Feeling of loss as History of Art scrapped

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History of Art students were sad to discover last week that the History of Art programme as we know it is being phased out after running successfully for over 20 years. The Level 1 modules were taught for the last time in the year 2019-20 and the Level 2 modules will end with this academic year. Current students will still be able to do a dissertation and work placement in History of Art next year; however, there will be no ‘taught’ Level 3 modules running.

History of Art has never been run as a full degree programme, with the majority of its students enrolled on the Liberal Arts programme or taking History of Art as optional modules alongside their main programme of study. Liberal Arts students will therefore be most affected by the phasing out of this programme. Many had intended to focus their final year on History of Art and, without knowing that these changes were imminent, had dropped other subjects accordingly.

The decision has left students feeling that their voices are not valued by the University

The History of Art programme began at Durham with the arrival of Anthony Parton 22 years ago and soon flourished into a much loved ‘mini-department’ with hundreds of students enrolled across the various modules. Many of these students have gone onto complete History of Art MAs at prestigious institutions such as the Courtauld Institute of Art, as well as going onto have successful careers in the sector. Sam Raybone, who is now a History of Art lecturer, can still pinpoint the moment that he fell in love with the discipline: “It was a gloomy day in Elvet Riverside and Dr Parton was explaining how the gentle landscapes of Impressionism were actually traces of the birth of our modern world. I’d never looked at art that way; it felt like magic.”

Although some students came to Durham specifically to study these modules, others discovered them upon arrival and it completely changed their academic paths, as well as the trajectory of their careers. One such example is that of Samantha Rowe, who upon arriving in Durham in 2003 soon recognised that Dr Parton was an “exceptional” lecturer and proceeded to change her degree to combined honours to allow as many of the History of Art modules as possible. To this day, these modules remain much loved by students and for many are the academic highlight of their time at Durham.

Given that studying these modules has been such an enriching and enjoyable experience for so many, it is understandable that students are frustrated that these changes are happening. In order to mitigate the financial effects of Covid-19, the University has implemented certain measures, such as voluntary pay cuts for staff and voluntary severance, which has led to the only full-time member of staff within the History of Art programme leaving part way through this academic year. This has left many of the level 2 and 3 students distressed as they prepare for their exams. Students were not consulted by central University authorities at any stage of the decision making process and for many students, final year modules they had expected to study have now been taken away. As the History of Art programme has continually received excellent student evaluations, the decision has come as a surprise to many and left students feeling that their voices are not valued by the University.  

In an attempt to compensate for the loss of this beloved programme, new arts modules will be arriving next year, adding to the existing Visual Arts modules to form a fully-fledged programme. Students will then be able to enrol on a new BA in Visual Arts and Film within MLaC. These modules, which will include the ‘Spanish Imaginary’ and one looking at the relationships between Art, Nature and Ecology, will be a great addition to the arts at Durham University. Although future students will surely benefit from these modules, current History of Art students are uncertain about how they will follow on from the tuition they have received thus far. 

These modules remain loved by students and for many are the academic highlight of their time at Durham

Despite these new modules, current and past students alike cannot help but mourn the loss of the programme as we have known it. The personal element of the department will be sorely missed, in particular the incredible support of Hazel Donkin and Anthony Parton. As notes, “the staff were incredibly supportive and wonderful” and “truly dedicated to each of their students”. When asked about her experience of History of Art at Durham, remarks how she has “gained not just an education about artworks, but a lifelong appreciation for art.” She continues that “these modules have really broadened my perspective, not only on art, but my outlook in general – on culture, history, philosophy, and even on life itself”. The departure of Anthony Parton will be felt as a huge loss, with one student describing him as “an inspirational lecturer, combining enthusiasm with humour, passion and insight.” 

As students, our overwhelming sentiment is that of gratitude. We feel so lucky to have studied these modules, with one student commenting that it has been “an honour and a privilege.” Although we are excited about the new Visual Arts programme, we are saddened that future students at Durham will not have the wonderful experience that we have had studying History of Art.

Image of Claude Monet’s Meules: Peter via Flickr.

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