Our A level History of Art course has been one of our most popular courses since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Dr Leah Clark, Senior Lecturer in Art History at the Open University, explores the reasons why studying art history is important and the skills that it can help you develop.

Many think that Art History belongs to a small elite. But the skills you learn in Art History are applicable across a range of fields and sectors and go far beyond the museum walls. 

So first, let’s take one of the fundamentals of Art History: visual analysis. The ability to closely scrutinise images and using the right vocabulary to describe what you are seeing are important skills that can be applied in everyday situations (like looking at how an image in the media is staged to send a particular message). These visual literacy skills can also be applied to areas beyond Art History, such as in medical education where medical students who take Art History classes are better able to diagnose conditions through improved observation skills. (Read more about how a trustee of the Association for Art History Suzy Lishman’s OU Art History courses enhanced her work as a pathologist).

Secondly, Art History is about context: Art Historians have to do detective work about the period in which a work of art was produced to understand its context. What did it mean for contemporary viewers, patrons, and artists? How does art influence society and culture? Art Historians have to build up a case like a lawyer has to: they need to construct a logical argument based on physical evidence. But it also goes beyond the physical evidence. Art Historians often have to also delve deep into other disciplines to understand the context of a work, from economics to gender studies.  

How do you study art history at a distance?

The Open University has been providing distance-learning courses on Art History for decades: some free on OpenLearn and others as part of our MA and BA degrees. The skills outlined above can be learned in a number of ways: in front of a work of art as well as through digital means and textbooks. For example, our project, Open Arts Objects has over 50 open access films on select works of art, which supports the teaching and learning of art history in schools, universities, and in your home (these are used in NEC’s online A level History of Art and Pearson’s A level curriculum). Some of our handling sessions with curators take you behind the scenes into the conservation rooms in museum and galleries across the UK, making you feel as if you’re right there in the room with the work of art. It’s also important to remember that art is not only the stuff on gallery walls, but can be found anywhere: from the statue on your local village green to the buildings you live, study, or work in. Our mission at the OU is to widen participation in Art History, with aims to democratise a discipline that has long been seen as elitist and Eurocentric.

NEC’s A level History of Art makes available a course that is often not an option in schools around the UK. This innovative and interactive online course makes accessible a subject that can lead to so many different careers. The course was developed in partnership with the Association for Art History and written in collaboration with subject experts from Art History in Schools. Learn more by visiting the course page.

What can you do with art history? 

There are many paths:

  • Conservator
  • Heritage manager
  • Museum/gallery curator
  • Museum/gallery exhibitions officer
  • Academic librarian
  • Archivist
  • Arts administrator
  • Picture researcher
  • Advertising
  • Social media marketing
  • Design
  • Art Law
  • Exhibit installation
  • Museum marketing
  • Artist management
  • Art consultant
  • Art restoration
  • Exhibit installation
  • Fashion designer
  • Film and television
  • Architect
  • Practising artist
  • Teacher 
  • Lecturer

Skills and insights gained in art historical studies can be applied to other careers such as:

  • Lawyers
  • Bankers
  • Actors
  • Writers
  • Doctors
  • Accountants
  • Politicians

Are you an Open University student looking to study with NEC? Are you an NEC student looking to go on to study with the Open University. Click here to learn how you can save 10% on course fees.

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