensible (well, depends what you make of the lecturers’ outfits):
The Sam Beighton Prize for the best dissertation was this year awarded to Joint Honours History of Art and English student, Sarah Cowie. Here she tells us a bit how she felt receiving the prize about the dissertation that she wrote.
How did she feel getting the prize? ‘I am very pleased to have been awarded the Sam Beighton Prize this year, as I know there was much competition! It is a nice recognition of my efforts with the dissertation, and I am extremely grateful to my supervisor for guiding me in the right direction.’
How was graduation? ‘My graduation day was lovely, although as a Joint Honours student I graduated on a different day to some of my History of Art peers, but Josh and I did still manage to have a photo shoot in front of the Barber though!’
What was her best memory of studying at Birmingham? ‘Aside from the second-year study trip to Rome, I think my best memories are of the Barber. It is such an inspiring environment, with amazing research materials in the library and galleries, and always a great venue for lunch with concert music playing in the background!’
Any plans for the future? ‘My plans for the future are yet to be made – I wasn’t very good at thinking ahead in final year! At the moment I’m considering doing a law conversion in Bristol, after travelling this year.’
What was it like researching and writing a dissertation? ‘In the same way as with any research, my dissertation topic adapted, evolved (and unfortunately considering the word count, expanded!) the more I read around the field of study. What began as an interest in Kurt Schwitters’ association with the German Dadaists gradually became a study of exile and anti-nationalism during the Nazi regime; a subject area that complimented my final year special subject, German Modernisms of the Body.
The dissertation explores national identity and the concept of Heimat in Kurt Schwitters’ (1887-1948) assemblage, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, which was produced in Hanover in 1920 and then reworked by the exiled artist nineteen years later in Oslo. The dramatically different cultural climates of these two completion dates – which bridge together post-World War One Germany and pre-World War Two Europe – have invited interpretations of the work that place special emphasis on Schwitters’ increasingly diminished sense of German national identity under the Nazi Regime. However, considering the irreparable damage left following Germany’s defeat in 1918 and the anti-nationalist sentiments outlined in the artist’s essay ‘Nationalitätsgefühl’ (National Sentiment) from 1924, the current study questions the extent to which Schwitters had a fixed sense of national identity, or any kind of investment in the Volksgemeinschaft even during these earlier years.
In challenging the reading of Spatial Growths as evidence of German or Norwegian national identity, the central tenet of the dissertation explores how Schwitters’ sustained use of found materials (themselves fragments of a disordered reality) is symbolic of a wider process of ordering exile. Indeed, the concept of Merz – a label which encompasses Schwitters’ innovative creative practices and a name which he adopted for himself in the 1920s – sheds light on the artist’s understanding of a transnational Heimat; signalling Schwitters’ desire for a more flexible identity in the midst of political discourses on national purity. Approached thus, the fusion of two nationalities in Spatial Growths cannot be considered a visual enactment of the artist’s loss of German national identity. Rather, through its palimpsest qualities and the incorporation of domestic materials, it alludes to Schwitters’ prolonged search for a stable Heimat in an unstable existence; contributing to a narrative of homelessness that defined the life of this artist.
Despite moments of panic when I thought I might not be able to actually view the work (it was touring Germany for much of the year), writing the dissertation came to be as rewarding as it was challenging. The opportunity to study one work of art in such depth, whilst drawing on the expertise of my supervisor, Dr Camilla Smith, enabled me to form a research topic that interested me greatly, and that I felt had not been fully explored before.’
Well done again to all our graduates this year – you have done us proud! You can see interviews with some of our students on graduation day here.