We caught up with Maialen to find out more about her research project, her experience at the Warburg, and why she recommends the Institute as a place to study.
You’re currently undertaking a collaborative Doctoral Award project. Could you tell us more about this?
This Collaborative Doctoral Award, funded by Midland4Cities, is co-supervised between the University of Warwick and Birmingham Museums Trust. My supervision team is composed of Professor Louise Bourdua and Dr Rosie Dias at the University of Warwick. My supervisors at Birmingham Museums Trust, the partner organisation, are Dr Rebecca Bridgman (Curatorial and Exhibition manager) and Victoria Osborne (Fine Art curator).
The collaborative nature of this doctoral project has allowed me to receive training in object handling and cataloguing at the Midlands Collection Centre, to join curatorial meetings, and to present my research at staff briefings. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) is currently undergoing refurbishment and redisplay, and there will be further opportunities to work closely with the curatorial, conservation, and exhibition team to incorporate my research findings in the new displays.
What is the focus of your PhD research?
My doctoral research focuses on Birmingham’s Italian Renaissance and Baroque decorative art collection. The collection was purchased by Sir John Charles Robinson and Sir Whitworth Wallis between 1881 and 1889, and was one of the first to be exhibited at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) when it opened in 1885. The collection, which comprises more than 300 items, is composed of metalwork, textile, glass, ceramic, and furniture objects. Birmingham’s decorative art collections were created with the intention of educating the city’s late nineteenth-century artisans and manufacturers about design and crafting techniques. My thesis studies BMAG’s acquisition strategy to understand what motivated the purchase of a large Renaissance and Baroque decorative art collection so early in the life of the Museum, and why it was considered relevant and important for the city of Birmingham.
I am also investigating the provenance of the collection. Robinson and Wallis both travelled to Italy to acquire works, but very little is known about their purchasing practices: were they bulk-buying, or were they following specific criteria when selecting artworks? Some of the Italian dealers whom these artworks were acquired from – such as Stefano Bardini, Tito Gagliardi and Salvatore Salvadori – were prominent actors in the nineteenth-century art market. The collection’s provenance was not limited to Italian art dealers, however. Archival research reveals that artworks were acquired from British dealers and auction houses, museums, and commercial sources. Finally, my thesis will analyse the reception of the collection when it was first exhibited. I will assess its role in artistic education and training, and examine how various audiences (museum professionals, students, artisans, manufacturers) responded to the collection.
Overall, my thesis aims to situate BMAG and its collections within broader historical narratives of nineteenth-century collecting, and to shift the focus from London’s national collections to regional and city collections.
What key things have you learnt while undertaking this project?
The more I visit archives, the more I become convinced that there are three components to archival research: meticulous planning, experience, and serendipity. It’s often when requesting one last document “because you never know” or when going through a file “just in case it might contain something interesting” that I have found the most relevant material. Talking about my research with archivists has always been very fruitful, and they have often suggested looking at sources which I did not know existed or had not considered using as part of my research.
Learning from other PhD students, seeing how they conduct their research, and bouncing ideas off each other has also been very helpful – and enjoyable – throughout my PhD journey so far. Sometimes it’s from people studying entirely different time periods and topics that I have received the best feedback or advice. Never underestimate the value of an external viewpoint!
Finally, starting a PhD in October 2020 has required a lot of patience and adaptability while waiting for archives, museums and libraries to reopen after the pandemic.
Prior to beginning your PhD, you also worked as an Object Intelligence Researcher at Christie’s. What did you enjoy most about this role?
As an Object Intelligence Researcher in the Impressionist and Modern Art department, I enjoyed being part of a dynamic and fast-moving environment. The nature of the role meant that I was involved both in long-term projects, such as consolidating knowledge on the provenance and ownership of artworks, and in supporting the team of Specialists before and after the sales.
My favourite aspect of the role was the fact that it was object focused. Whether I was carrying out provenance research, updating the systems with new intelligence, or surveying sale results, I was exposed to artworks in every aspect of the role, which trained my eye to recognise styles and identify authorship quickly. The sales were always an exciting time because it meant seeing these artworks in the flesh – albeit for a fleeting moment before they found a new owner. Although my studies and PhD research have led me to study Renaissance art, I have always had an interest for artistic movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I enjoyed the opportunity of using catalogue raisonnés to conduct provenance research to gain in-depth knowledge about artists and familiarise myself with their oeuvre.
What did you study at the Warburg Institute, and did your experience equip you with the skills and knowledge to pursue a PhD?
Most definitely. The catalogue entry, which was the assignment for the module ‘Curating at the National Gallery’, introduced me to the challenges of researching and writing about an artwork’s provenance, attribution, and condition at a professional level. Inspired by this exercise, I have decided to include a small selection of object case studies written in the style of catalogue entries in my thesis. The training in palaeography, languages, and archival research received during the MA further equipped me with the essential and necessary skills to conduct doctoral research. This allowed me to start consulting primary material in the first few weeks of my PhD without the need for any transition.
While undertaking your PhD, you also took part in one of our online short courses - ‘Renaissance Art and Material Culture,’ led by Rembrandt Duits. Did the course impact your current research?
Absolutely. The course examined a vast array of objects, ranging from everyday objects to luxurious items, which allowed me to gain a strong understanding of Renaissance craftmanship and methods of production. This tied in with my research questions concerning the quality and types of objects acquired for the Birmingham museum, and was an excellent preparation for my upcoming object handling sessions at the Midland Collection Centre. The course also explored Renaissance people's relationship to material culture and art, which created an interesting parallel with nineteenth-century discussions on decorative arts and their place in a museum or gallery.
Do you have any particularly fond memories of your time at the Warburg Institute?
I remember feeling welcomed into its remarkable research community from the very first day. MA students, despite spending only a year at the Institute, are regarded as valued members of this community, which cements a strong sense of belonging to the Institute and within the cohort. I always looked forward to the Institute’s weekly ‘rituals’, such as the Work in Progress seminar or the Tea Time Talks, which allowed us to come together and learn about each other’s research. The diverse cultural and academic backgrounds of students in my cohort led to many fascinating conversations and a supportive atmosphere – both academically and outside the classroom.
Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place to study, and why?
The Institute is a wonderful and unique environment to study in because it brings the library, the Photographic Collection, the Archive, researchers, and students together under one roof, sparking stimulating and inspiring conversations. MA students are never confined to their programme of study and benefit from the Institute’s multidisciplinary research. I enjoyed the great combination of art history modules, practical research skills, and training in curatorial practice offered by the MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture. The set of skills and knowledge that I acquired from studying on this MA programme had a direct impact on both my professional experience at Christie’s and my current doctoral research.
What advice would you give to graduating students?
Keep feeding your curiosity about History, Art, and the Renaissance – even if you do not pursue a career in academia or the art industry, the incredible set of skills and knowledge that you have gained at the Warburg Institute will always stay with you.
Do you have any future plans?
I am planning on submitting in December 2024, so the next year and a half will be dedicated to finalising my archival research and writing the thesis. Let’s see what the future holds after that!
Maialen Maugurs completed her MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture at the Warburg Institute in 2018, after which, she worked in the Impressionist and Modern Art department at Christie's. She is currently completing her Collaborative Doctoral Award at the University of Warwick in partnership with Birmingham Museums Trust (funded by Midlands4Cities). Her thesis is titled 'New Collecting Narratives: Birmingham Museums' Italian Renaissance and Baroque Decorative Arts Collections.'