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Exploring cultural connections via history of art

By Helen Wilford

Students in the Painting Restoration Laboratories of the Vatican Museum in Rome

Art history is itself the study of the rich heritage of visual arts produced by human societies. When studying it as an IB Diploma Programme (DP) course, students get a uniquely interdisciplinary experience, with links to a wealth of other studies: literature, religion, science, architecture, language, technology, anthropology, archaeology and theatre.

IB World Schools like ours can offer DP art history as a school-based syllabus, this means that they can design their own course of study by choosing topics relevant and of interest to students. The choice of topics in the syllabus encompasses a range of world cultures. And our students develop a keen insight into those topic areas, gaining a deep knowledge and understanding by means of a core curriculum which requires analysis of artworks in a variety of ways: in terms of form, meaning and function, historical context and patronage, materials and techniques, as well as through understandings of identity.

Human cultures from the earliest times have produced art that has fulfilled a range of functions—from painting, sculpture, architecture, design, photography and applied arts, to installation, conceptual and body art. Students of DP art history can develop their understanding of artistic heritage in broad terms, from delving into scholarly sources and gaining first-hand knowledge of museum and art gallery collections, to analysing the visual imagery surrounding them in all aspects of life.

Students visit the National Gallery in London. The paintings are both by Bronzino: An Allegory with Venus and Cupid and Portrait of a Young Man

Art history gives students the means to critically engage with the images which saturate our world, to explore why they look the way they do, and to interpret their layers of meaning. And the subject links to the core of the Diploma Programme, providing tangible examples for students to discuss in theory of knowledge (TOK).

The internal assessment component, which sees students research independently a particular aspect of art history of their choice, allows students to hone research and communication skills essential to any undergraduate course of study. Indeed, many students go on the study art history at university, or are well-prepared for careers in the cultural sector.

DP art history students have this to say:

The course has made me look more closely at aspects of my city which I had always taken for granted.

Art history allows me to explore contrasts and connections between different cultures.

For my internal assessment, I researched in depth the work of an artist who has always fascinated me.

The course has given me a clearer understanding of my Christian upbringing. Now I’ve become the family expert!

I now understand why millions of tourists visit my city every year.

Doing DP art history is giving me a more complete understanding of the historical context of artworks that have inspired my own art.

I have enjoyed building up my knowledge of mythology through studying artworks.

Studying different sculpture techniques has made me appreciate the incredible skill of artists of the past.

As well as being a great learning experience, studying art history can certainly enhance personal life. As one student reflected: “I enjoy taking my family round museums, acting as their guide”.

Helen Wilford teaches DP art history at St George’s British International School, Rome