Revisited: On studying Art History (seriously– is it a useless degree??)

It appears that the most popular post on this blog is On studying Art History (a useless degree?). In fact, one of the most common search terms I get is some derivative of “Is an art history degree useless?” Unsurprisingly, I saw a pronounced spike in this type of search around college application time. My previous post discussed what one can do with an Art History degree at a rather broad level, as I am sure that there are other things one can do with such a degree that I haven’t thought of. However, I did get one search phrase once– “is studying art history hard”– that I would like to delve into a bit more, as well as more real world analysis of what it is like to study and work in the arts.

Brilliant man, Einstein.

Let’s start with the inspiring question of “Is studying Art History hard?” Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes, but so are most areas of study. Everything requires work whether you are good at it or not, and what it really comes down to is if you care about it. Things can seem especially difficult if your mind does not operate along the lines dictated by your chosen discipline. Albert Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

For Art History, there are different skills that one needs to acquire and cultivate, including (but not limited to): memorization, which is necessary pretty much anywhere but in terms of Art History means remembering scholars’ arguments, specific artworks, events, dates, etc; analysis, or being able to look at an artwork and scrutinize how it is made, what it means, and so on; critical thinking, which is tied to analysis and basically means reading between the lines and questioning an argument or artwork; efficient communication, both in terms of writing and speaking so that one can make an effective argument. When I started grad school, I had spent most of my academic and professional careers thinking in more practical terms (and I mean practical in the “practice” sense of the word): in art conservation and collections management, there are set ways in which one handles or takes care of an object, like not touching an antique silver teapot with your bare hands. Granted, many rules in the various academic disciplines are made to be questioned, as questioning and reformulating ideas are what drives knowledge forward (and since conservation is a very scientific field, it is as open to evolving ideas as chemistry is). However, unless someone develops a better glove than nitrile, I doubt that anyone will be changing how they handle silver any time soon. Continue reading

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How the Disintegration of Naples’ Cultural Heritage Affects You

Remnants of unfinished restoration work in Santa Maria delle Grazie in Naples, Italy
(Source)

Naples, Italy has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage site for 17 years, yet the local and national government have spent years mismanaging funds and neglecting much of its cultural heritage: approximately 200 churches and other historic sites have fallen into disrepair, stripped of their furnishings (including art) and/or left to rot due to lack of funds for conservation. Recent stories about the neglect and degradation of the city’s cultural sites have been spreading across the Internet, first with the report in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and then with the English-translated rehash in The Art Newspaper. Another story in The Guardian, also published in January, discussed the arrests of two additional people in connection with the “‘premeditated, organized and brutal’ sacking” of the 16th c. Girolamini Library. It is estimated that as many as 4,000 historic documents and books have been stolen, though we may never know the full extent, as much of the library’s holdings were never properly catalogued. A petition has been initiated to strip Naples of its UNESCO status, as it is believed that the city is doing nothing to protect its heritage (though it should be noted that it is suspected that the Mafia may have some involvement, as they were behind the 2008 waste management crisis amongst many other crime issues in the area). The pillaging of the Girolamini Library prompted the director of the Vatican Museums to declare that the cultural heritage of Italy at large is vanishing, particularly in smaller institutions which do not have adequate security, and that “the cultural fabric of the country is coming apart.”

It can be easy for one to feel a detached sadness in this crisis, especially if one is separated from it by an ocean (and even more so if one is not generally engrossed by issues of cultural heritage and preservation). Indeed, The Art Newspaper‘s story in particular has a sort of “ruin porn”-air about it, with its beautiful pictures of hollowed out cathedrals and exclamation that one had better book a ticket to Naples now to see it before it completely falls apart. However, the disintegration of the cultural heritage of Naples and Italy at large is a catastrophe, not only to the Italians– to whom I can attest take extraordinary pride in their history, having witnessed it personally during my semester abroad in 2006– but to the world.  Continue reading

The Myths– and Realities– Behind the Stereotype of the Elitism of Art History

Raphael, “School of Athens” (c. 1509)
(Source)

I recently started using the app Zite on my iPad, a sort of news-related RSS feed which is programmed to cater to your reading tastes the more you use it. I naturally chose Arts and Culture as one of my top categories, and the following article, originally in The Guardian, caught my attention: “History of art: a degree for the elite?” This article was written by Joy Starkey, a third-year Art History undergraduate at Cambridge University. It seems to be more relevant to the British academic and artistic scenes, and consequently, I had a little more trouble relating to it. However, it’s main point was quite clear: art– and therefore Art History– is quite literally put on such a pedestal that it is typically seen as inaccessible for most people, thus its study is believed to be limited to the elite few. And I mean “elite” in the literal sense of the word. According to Starkey, this stereotype is particularly prevalent in England, as Art History is a popular major amongst royals and the wealthy. She additionally points to other key factors in this perceived inaccessibility: the collecting of art tends to be pastime for the rich, art is often seen as cryptic (therefore those who can decipher it clearly are privileged), and art museums– which I should note regularly brush shoulders with the wealthy in order to acquire their art for exhibition loans– are inherently “treasure-oriented” with their presentation of objects on pedestals and white walls. I certainly agree with Starkey that the appreciation and study of art does not have to be limited to the pompous and privileged (I myself come from a thoroughly middle class background). Furthermore, I do not believe that Art History has to be a niche subject, and I wholly agree with her statement that art is “anything but elitist… Art is one of the most vivid ways of viewing history — it is an intimate glimpse into someone’s world.” However, I have to counter-argue that there still are degrees of elitism in the arts sector beyond its financial prevalence as a hobby for the wealthy, and they still pervade academia.  Continue reading

Hurricane Sandy and the future plight of US museum collections

As we all know, Hurricane Sandy has left an extraordinary amount of damage and suffering in its wake. After a little more than a week, 110 people in the US are dead (with another 67 dead in the Caribbean and 2 in Canada), 350,000 in New York are still without power, and there is thought to be between $15-20 billion in damage. In the midst of all of this human (and animal) suffering at hand, everyone is understandably more concerned with working towards the safety and preservation of life. However, when power is restored, homes repaired, and lives made somewhat whole again, attention will likely turn towards more “abstract” concerns.

Flood damage in the (unfinished) 9/11 Memorial Museum
(Source)

I saw a couple stories over the weekend about how flooding in New York City affected cultural institutions. In the first story, Anderson Cooper interviewed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as they toured the 9/11 Memorial Museum site. The museum, which is mostly underground (and thankfully still empty) flooded with around 200 million gallons of water. It was roughly 5 feet deep. Another story on Bloomberg Businessweek drew attention to the millions of dollars of damage and loss of art after the basements of artists’ studios and galleries flooded (I should note that the first story I read was on CNN, but the link appears to be broken). A massive conservation triage-type effort is underway to halt further damage to works that can still be saved– indeed, conservators in the area are absolutely inundated with work– though some were simply damaged beyond repair (or the money it would take to repair and restore it would be more than the piece is worth).

There is a lot of buzz about how this storm has really brought attention to the fact that climate change is starting to manifest in more noticeable (i.e. highly destructive) ways. Sandy was literally a perfect storm of events: a hurricane + a cold front + high tides. In another article on ArtInfo on the 9/11 Memorial Museum, it talked about how museum planners knew that the museum was built in an area that was susceptible to “100-year floods.” While there was theoretically a 1% chance that the museum could flood every 100 years, the area has seen substantial flooding twice in the last 14 months. Talk of future storms is taking into account increased frequency of so-called 100-year storms and higher sea levels. In other words, the destruction that we saw from Sandy– particularly the flooding– could very likely be the tip of the iceberg of future issues along coastal lines and areas of low elevation, which also happen to be the locations of some of the biggest and most prominent museums in the US.  Continue reading

Museum review: History Colorado Center

Having fun with the ethafoam during the big CHS move-out (April 2010)

I’ve had an unusual amount of anticipation in visiting this museum, and not only because I am a huge fan of Colorado history. Fun fact of the day: I actually worked at the Colorado History Museum during the big move out (it is now known as the History Colorado Center, because switching the words “Colorado” and “History” somehow makes it sound cooler). I began there as a volunteer in September 2009, packing Ancient Puebloan pottery. I was eventually hired on in November as a full-time Collections Move Assistant in charge of the framed works, since the Collections Manager knew of my work with art conservation. I got to see much of the collection until we completed the move out in April 2010, and let me tell you: there is A LOT of stuff there. I mean an ABSURD amount of stuff, some of which was cool and some of which was a little questionable: THOUSANDS of pieces of pottery, photographs, Native American artifacts, random historical things like food tins and dolls, computer parts from the 1970’s. In all, there are about 15 million historic artifacts. The actual move out was like a marathon sprint, particularly near the end: at one point I was working 60 hours, 7 days a week, though some of my coworkers actually set up tents in the museum because their commute was so long and they had so much to get done. People cried a lot near the end, and all of us were deathly pale because we had been doing nothing but working in a basement. Despite the stress, it was a lot of fun and absolutely fascinating. It also contributed to my change in career, as I discovered that I was pretty good at keeping track of things (and also, my last rejections to art conservation school happened while I was working there).

The new History Colorado Center (Source)

The old museum was a pretty sorry excuse for one, mostly because it was never built as a proper museum facility. The Colorado Historical Society had an agreement with the Judicial Center next door that they would have a 25 year lease on the property before the facility would be torn down for a new Judicial Center. The new History Colorado Center, which opened April of this year, cost $110 million, with another $33 million for state-of-the-art displays, archival storage, and a research center. There is over 40,000 square feet of exhibition space, a whole floor of office space, and another floor for special events. The building was designed by Tryba Architects and is considered to be the finest building ever conceived by David Tryba. Considering how last-minute the move out process was, I cannot say that I am the least bit surprised that the exhibit spaces in the new museum seemed half-finished.  Continue reading

On studying Art History (a useless degree?)

As I was waking up this morning and doing my usual ritual of checking email/Facebook/Wordpress/Dragonvale, I came across a blog (which I will not link here) that featured an article from bestdegreeprograms.org. This article listed Art History as one of the “10 Degrees Hiring Managers Don’t Want to See: The College Majors That Won’t Get You an Interview.” The following degrees were also included: architecture, Latin, music therapy, theology, English literature, American studies, puppetry (wtf, that’s a degree?), and poetry. Here is a link to the article, which also referenced Rutgers, Georgetown, and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as sources contributing to the study.

Oh Donald, say it isn’t so!

Alright, so in other words, this isn’t some BS speculation that someone made up. There is actual data to back up the fact that these degrees make it difficult to find a job in an already competitive market. But this article also said that having a degree in Art History only qualifies you for one job: being a museum curator. It goes on to say that it is much more beneficial to have a degree in design, as that would give you a more valuable skill set. As soon as I read the word “curator,” I said to myself, “Clearly, whoever wrote this didn’t do much digging into the actual field of Art History.”

Continue reading

Army of cats at the Hermitage Museum

David Ryckaert III, “Peasant Woman with a Cat” (early 1640s)
(Image from The State Hermitage Museum)

Well this was refreshing to watch this morning: CNN had a video on their website about the “kitty army” that protects the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia from mice. There is a part of me (the registrar/collections manager/”dead” conservator) that was moaning “Nooooo…..” in my head. I mean, the cats protect the museum from mice, but it may not be the best idea to have them in the basement because of other potential issues, like shedding or bugs. If there are vents from the basement to the museum, the hair/bugs could make their way up to the art that way.  However, it sounds like they are well-cared for and they are kept away from the art. Continue reading