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University of Plymouth

Art History

Case Study Report, September 2003

Dr. Stephanie Pratt: s.pratt@plymouth.ac.uk


Links

Update, Nov 2004
Background Report 1
Background Report 2
Myths of Primitivism , Collecting and Exhibiting Cultures in the 19th Century and Cultural Difference Course Outlines
Myths of Primitivism , Collecting and Exhibiting Cultures in the 19th Century and Cultural Difference Bibliographies

NB. For pdf versions of the course outlines and bibliographies please go to the GLAADH Resources section and then choose Initiatives Course Materials or Initiatives Bibliographies and scroll down the index.


Report

Setting

The GLAADH project at the University of Plymouth takes place within a modular pattern of teaching and learning that was put into operation in the early 1990s when the institution was expanding. The modules developed by the art history team and Dr. Stephanie Pratt are validated within a scheme of study called 'Combined Arts' of which there are now 11 disciplinary areas (American Studies, Art History, Education Studies, English, Gallery and Museum Studies, History, Media Arts, Music, Popular Culture, Theatre, and Visual Arts.) All students within the scheme theoretically have access to the modules that were developed under the GLAADH initiative. However, in practice, the main student body for the 3 modules put in place is from the areas of art history and gallery and museum studies.

So far, the art history team has been able to activate two modules (CART 100 'Myths of Primitivism' and ARHI 304 'Cultural Difference') within this semester's teaching, i.e. February to June, 2003. Also, during this academic year (Sept - June, 2003) we have been able to validate a brand new module running for both second and third level students (ARHI 220/320 'Collecting and Exhibiting Cultures in the 19th Century'), a course that will come fully into operation in the Autumn semester 2003. As a department, we have long-held research interests in inter-cultural arts, issues of art and identity, colonialism and the arts, Australian modernism (including aboriginal arts) and contemporary Native American art practice.

We see the GLAADH initiative as supporting and cementing the already developing interests we hold in expanding the range of materials, practices and objects considered significant within the field of art history. Our course ARHI 304 'Cultural Difference' was validated in 1991 and first taught in 1993. This might be seen as a beginning step towards what we now feel are highly significant and important areas of concern within the discipline. The GLAADH initiative support has strengthened our belief that such wider material is crucial to students' broader understandings of art and art history. With the increased emphasis that the new modules have brought, this wider inter-cultural area is now well and truly a vital part of what is on offer in our current programme for students.

Dr. Stephanie Pratt made the initial application to GLAADH on the grounds that her research interests and strengths already lay within the areas most relevant to GLAADH's purposes and rationale. Her research work has generally been concerned with issues of art and representation, particularly that of Native Americans in the period from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. She has recently begun collaborating with the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter to produce a re-display of items within the World Cultures collection based on her research there in the archives. Although she is the nominal leader of the project, the entire department supported her application and have been/will be involved in some of the teaching of the modules that have been developed. During this first phase of the implementation of our GLAADH project, the students who were most involved have been the first year Art History single honours and major students; and the Gallery and Museum studies joint honours and minor students with the addition of a group of Visual Arts minor students. They constituted the group for the module 'Myths of Primitivism' (CART 100). The total group size was 24 students who were split into two seminar groups. This sort of combination of students from differing subject areas may continue into the future if teaching and learning patterns remain as they are currently.

Description

The main objective of the project was to put into place a number of new or existing modules within the art history programme that would constitute a developing strand of teaching and learning throughout the students' experience here. Thus, it happened rather conveniently that there were two modules already validated, one in the first level of the degree and one in the third level, which could work as part of the project brief. These were CART 100 'Myths of Primitivism' and ARHI 304 'Cultural Difference'. Both were available for revision and CART 100 had never been taught as of the beginning of this academic year 2002 - 2003. It was planned to link these two levels of study to a third module to be taught in the second year, and this became the newly validated module ARHI 220/320 'Collecting and Exhibiting Cultures'.

While it is possible to study each module on a free-standing basis, they have been designed to act as a pattern of study, beginning in the 20th Century in 'Myths', moving back to look at the 19th Century in 'Collecting Cultures' and then moving up to the present from the historical period of nation formation in the 19th Century in 'Cultural Difference'. It is hoped and desired that students do not view this pattern in a historically progressive sense but instead develop a broader picture of the issues and debates involved from a number of historical and critical perspectives. Current art historical and theoretical methodologies will be introduced throughout the differing levels of study as and when they are required. For instance, notions developed by contemporary scholars, such as James Clifford's idea of the observer-participant and Nicholas Thomas' notion of the differing viewpoints between settler-colonialism and other forms of colonialism, have already been discussed and debated within the first level of the programme as taught this semester. Issues of art and identity will inevitably be raised in each module developed under the GLAADH initiative as practised here at the University of Plymouth and not just in the single module (Cultural Difference) whose remit might indicate this topic as its main focus.

Most of the research focus has centred on developing the new module for validation, ARHI 220/320; and, as it has evolved, it has become linked to the 'World Cultures' display at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. This collaborative aspect was part of the initial plan for the project and the Museum's current input has been important and effective. Len Pole, the senior ethnographer at Exeter's museum, has given the first level students a talk on the collection as part of the 'Myths' module and both he and Jane Burkinshaw, assistant curator, have made themselves available to students as a resource and as a point of access to the archives of the collection. Writing, drafting and revising the new module prior to validation was a rather hurried process as our University deadlines were put in place long before GLAADH initiative funding was agreed for us. Thus, early in the academic year Dr. Pratt was required to submit documentation (roughly end of October 2002) and the initial validation was approved. The actual research for the module was on-going but made easier once funds were able to be deployed in the department to gain relief from teaching duties for Dr. Pratt (Spring semester 2003).

GLAADH funding was sought to relieve her from one 20 credit module or two 10 credit modules to be taught over the year. (Dr. Pratt was on a research sabbatical in Autumn 2002). She was very much supported in her research by the bought out time and also by the existing resources for study as found in the University of Plymouth's libraries, the local Exeter library, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum's archives, Exeter University library. There was also a certain amount of funds for any inter-library loans required. In terms of gaining the apposite and appropriate secondary resources in the form of books and articles she has been very well supported by the local collections. We are aware as a department however that in terms of visual and material culture that the students will be required to travel occasionally to other collections within the south of England. Such travel will enable them to gain a broader knowledge of the cultures they are studying and will also provide them with comparative museological data.

In total Dr. Pratt has spent most of the free time available this year (2002 - 2003) on developing and implementing the modules in question. Although her other teaching duties extend to topics such as the Italian Renaissance and some MA student tutorials, she has had sufficient relief to give time to the project and as such, feels that she has had a timetable dedicated to its successful realisation. The funding was crucially important in allowing her to implement changes to the curriculum and to negotiate a new relationship between the University and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum. Such changes in orientation inevitably require painstaking preparation and the GLAADH support was important in freeing up her timetable to do this. Constraints have been few, but one area that wasn't allowed for or foreseen was the need to agree with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum staff and management precise allocations of time and support on their part as well as agreeing on group numbers and sizes.

As the new proposals were being drafted and/or the new teaching material rolled out, feedback was sought from our undergraduate community about the changes. The syllabus and title of each module reflect these consultations, the tenor of which has been overwhelmingly positive about the GLAADH initiative.

Evaluation

As of this date, the project has achieved many of its aims, which were essentially to increase the diversity of materials and artistic cultures studied within our curriculum. Because of the time required to introduce new modules and validate them in accordance with University of Plymouth procedures (usually requiring one academic year) we have not yet been able to teach the newly written course, ARHI 220/320 'Collecting and Exhibiting Cultures in the Nineteenth Century', but will have done so by the end of autumn semester 2003. The remaining courses being developed for the project, not requiring prior validation, and particularly CART 100 'Myths of Primitivism', were well received by students whose comments have been generally very supportive. These assessments regarding 'Myths of Primitivism' were reached both by informal discussion with students during the semester and by the responses they gave to a course evaluation sheet handed out at the end of the semester. Space was left on the evaluation sheet for students to add their own comments and suggestions. Overall, most expressed approval of the course structure, the course title, the general content, inclusion of seminar work as well as lectures, and the interest/challenges it offered. Some of the most positive comments came about in reference to the 'collections' activity and the insights gained by the experience.

Based on the positive responses received in this first run of the module, this is an aspect of the course to be repeated and enhanced next year. Another successful aspect was the relationship with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, its staff, curators and resources. Students felt that sessions held in the museum and the lectures and talks given by museum staff were immeasurably useful. The aspects of this module which students felt might be better managed or improved upon reflected the necessity of introducing the course at this level. Many of them were unfamiliar with the concepts involved and felt initially that their ignorance militated against their successfully completing the assignments. Weaker students, in this respect, were helped to overcome their lack of familiarity with weekly readings and a carefully structured introduction of topics on a week-by-week basis. Focused discussions in the lectures and seminars also advanced the level of debate and the deeper comprehension of the ideas and values requiring elucidation in any discussion of this area.

That said, more remains to be done. Some of the weaker students, irrespective of the structured nature of the course, found the challenge of responding to aspects of visual culture unfamiliar to them especially formidable. Even with such positive student evaluation as was received, it is still early days yet to be able to determine the effects of the type of course material being introduced under the GLAADH initiative here. Perhaps it will be an easier task once this current Level One group reach the final stages of their degree (2005) and are able to assess what sort of impact the change in the curriculum has had on their studies. We have always had a number of students in each year group with an interest in wider art cultures beyond the European and Western centres. It would be enlightening to see how many of the current Level One group develop a personal research interest in cultures from outside Europe and North America, perhaps even going on to write undergraduate dissertations on a more extensive range of artistic and cultural practices.

Many of the Level One group also expressed their surprise at the course content of 'Myths of Primitivism' feeling that their expectations were generally exceeded. Some students, having worked through Western culture's appropriation of the arts of the world commented that they would now like to be able to study these cultures 'for their own sake.' We are pleased, therefore, that the Myths of Primitivism module has taken students from a Euro-centric and narrow conception of the arts towards this conclusion, critically informed of the partiality of the West's dealings with the arts (and peoples) of the world. In 2003-4 and subsequent years, we intend to address this issue in an early session of the module where students will be asked to air their own views on studying the arts of the world 'for their own sake' and to return to this question at the end of the module.

For the very best students the module 'Myths of Primitivism' has allowed them to truly explore the range of responses to cultures from outside the West and to find appropriate and critical ways of writing about such cultures and their arts. To mention but one example, a student decided to write a fully-referenced poem speaking through a particular Northwest Coast Tlingit art object in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum collections which told of the multi-layered and multi-vocal basis for what we find displayed in museums. It was a highly thought-provoking and truly original piece of work, bidding to escape the normative framework of western academic discourse. We are extremely encouraged by such an open, respectful and well-researched response from a student who is willing to take risks in presenting her ideas. For the others the module has challenged their expectations and helped them recognize the problems inherent in a 'westernised' history of art that has in the past condoned certain exclusions and biases. The feeling overall from the responses gathered from students and the standard of work they have produced is that the module 'Myths of Primitivism' is generally successful and can be continued to be deployed in much the same way as has occurred this year.

The other revised module, 'Cultural Difference', offered at Level Three has not required as much work. From its inception a decade or so ago, the module aimed to examine the place of the visual arts in constructions of national, regional or other identities. By emphasising the activities of modern and contemporary artists in or outside the western conception of modern art, the course aims to offer students the chance to engage with the complex cultural negotiations associated with a variety of practices. We have found it essential that these activities, whether western or not, are examined alongside each other, because by this means we can begin to situate African, Native American and Aboriginal art practices in a historically specific context, responding and contributing to ideas about cultural identity, value and impact. The module helps to redeem so-called 'non-western' art from residual notions of anonymity, cultural inertia and historical transcendence, positioning it instead as a varieform phenomenon, whose social, political and cultural positioning is as complex as anything seen in the west. Theoretically, the module aims to provide students with the means to apply a variety of theoretical models to emergent art practices and to assess the west's evaluation of them.

In conclusion, the entire department feels that the GLAADH sponsored project here at the University of Plymouth has been well worth it. The overall aims and objectives of the GLAADH initiative, its highly expert and responsive support and the manner in which it delivered that support have all dovetailed nicely into an already emerging culture of change here. More than anything else, the now growing relationship with the local Exeter museum, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, has been the added bonus of the project. We believe that this relationship will continue to grow and develop as the project reaches full maturity. Our students can only gain by efforts made to cement and maintain our links with this vital local resource. It may also act as the base from which other links might be formed with relevant material found in other collections across the region. (Including, for example, collections held either at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, Dartington College of Arts or at Bristol City Museum.) This continuing development of the art history curriculum at the University of Plymouth, based on and extending from the World Cultures collections at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, could be our model for good practice. We hope it will be the foundation on which we can develop further our teaching curriculum and the kinds of undergraduate degree qualifications we can offer.

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