First hand looking: studying art on site

In the Department, right now, preparations are under way for a core component of our BA (Hons) Art History programme: the compulsory study trip abroad for our Single Honours students. The trip will take place in the final week of the Spring Term, which is when three members of full-time staff travel to Paris for four days with the 40-odd students making up our cohort of second years.

Students and staff will have prepared for this trip since the beginning of term, with some preliminary meetings having taken place as early as before Christmas. In the run-up to the trip, there are weekly classes, both lectures and small-group seminars, and in addition, students work closely with staff on developing individual research proposals on an aspect of Paris. In Paris itself, a typical day’s itinerary will see site visits commence as early as 9am; last year, some students (and staff!) were visiting galleries as late as 1 am, literally living and breathing art for just about 24 hours per day.


Paris, Pont des Arts, 2013.

Now, why would we do that? Moreover, why would we as art historians not only do this, but look forward to it, and live every moment of the opportunity to look at art works in context, and first hand? Because, quite simply, this is the only way to understand art. First hand engagement with art is when it all makes sense, and nowhere more so than in the focused, concentrated, slightly crazed context of an entire department being out and about for several days, walking a great centre of art and immersing themselves in a place that seems so familiar, and yet is so unexplored. Yes, I love study trips, and looking while walking, and walking in order to look, is one of my greatest pleasures as art historian.

In the class room, technology allows unprecedented levels of access to artworks, with projects such as the Ghent Altarpiece in 100 Billion Pixels, funded by the Getty Foundation, allowing for perspectives on images that the naked eye, in situ and in front of the original, can not compare to. The website resulting from this project, Closer to Van Eyck. Rediscovering the Ghent altarpiece is a benchmark of these new developments, allowing views of the image which add a dimension of insight to the work that cannot be enjoyed while standing in front of it. But surely, what must not be overlooked is that the way such images can be used most effectively are not instead of seeing the real thing, but in addition to the experience of actually standing in front of it? Teaching in the classroom, by necessity, can be skewed towards particular forms of enquiry into the significance of works of art, and this teaching provides a wonderful foundation for getting more from the experience of seeing images in context.

And this brings us back to the excitement of a study trip, and the opportunity to experience works of art, whether in the locations foe which they were intended, or even works of art that have ended up in a particular location or gallery as part of their history. Going on site visit is a journey of discovery.

There is something else though, too, and something that should not be underestimated. What often marks the experience of these trips, is a sense of camaraderie, or to put it differently, a sense of integration, that develops among the students. As a cohort of students, they do not get enough opportunities to work with each other, across their entire year group, on many occasions, but the study trip is one of them.

So, what will Paris have in store for the 2014 year group? I don’t know, because this year, it is the turn of other colleagues to lead the adventure. But this doesn’t stop me, of course, from looking forward to venturing out abroad with the students again in 2015….

Gabriele Neher (@gabrieleneher)

2 responses to “First hand looking: studying art on site

  1. Pingback: #teachingrenaissance and making posters: a guide for student novices | renaissanceissues·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s