Art history and me

| Joanna Banham is Director of the Victorian Society Summer School, Trustee of the Association for Art History and a freelance lecturer and researcher.

Here she shares her thoughts about how her initial journey into art history has informed her subsequent approach to images and objects.

After working in museums and galleries for nearly 35 years I have to confess that it is hard to remember exactly what originally drew me to art history. I think that, like many people, my lightbulb moment came while attending courses led by one or two inspirational tutors. The first of these was Griselda Pollock and the second was Richard Thompson, both of whom were teaching on the BA course at Manchester University. I followed Griselda to Leeds and enrolled on the first year of the Social History of Art MA. It was led by Tim Clark and included Griselda’s seminal course on Women Artists. The freshness, eloquence and sheer intellectual brio of their teaching was both extraordinary and utterly compelling. They showed that the history of art was not just a history of elite objects consumed by a privileged few, but a site of social and ideological struggle – ideas that seemed little short of revolutionary back in the day.

Since then, my own approaches to images and objects have developed and modified but I have never lost that initial excitement and enthusiasm for a subject that can help explain the way we look at and understand the world.  In the sphere of galleries and museums there is perhaps less room for theory than many academics would like. But the primary challenge for me has always been how to engage visitors’ interest in whatever is on show, and how to get them to want to come back for more. Sometimes, this can be done by a breath-taking display, but more often than not it is the interpretation – a talk, a text, a film or similar – that will unlock the meaning and fascination for a particular image or object. So, for many years now I have been as passionate about giving people the tools to understand art that, let’s face it, can often seem remote, obscure, irrelevant or downright incomprehensible, as about the art itself. Teaching and discussion in front of objects, where physical attributes like scale and materials are unavoidably present, is both a challenge and a pleasure. There are no classroom supports like visual comparisons or contextual images, but there is rarely an occasion when someone doesn’t raise a point that you have not considered before.

Many galleries are still strangely nervous about overloading visitors with too much interpretation – why, for example, did Tate Britain take down so many of its labels a couple of years ago! And the work of Learning Departments is still often focused on programmes for Communities and Schools rather than on providing information for every visitor. But I hope that younger generations of art historians, fired up as I was by their own discovery of how images and objects are not simply beautiful and thought-provoking but also encoded expressions of their times, will continue to increase the understanding and accessibility of art with fresh knowledge, energy and ideas.