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A Talking Point: the importance of art history for all

With a master’s degree in the subject, Emma Mansell, Inigo’s Managing Director, understands first-hand the power and pleasures of studying art history. As our partnership with Art History Link-Up continues, she ponders questions on the topic, put to her by the charity’s chief executive, Rose Aidin

A Talking Point: the importance of art history for all

Art history has the power to unlock worlds, to broaden perspectives and to tap into new ways of thinking, which is why Art History Link-Up has dedicated itself to making the subject accessible to everyone. It’s something our managing director, Emma Mansell, knows from personal experience. As our partnership with the educational charity gets underway, Emma sat down with Art History Link-Up’s Rose Aidin to discuss the impact art history has had on her life and career.

Rose Aidin:
 Why do you think studying art history is important?

Emma Mansell: Studying art history equips you with alternative methods of connecting with history, as well as wider cultural traditions. Because it’s so rooted in the visual, it feels universal and accessible, as opposed to the largely text-heavy approach of a history education.

The combination of visual source materials with the analytical approach of art history means you’re never looking or learning in isolation – instead, you’re tapping into an extensive view of a culture. Being able to take particular images or artworks and use them as a frame of reference to look at broader ideas – social, scientific or political, for instance – helps you understand issues through all sorts of lenses. It’s so important to be exposed to different interpretations of history.

Rose: What makes art history an exciting and relevant subject to young people today, in your opinion? Have the events and developments of the past two years, living through a pandemic, changed this at all?

Emma: Studying art history gives you the critical tools to make sense of both the past and the present – as while not every culture has produced written history, they’ve all produced visual histories of some sort.

There’s something very tangible about it – not least as so often it involves standing in front of paintings in galleries. That experience is hard – if not impossible – to replicate properly online. I know the Art History Link-Up students were studying virtually until recently; I would love to know if they felt a marked difference.

We’ve been deprived of attending exhibitions in recent years, so I am finding being able to go to museums once again hugely exciting. There’s nothing like a gallery; you feel connected there – part of a global audience of people looking at things. But there’s also a thrill to be had in noticing things that perhaps other people don’t at first glance.

Rose: Why did you decide to study art history at university?

Emma: I loved studying fine art at school. Making my own pieces gave me the opportunity to understand how ideas are born. But, as is the case with so many other state-supported schools, my school didn’t offer art history as an A-level. When it came to applying to university, I was trying to make the decision of whether to study maths or art history – the advice from my teachers was to go for the more familiar option: maths. Ultimately, though, I made a heart-over-head decision. It was absolutely the right one for me.

I do think there are more similarities between art history and maths than you might expect, though. While seemingly on opposing ends of the academic spectrum, they both have a universality – through images and numbers respectively – that entirely text-based studies lack – and there is undeniably a great degree of creativity, in perhaps more abstract or analytical ways, to be found in both.

Rose: What do you think was the most useful skill you gained studying art history? Has it helped you in your working life and, if so, how?

Emma: I learned to look closely at things. In the most literal sense, I was studying paintings and sculptures in great detail, but it also taught me to pay attention to the finer details of things in everyday life – a spreadsheet, for instance, or a report. That was a vital thing to learn generally, but it’s been of particular use in my roles at Inigo and The Modern House.

Learning to layer different types of information – and finding connections between them – can give you an incredible overview of just about anything. It’s useful in so many ways, from how to articulate an idea to creating a convincing case for why something makes sense – and how.

Rose: What do you think studying art history has given you more broadly? Was there any teacher or lesson that was particularly inspiring – and why?

Emma: My master’s degree in art history focused on the intersection between art and science in late-Victorian Britain. I looked at the scientific concepts relating to both the mind and the body that emerged at that time, many of which drew from theories about the natural world. I found it fascinating to learn about how, both subconsciously and consciously, these concepts were woven into the art and literature of the time – and how, most interestingly, they intersected.

Rose: Why is Inigo working with Art History Link-Up? And what do you hope will come from the partnership? Where would you like to see the study of art history in 10 years’ time – and why?

Emma: Both the wider Inigo team and I understand, many of us first-hand, that studying art history has more to offer than it might appear on the surface – not least given the fact it lacks a firm place on the secondary-school curriculum. There is quite clearly a troubling disconnect between those likely to study and write the subject and those that created the visual subject matter in the first place. A good example of this is non-Western art studied through a Western lens. That’s very problematic.

I studied art history because I found the universality of the field appealing. But it’s important not to conflate certain histories with others. In short, the study of art history should perpetually allow for a diverse set of people to be heard and to engage and learn within a wide and rich narrative.

Rose: What advice for the future would you give young people studying art history now?

Emma: I’d say that this is most likely the only time in your life that you can spend as much time in galleries and museums as you desire, with a legitimate reason for doing so!

I didn’t make the most that during my studies. It passed me by how much of a special time that was. So go and see as much as you possibly can, explore different places and mediums and think broadly about the wider context of all of the artworks you experience.

Rose: What is your favourite museum or gallery?

Emma: I love visiting the Hayward Gallery on Southbank. The last exhibition I saw there was Mixing It Up: Painting Today. It was the first time I braved a gallery post-pandemic, which made it feel extra-special.

Further reading

Art History Link-Up

Credits

National Gallery photography: Ed Hands

Artwork credits, from top: Anthony van Dyke, Inigo Jones, no date. National Portrait Gallery; William Nicholson, The Nailsea Jug, 1920. Bridgemans; installation view of ‘Mixing It Up: Painting Today’ at Hayward Gallery, 2021. Courtesy of Hayward Gallery. Photo: Rob Harris; Lubaina Himid, The Captain and The Mate, 2017-2018 © the artist (2021). Image courtesy the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London. Photo: Andy Keate

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