What I Wish I’d Known… When I Started My Art History Degree

Recently, I put a call out on social media, asking people what they wish they had known when they started their art history degree. I got a lot of responses, and people were kind enough to share their experiences with me.

Responses ranged from the use of archives and collections, to issues around class and not being afraid to challenge or question your lecturers.

Below, I’ve grouped people’s responses in to several broad themes.

On your classes and course

‘Don’t be afraid to challenge your lecturers. I work in the museum sector and I often find some of the information presented in lectures is massively out of date, I also find that if you work and study in the sector, you’ll have a better experience of the degree.’ – Karen Johnston (@KJohnston).

‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Your tutors want you to ask, and your questions lead to some really interesting discussions in class. And outside it!’ – Sussex Art History Society (@ArtHistSociety).

‘Ask your professors for extra readings if you feel behind on certain topics. They’re there to help! And if imposter syndrome ever hits, remember that you wouldn’t have been admitted to the PhD program if the department didn’t think you could do it.’ – Academic Positions (@academicpositions).

‘Chat to other students in your department, and related ones. They can recommend readings or provide a useful sounding board for discussion. If you’re an undergraduate – chat to postgraduate students. We can help talk through readings and things you don’t get.’ – My tip.

‘Talk in seminars, get into the habit of arguing your academic corner without fear. It’ll stand you in good stead in the future. Learn to skim texts and read critically – don’t plough through stuff you don’t need. Don’t sit quietly while your middle aged male lecturer mansplains basic feminist theory to a roomful of 19 year old women. Still cross about that.’ – Isabel Alexander (@isabelexander).

‘On a practical level, Anne D’Alleva’s How to Write Art History is full of good tips and not expensive. You are probably 100% aware of this book but just in case!’ – Lucy Whelan (@LucyWWhelan).

‘I would suggest starting in the early years of university to study languages and go abroad to do experiences whenever there is a good opportunity to learn something new (both work and study).’ – Francesca Strobino (@frastraus)

‘Don’t be afraid to use your eyes or give an honest response to what you see. Also, gen up on the Old Testament.’ – Ruth Crome (@ruthiecrome)

‘Go to as many seminars/visiting lecture talks as you can even if they aren’t immediately “relevant” to your work -learn to think laterally about your work’s relationship to other scholarship.’ – @Hosmeriana

‘To hit the ground running: 1. Link to the Harvard system of essay writing. 2. Find all the free galleries and free lectures/talks and Friday lates. 3. Know that number 2 is designed that way for EVERYONE especially you.’ – Sarah Mayfield (@stuccatora).

‘Learn about the free programs you can benefit from and access to sources of information as student. And use Zotero to assist with logging references to populate your bibliography .. tedious tedium!’ – Murphy’s Associates (@emurphy2).

‘Don’t be intimidated to apply for the honors program. It will help you write an undergrad thesis, making grad school apps easier. Or in my case, prove that I didn’t want to write a masters thesis.’ – Erika Robertson (@EphemeralErika).

On paid work, volunteering and networking

‘Even if it just starts out as volunteering in the sector, any experience is valid – and of course, you get to try lots of different roles in the sector before you settle on something you really like. If you need paid work, then look at smaller museums and galleries in your area. They often look for weekend, summer, and casual staff.’ – my tip.

On social class

‘There are a lot of posh people but don’t let that put you off – you all share a common interest and it’s very unifying.’ – Isabel Alexander

‘That it’s really important to build your own networks. Sadly the art world is still so often run on nepotism and class structures play a major role – make your own contacts and build networks for yourself through hard work, passion and (for me anyways) sheer stubborn determination.’ – Caroline McCaffrey-Howarth (@CarolineMcCaff).

‘If you are from a state school, it’s possible you will feel at times you don’t fit or that you’ll never catch up with the privileged. But try to ignore any sense of difference or prejudice and persevere, for if we get fed up and leave the field, things won’t ever change.’ – Dr Louise Hardiman (@LouiseHardiman)

And finally….

‘It’s probably an obvious one but take every opportunity to actually go and look at artworks, sculptures, building[s] etc. See when galleries and museum have open days or behind-the-scenes tours – they’re usually free and very informative!’ – Dr Kathryn Milligan (@katymilligan)

‘You do have something to bring to the field, even if you don’t fit the perceived mould – these differences can and will be your strengths. You will pronounce something wrong at some point – but this is nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, you are there to learn!!’ – Sovay (@msovay).

‘Find artists you resonate with. Follow their lives, feel their feelings. Set aside a good half hour to sit and stare at one of their artworks. Experiment with looking – far away, wander in it, get close and personal. Immerse yourself. Get a feel for it and the rest will follow.’ – Clare Coia (@ClareCoia).

I hope you’ve found this useful – I’ll be following this blog post with one on books, television programmes, and podcasts that I’ve found useful whilst doing my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

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