March 31, 2017, by Matt Davies

Notes on the School of Humanities slide collection, part one by Nicholas Alfrey

Art Historian Nicholas Alfrey examines a slide drawer in the DHC.

Art Historian Nicholas Alfrey examines a slide drawer in the DHC.

On Monday 3rd April student volunteers from the DHC launch their Then and Now exhibition, projecting images of Nottingham buildings from the School of Humanities’ slide collection. Projected alongside these will be digital images of the same spaces captured or created by the students themselves, creating a dialogue between images and technologies past and present, then and now.

University of Nottingham Art Historian and long time slide user Professor Nicholas Alfrey will be introducing the proceedings on Monday and here gives us part one of his insight into the slide collection, its history, functions and changing value as an archive.

The History of Art department and the Slide collection at Nottingham.

At one time most institutions involved in the teaching of art or art history would have formed slide collections, often housed in dedicated slide libraries, as an indispensable resource for their activities. Very few of these collections have survived intact, and none continue to function in their original way.  The slide collection housed in the Digital Humanities Centre in the Humanities Building at the University of Nottingham is a rare survival, valuable as a historical archive and as a repository of images, some of them unique. Digital imagery and PowerPoint presentations may have replaced the slide lecture and seminar as a teaching tool, but the collection still has great potential, both for archival explorations for new creative projects. I compiled these notes so that anyone interested in working with the collection can get some sense of how it was originally put together and used.

The collection was started in 1956 when the history of art was first established as a subject at Nottingham, and was formed along the lines of already-existing collections at the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Warburg Institute in London and other institutions. I doubt if any of the earliest slides are still in the collection: they were glass-mounted and heavy, and tended to stick in the carrousels of more lightweight modern projectors. Before the advent of remote controls, it was necessary to have a projectionist in attendance at every lecture at which slides were shown. The lecturer would instruct the projectionist verbally or by a sign when he or she wanted the next slide.

The slides were originally located in a room on the first floor of the Portland Building, overlooking the lake, known as the ‘Hogarth Room’ because it also housed a collection of prints by Hogarth. The room opened directly off the University Art Gallery, the forerunner of the Djanogly Gallery, and served as a communal study area for the department: one of the slides in the collection records its appearance. (Incidentally, the Hogarth Room once featured as a location for an episode of the television series Boon, starring Michael Elphick: I think it must have been the one broadcast in November 1989 called ‘In It for the Monet’). The slide librarian, a part-time, term-time appointment, occupied a small room at the far end. In 1992, when the department and the gallery were relocated to their new purpose-built accommodation at Lakeside, specially designed cabinets were commissioned to house the slides, presumably at considerable expense, but an indication of how significant the collection was perceived to be at that time. The new slide library was situated in the semi-circular room now occupied by the Archaeology Museum. The cabinets, together with the slides, were moved to the DHC in September 2011.

The Art Library 'Hogarth Room' in the Portland Building c.????, digitised slide from Humanities Collection.

The Art Library ‘Hogarth Room’ in the Portland Building c.1970, digitised slide from the Humanities Collection, DHC.

The main function of the slide collection was to support the teaching of art history, both on campus and in the programme of continuing education, though slides were also important for research presentations and public lectures. The collection reflects the interests, specialisms and enthusiasms of the academic staff of the department over the years, with lecturers adding to it according to their own developing concerns and projects. The history of the teaching of art history at Nottingham, at least up to the adoption of digital images, can be traced throughout the collection. This might also help to explain the various exclusions, missing pieces and blind spots: the aim was never to build up comprehensive survey even of European art, to say nothing of world art.

Many of the slides were produced by the University’s own photographic unit, in the days when it had one: they were photographed from reproductions in books, periodicals and catalogues, with images coming from obscure or hard-to-come-by sources as well as the obvious ones. The process could take several weeks: it was almost impossible to get a slide made in a hurry (difficult to imagine in the age of instant access to images on the internet).  The collection was also regularly enhanced through the slide subscription scheme run by the Courtauld Institute, in which selected works from temporary exhibitions or permanent collections would be photographed from the original: many of the highest-quality images entered the collection in this way. The St Martin’s School of Art also ran a scheme covering contemporary art exhibitions, to which the department subscribed once this area had become a regular aspect of the curriculum.

Part two of Professor Alfrey’s notes will be posted to coincide with the Then and Now next week, the private view will be in the Humanities Building 6-8pm Monday 3rd April book here and the exhibition will run throughout the following week in the DHC.

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