A UNIQ week of art history
During the long vacation Oxford is overtaken by tourists and summer school students, forming endless queues outside the Ashmolean and every college connected with Harry Potter.
The students who attended the History of Art UNIQ summer school in the first week of July were just as keen to take in the city’s tourist hotspots but also spent their time in Oxford’s libraries preparing for tutorials. Accompanied by two current student mentors – myself and Issy – the 14 potential applicants had a packed week which, at times, felt like it was packing 8 week’s worth of stuff into just 7 days!
That’s not a criticism though, for the whole point of the UNIQ programme (which runs over 4 weeks every July) is to give sixth form students an insight into life at Oxford University, both social and academic. Sleeping and eating in colleges (for free!) – Wadham and St John’s this year – also provides a valuable experience of student life. The great value of UNIQ is that it shows students from state schools and areas of little progression to higher education that Oxford (and university in general) can be right for them. As a former participant of the programme back in 2012, it was a particular pleasure to take on the role of academic mentor this year and help to inspire the next generation of Oxford students.
As the sixth-formers’ trains pulled into Oxford on a sunny Saturday afternoon they had little idea of what Oxford could offer them, who they would be spending the week with, or, indeed, what art history is. After seven days immersed in the History of Art Department however, this was far from the case! After an intense day of admissions preparation on the Sunday the students, Issy and I threw ourselves into exploring what Oxford has to offer art historians. Led by Prof. Craig Clunas we visited the Weston Library where we compared 16th century visual representation in the Sheldon tapestry map and Aztec scrolls before heading off for tours of St Catz and Wadham with Prof. Gervase Rosser. And Monday still had more to offer with an introduction to the Pitt Rivers Museum and an evening of sports in University Parks (although some of the art historians took the opportunity to sketch rather than run around)!
During the rest of the week we had amazing tours of the Ashmolean with curators – where we also viewed modern Chinese artworks not usually on display, handled medieval manuscripts and Renaissance books in St John’s College library, visited the Christ Church Picture Gallery and climbed up to the lantern of Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre! The aim of these visits was to introduce the students to some of Oxford’s collections, leading to a mini research project in the style of the first year object essay.
Each group of students was given an object to research, ranging from an Ancient Egyptian scarab beetle to Uccello’s famous painting ‘The Hunt in the Forest’. Over the course of the week these objects were researched using books in the Sackler and Balfour libraries, which led to tutorials with members of the Department and a final presentation at the end of the week. This was a great morning, with each group speaking for 20 minutes and sharing what they had learned, teaching the rest of us a lot along the way!
Aside from the academic programme we enjoyed a comedy night and quiz night and a fabulous alumni dinner at Christ Church. Here we were joined by Ros Holmes, a Junior Research Fellow in the History of Art, and Louise Stewart, Cross Collections Curator at the National Portrait Gallery, both former students of the Department. With a Q&A session and a three course dinner there was plenty of time to chat and the students enjoyed both the fancy food and the chance to learn about opportunities after university.
On Friday afternoon the UNIQ students ‘graduated’ in the Sheldonian and received books courtesy of Oxford University Press before we headed off to the farewell BBQ. Everyone needed a rest after such an action-packed week but there was unanimous agreement at how enjoyable UNIQ had been. As they headed back home to embark on Year 13, there were more than a few who had their sights firmly set on a History of Art degree from Oxford. Thanks must be given to the students who made the week so enjoyable with their dedication, and to the hard work of all the Department and museum staff who gave up their valuable time, especially to Prof. Clunas who dedicated his week to UNIQ.