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Guide to Studying the History of Art, Architecture & Design

russian embroidery
Russian embroidery © Helen Shigonova - Fotolia
History of Art has expanded to
include decorative and applied arts.

What is the History of Art, Architecture and Design?

  • The History of Art is a relatively new discipline within universities, where it began to be taught systematically in the late 19th century, but accounts of art’s historical and geographical manifestation have been offered since at least the first century.
  • These accounts and the Renaissance texts that followed self-consciously emphasised art’s development and progress, via a 'canon' of great artists and masterpieces which represented telling examples of art’s symbiotic relationship with the society in which it was produced. 
  • From the late 18th century onwards, the study of that relationship increasingly drew upon other bodies of knowledge (including archaeology and philosophy), often within historical accounts of different national cultures. 
  • Scientific methods also began to be used in order to identify and describe works of art, within museums and art galleries as well as universities.

The History of Art therefore emerged as an intellectual discipline which involved – and continues to involve – both the close analysis of art and its interpretation as a telling product of human societies.

  • As it became more widely studied during the 20th century, the History of Art also became the diverse and dynamic discipline it is today, drawing on psychology, psychoanalysis, sociology and anthropology (amongst other disciplines). 
  • Since the 1980s at least, this interdisciplinary character has been matched to a growing awareness of the need to find adequate ways of understanding art and its consumption beyond the previously-accepted 'canon' of high art, as for example with the works of female artists and other social groups previously overlooked within the History of Art or with artefacts produced in the world beyond Western Europe and North America. 
  • Increasingly concerned with the visual arts as a global phenomenon, art historians’ longstanding focus on works of painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture has also expanded to include photography, film, decorative and applied arts, as well as installation and performance art. 
  • Yet while few art historians would now consider the art they study to be indicative of a culture’s moral, social or economic development as their early counterparts did, most continue to understand art as a highly significant product of the broader culture or society in which it is made and consumed.

Specific or general skills developed

  • A solid understanding of art as a highly significant product of the broader culture or society in which it is made and consumed.
  • Ability to produce thoroughly researched and confidently written documents.
  • Interpretation and presentation of ideas and theories.
  • Skillful visual presentation.
  • Courses offering a year abroad will give you appreciation of different cultures, and independence.
  • Closer to home, work placements or internships organised by your department will give valuable real-life experience.

Why study the History of Art, Architecture and Design

  • A History of Art degree is typically a challenging, engaging and creative experience undertaken by students with a wide range of backgrounds and interests, and from which graduates successfully go on to a variety of careers, in law, publishing, media and education as well as museums and the commercial art world. 
  • Besides its intellectual advantages (which will include a solid understanding of the historical experiences and ideas to which art gives form in different periods and places), a History of Art degree offers students a number of professional skills, not least the production of carefully-considered, well-supported and confident arguments in writing, presentation and visual display. 
  • The History of Art is therefore very far from being the undemanding preserve of wealthy students or the self-indulgent luxury with few career prospects sometimes imagined within the mainstream media. 
  • Yes, it means studying a subject which also gives you pleasure – but this is the icing on the cake of an academic experience which pushes you to look closer, think harder, and express your findings with greater clarity, sophistication and force, all in the interests of achieving a more profound understanding of human history.

Coursework, assessments and exams

  • History of Art students are usually taught in small-group seminar modules (or courses) focused on particular periods, issues or themes in art, in which tutors encourage students to analyse images, discuss the topic in question and give presentations to the class. 
  • Tutors might also take students to see artworks in situ, whether in trips to museums, galleries and architectural sites in the UK or overseas, or within the art collections associated with some History of Art departments themselves. 
  • During the first and second years of the History of Art degree, seminar modules are usually complemented by larger lecture modules which offer students a broad overview of art and its histories, as well as the variety of approaches (or methodologies) used by art historians. 
  • History of Art modules are usually assessed through a mixture of essays, classes presentations and exams, though this will vary between departments. 
  • Some departments will also enable students to take a number of modules elsewhere in the university, for example in English Literature, History, Philosophy or a foreign language, and this can be a good way of developing skills needed for your studies as well as your future career. 
  • During the final year of their degree, History of Art students are usually encouraged to focus on a number of topics that are studied in-depth, within intensive modules and often within a written dissertation.
  • History of Art students therefore commonly graduate with real expertise and confidence in several areas of the discipline, supported by a wide knowledge of art more generally. 
  • You can get a sense of the kinds of topics you might study within a particular History of Art department by looking at the interests and approaches of its academic staff, described on its webpages. 
  • Increasingly, History of Art students also graduate with some experience gained through internships or paid work related to their studies or career plans (often within museums and galleries including those associated with their department), in positions which their universities may have helped find. It’s therefore worth finding out about the extra-curricular opportunities and career support, alongside the type of modules and academic support, offered by departments.

What degree can I get? 

  • BA (Hons) in the History of Art.
  • Examples of joint degrees include History of Art with Gallery and Museum Studies, History of Art and Literature, Film Studies and Art History, Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History.

What qualifications do I need?

  • Universities often expect History of Art applicants to have studied at least one essay-writing subject at A level or equivalent (for example, History or English Literature).
  • Otherwise the range of subjects studied at school or college is rarely specified and applications are typically welcomed from potential students with diverse academic backgrounds. 
  • That might include an A level in History of Art or Fine Art (both of which enable students to hit the ground running when they start a History of Art degree) but neither subject is usually a requirement.

Use our Course Chooser to search through History of Art, Architecture & Design courses.

Tips for your university application

  • Admissions tutors will look for personal statements which show that you have not just the interest but also the motivation required to look, read and find out about art, architecture and/or design for yourself. 
  • If you’re thinking about applying for a History of Art degree, it’s therefore worth considering how best to communicate that motivation, for example by describing instances when you’ve engaged independently with a particular artwork, building or exhibition and what it was that you learnt from that experience. 
  • A few History of Art departments still interview applicants but all will be keen to welcome you, tell you more about themselves and answer your questions at one of their pre- or post-offer visit days.

What are the postgraduate opportunities?

  • Postgraduate opportunities in this subject include full-time, part-time and distance research and taught programmes across a wide range of subjects.
  • The University of East Anglia, for example, offers postgraduate taught and research courses in World Art Studies and Museology; or you could focus on the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.
  • Each university will have different areas of specialism, ranging from History of Art, to Aesthetics, and Antiques.

Graduate job prospects

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*Professional employment refers to a job or occupation which normally requires a degree.
**Non-professional employment refers to a job or occupation which doesn't normally require a degree.

What are the job opportunities?

  • A wide variety of careers are open to graduates, including law, publishing, media, education, museums, and the commercial art world.

For more information

  • Visit the webpages of History of Art, Architecture and Design departments in various universities to get an idea of what areas of the subject are studied where.
  • Association of Art Historians (AAH), promoting the professional practice and public understanding of art history.

By Dr Monks, Department of Art History and World Art Studies, University of East Anglia.