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A Renaissance in learning

Massacre of the Innocents. Marcantonio Raimondi. ca. 1512–13

A group of University of Manchester students are graduating not just with a degree, but also as published authors with a wealth of practical experience under their belts.

The Art History and Visual Studies BA and MA students helped to create Marcantonio Raimondi and Raphael: the first exhibition in more than 30 years on one of the Italian Renaissance’s most important printmakers, and the first ever to take place in the UK.

Running at the University’s art gallery, The Whitworth, the exhibition includes many world-class prints in excellent condition, as well as a digital feature showing off the Spencer Album of Marcantonio prints, long presumed lost and only recently rediscovered at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library by Dr Ed Wouk, Lecturer in Art History at Manchester.

Students helped to put together the concept, chose some of the objects and wrote catalogue entries. “I can’t think of another instance in which students have been so fully involved in an exhibition of this scale,” says Dr Wouk, who – together with the Whitworth’s Head of Collections, David Morris – was the driving force behind the exhibition.

“It’s fantastic that the Whitworth was willing to not only house and fund this major exhibition, but also allow an academic and his students to take over the reins for much of the work. It was the Whitworth’s willingness to unite its professional structures with us that made this exhibition and experience the unique and beautiful thing that it is.”

Dr Wouk placed this unusual and innovative learning experience at the heart of his Renaissance Print Cultures course unit, offered to third-year BA and MA Art History and Visual Studies students at the University.

The students not only engaged with world-leading research in Renaissance art history, but also worked alongside academics across the Faculty of Humanities and curators at the Whitworth, John Rylands Library and Chetham’s Library, in order to bring this research into the public realm on a major international platform.

I can’t think of another instance in which students have been so fully involved in an exhibition of this scale.

BA (Hons) French and Art History graduate Max Weaver relished the chance to undertake work that had an impact beyond his personal ambitions.

“Being able to research something for an exhibition gave me more motivation to do a good job than simply writing an essay to get a good grade,” Max says.

“Exhibitions like this are important to the public. Here, I was presented with an opportunity to write and research for the benefit of others.

“Gaining invaluable insight into the organisation of exhibitions gave me something to talk about during my job interview, and may well have contributed to getting me where I am today,” continues Max – who, after graduating from Manchester with a 2:1 this summer, is now a gallery manager at a fine art dealer in London.

Writing an entry for the exhibition catalogue – published by Manchester University Press – proved to be a challenge far removed from the students’ usual experience of academic essay-writing.

Dr Ed Wouk, Lecturer in Art History at Manchester with students at The Whitworth

Dr Ed Wouk, Lecturer in Art History at Manchester with students at The Whitworth

“The limited size of the entry meant that our research had to be concise and to the point, which could be testing at times,” reveals BA student Sophie Gordon Cumming. “But I found myself reusing this technique in my dissertation – and I am sure this is a skill I will continue to use throughout my career.”

Some of the students’ involvement – and associated skills development – has extended still further: MA student Danielle Gravon wrote a blog for Manchester University Press on her experience and is now giving public tours of the exhibition.

“Giving tours has been a lot of fun; the audiences have been really engaged and full of questions,” Danielle says. “I was really nervous when I began, because I’m not a very confident public speaker. It’s given me an opportunity to work on that.

“The public benefits, too. Visitors are guided by someone really familiar with the images, the techniques, the history of the maker, the objects and printmaking itself. The course was really thorough in that respect, and has given me a lot to give back to the public through these tours.”

Dr Wouk describes the overall experience as a “roving careers fair” for his students, who not only immersed themselves in Renaissance art and printmaking techniques, but also learned about contemporary cultural engagement work related to art history, including conservation, librarianship and publishing.

“What better way to learn than through collaborating with others in the University, working together on shared projects and with shared goals – in short, becoming students who are also partners in shaping our cultural heritage?” he asks.

“Many international experts in Renaissance art wrote essays and entries for the catalogue. I take special pride in knowing that their words appear alongside those of our own students, as true intellectual partners united by curiosity and a desire to share something of our knowledge with the world.”

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