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January 23, 2012, by Gaby

Writing the History of the University

It’s been an interesting morning, talking to Lorraine Blakemore, the research assistant involved in collating information for the next volume of the History of the University. The original publication, written by Brian Tolley and published in 2 volumes, covers the period up to 1988. A lot has happened since 1988, and the decision has now been taken to bring the story of the University up to date.
Talking to Lorraine about the history of the Department of Art History in particular was quite an experience, because it invited reflection on decisions taken and strategies decided on over the past couple of decades. And you know what? While at the time of taking a particular set of decisions it often looked as if those decisions were made in reaction to a specific set of circumstances, and had very limited and short- term implications, looked at over a longer time period, many small decisions have added up to quite a series of major changes since 1988. A small department of a handful of people with very strong interests in ‘traditional’ forms of art history such as painting and architecture, focussing on ‘traditional’ periods of study such as the Italian Renaissance and British Romanticism, has transformed into a unit twice that size. That unit still retains its core emphasis on traditional media and core periods, but that is balanced with, supplemented by and enriched by approaches incorporating a variety of new media such as digital photography, film and installation art. The scope of the Department’s activities has similarly expanded exponentially, and hand in  glove with this expansion in research areas has gone a growth in student numbers. With greater student numbers has come greater reach regionally and nationally; the department is now involved in a range of activities involving Nottingham Contemporary, New Art Exchange and Lakeside here in the University. In 1988, Art History was located in the Trent Building; since then, the Department has moved from a location at the University’s South Entrance, in the Lakeside Complex, into its new and current home, the still-shiny and sparkly purpose-built Humanities building which is shared with 4 other departments (Archaeology, Classics, Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies), and located next to the Georgian glory of Lenton Grove, the venerable home of the Department of History. The move certainly marks a new chapter in the history of the Department of Art History, its sister departments in the School of Humanities and, arguably, the history of the university itself.

Spatially, the Humanities departments now form a lively node of activity in a hitherto quite marginal area of campus (with the exception of History, most departments occupied a more central zone of campus). Relocating 5 departments with their staff and students to the West Entrance, bringing them together in a highly visible, high-status, modern building, speaks clearly of the central importance of the Humanities in the perception of the University as a modern, 21st century institution.

Certainly, my morning of looking at just one thread of the rich tapestry of stories and developments that make up the History of the University, has left me with a taste for what is yet to come. When did they say that book was going to be finished? May be some time? The story continues to write itself? Well, there may be few better places to reflect on this than in the Humanities.

Posted in Humanities matters