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  • Writer's pictureLondon Museums Group Team

History of Art becomes History

Originally posted in 2016 #LMGBlogArchive #LMGBlogArchiveProjectby Joe Sullivan

Joe Sullivan is the Heritage Outreach Officer (Engagement & Interpretation) at the RAF Museum. Here he talks to his colleague Jo Dickinson, Education Officer at the RAF Museum and a graduate in History of Art at A Level, about the impact of the removal of the subject from the UK curriculum.

In Mid-October, it was announced that the exam board AQA would be dropping the A Level subject History of Art in 2018. AQA are the last exam board in the UK offering the subject. This news was met with concern from the art world, with the Association of Art Historians (AAH) starting a campaign against the decision. A petition, which currently has over 18,000 signatures, has also been instigated, to encourage the subject to be kept or to support the creation of a new subject by a different exam board. The AAH branded the decision “a significant loss of access to a range of cultures, artefacts and ideas for young people”.

This is an issue that may have future ramifications for museums and galleries, particularly in regards to staffing. Museums and galleries are centres of knowledge and excellence, places that the public entrusts to preserve, research and present collections of significance. When you consider the AAH statement above, it brings to mind two questions:

  1. If less people have access, could this limit the amount of expert staff in the future?

  2. Are the government sending the message that loss of access to art culture is acceptable or desirable for young people?

I sat down with Jo Dickinson, Education Officer at the RAF Museum to explore these questions further.

Jo was previously an AS and A Level History of Art student, before studying History of Art Design and Architecture at university. In her current job she engages with the public – particularly children and schools – on a daily basis, encouraging them to learn and think about the museum collections in active and imaginative ways. As such aspects of art, such as critical thinking, research, and observational skills form an important part of the education programmes and are an important tool for engaging visitors.

“Art is a great way of engaging with people and educating visitors and groups. There is tactility to art, in that you physically see things. Compared to a subject like English or Maths, in art you see ‘originals’ – this is what makes it exciting”

At the RAF Museum one of educational visits for schools involves making a gas mask box, and as with many museums, crafting activities are run during school holidays and encourage children to explore history through their artistic impulses. This enables visitors to gain the foundations for skills Jo developed to a high level through studying Art History at school and University. Studying art trains you to look at things in more depth, creating a unique, transferable skillset in the process. Access to these skills could well disappear along with the subject, and this brings us to that first point – well there be less access to art disciplines, and what knock-on effect will that create?

When Jo initially chose History of Art as an A level, she didn’t know it existed. Having not studied art at GCSE, she decided to study something artistic for A Level. Due to not having relevant GCSE’s, her tutor instead suggested trying the History of Art A Level. She went with it and “loved it!”. Taking and passing the A level meant she could go to university to continue studying. Choosing a History of Art Design and Architecture course led to her continuing studying with an MA in Museums Studies. This then led to her first job in the sector, working in visitor services at the Cube, a (now closed) art gallery in Manchester. This journey aptly describes the experience that will not be available to A Level students as of 2018. They will simply not have the opportunity to find another way into the art world, as there won’t be one. Added to this, the artistic path they will need to take will be focussed more on creation than analysis – a fantastic experience if you want to be the next Picasso, but not quite as helpful if you want to develop your critical eye. The thing that stood out to me about Jo’s career path starting with that choice to take A Level History of Art, is how she got her first job – volunteering. I’ve written before for this blog about how volunteering can be a great gateway into the heritage sector, but to put in the time and effort to learn the right skills so that you can get a job when one comes up takes dedication and passion. Jo’s dedication and passion came from having that option given to her at A Level. It excited her to study the subject further, and resulted in her volunteering at an art gallery, developing and waiting for an opportunity. This has led her to a point where she now has experience and expert knowledge to call on. How do we create this journey to creating similar experts in future without the access or starting point?

The other key concern raised regards the ‘image’ of Art, and the perceived attitude towards it by the government. One notion is that Art and other ‘soft subjects’ are viewed slightly snobbishly and seen as an ‘elitist subject’, which is why they are being culled from the curriculum. However, Jo points out that by getting rid of the subject you will inadvertently make it more elitist, due to less people having access! It also raises concerns about the intention of the government:

“It sends out the message that art subjects aren’t valued in modern society, but at same time we want to keep art galleries – the government has not shown any signs it wants to get rid of them – but where will the expertise come from to run them? Why is it a ‘soft subject’? Why is it different to English Literature? [It focuses on] the same social context and messages, and builds similar skills, e.g. criticism. [Or is the overall message] de-valuing art in general – in future are the government only going to fund science based museums?”

It seems logical that the scrapping of History of Art as an A Level option could create such problems and concerns for museums and galleries in the future, through possible losses to expert staff and through public loss of confidence in arts institutions. This seemingly boils to down to a loss of access opportunities, creating difficulty in finding a starting point for students to start gaining skills and knowledge. However, there is something of a counterpoint view to this. Jo Hall, Head of Exhibitions & Interpretation at the RAF Museum, took a BA in Art History at Goldsmiths in 1997. At that point they had just reworked the course and considered an A level in an Art subject a hindrance, as the approach to the new course was so different. They didn’t actively discourage students with an art background, but primarily wanted students to approach the course from a position of ‘higher thinking’, backed up by courses like Philosophy.  Perhaps, as this example suggests, the scrapping of History of Art could open opportunities for new ways of thinking about Art and for a wider variety of candidates to approach the topic. The long-term goals for the AAH campaign do not explicitly consider this, but it is interesting to note that they identify that widening awareness and recognition of the value of art history, within and beyond education, as key achievements.

You can join in the debate and lend your support and opinions on Twitter via #WhyArtHistoryMatters or you can sign the poll to show your support.

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