Elizabeth Manekin, Professor of the Practice, Department of Art and Art History, Head of University Program and Academic Projects, Ackland Art Museum
London is home to some of the greatest museums in the world. But beyond – or perhaps, embedded in – that idea of greatness is the sheer vastness of their holdings, the variety of their missions, and the complexity of their collecting histories and practices. The British Museum, founded in 1783, was the first national public museum. Built on the private collections of Sir Hans Sloan, its holdings grew exponentially under the aegis of Empire and Colonial Expansion. The National Gallery of Art, founded in 1824, traces the history of Western art from the mid-13th century to 1900 and, along with the British Museum, is among the most visited museums in the world. The Courtauld Institute of Art, founded in 1932, by Samuel Courtauld, Sir Robert Witt, and Viscount Lee of Fareham, was London’s first public art museum, growing alongside the developing academic discipline of art history, laying the foundations for what would become a center for its study. Sir John Soane’s House offers yet another kind of museum entirely: both the collection and its display are shaped by the collector’s idiosyncrasies, frozen in time. Soane’s house serves as an example of both wunderkammern and installation art. The list goes on and on.
This course teaches students to “read” objects, to critically consider what works of art communicate on their own, and how a series of decisions regarding their collection and display — made by individuals and institutions – shape how we understand them. Through museum visits, close observation, readings, and discussion, students will examine the broader implications of those decisions and the ways in which they shape our understanding of the world around us. London’s museums provide a range of objects to consider: manuscripts, antiquities, religious works, contemporary and historic paintings and sculpture; they also offer a range of histories and approaches that highlight major themes in the field of museums, from the trenchant legacies of colonialism, to the formation of academic disciplines, to the very question of why we collect things in the first place.
Meeting daily in London’s museums, with special attention to the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Courtauld Gallery, students in this course will learn to analyze objects and display in dialogue with scholarly articles on those same subjects. Through close examination of its museums, students also will learn about London itself: its collections speak simultaneously to a global heritage and a uniquely English legacy.