After completing her MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture last year, Rita Yates went on to secure the Marlay Curatorial Internship at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. We caught up with Rita to talk about what she learned during her internship at the museum, her experience of studying at the Warburg and her plans for the future – including her plans to conduct her PhD research at the Warburg!
Can you tell us a bit about what your internship involved at the Fitzwilliam?
Whilst working in the Paintings, Drawings and Prints department, I was given the opportunity to contribute to all aspects of the department’s project work, from research to display. Every day was structured differently. While the focus of my role was to advance research on botanical objects by lesser known artists, I worked on a variety of exciting tasks. Some days I would be involved in project and exhibition meetings, others I would spend updating object files, gaining an insight into conservation projects, or at neighbouring institutions such as the Hamilton Kerr Institute and the University Herbarium.
What was the most valuable thing you learned during your internship?
The successful display of objects firmly depends on effective internal collaboration between curators and conservators. As an aspiring curator, it was wonderful to see the process that an object undergoes from the moment it is acquired to it being mounted and placed on display.
What was your favourite part of the internship?
I particularly enjoyed being part of two projects/activities during my internship. The first: selecting drawings to be put on display in the Dutch gallery cases, which enabled me to follow a curatorial project through from start to finish. This included adhering to particular themes and writing object labels. The second: observing the installation of the exhibition ‘Collecting and Giving,’ which offered the opportunity to consider the challenges that technicians encounter with installation and final collaborations with curators to achieve a desired display.
Did your experience at the Warburg Institute help to equip you for the role?
My MA course definitely equipped me with the right skills base to successfully complete my internship, particularly in regards to curatorial modules tailored to developing museum knowledge. Most notably, my second optional module ‘Curating Renaissance Art and Exhibitions,’ for which I selected a botanical concept, not only introduced me to conceptual challenges but also to the wider implications of displaying Renaissance paintings in museum/gallery environments.
What did you enjoy most about studying at the Warburg Institute?
In addition to the remarkable research community at the Institute, I studied alongside a wonderful cohort of students, many of whom came from a variation of disciplinary backgrounds. There was a wonderful sense of support amongst us. This initiated very helpful discussions on formulating research topics and approaches to assessments.
What was the most valuable thing you learned during your MA?
The importance of clarity and focus in an argument. While this was something I struggled with, particularly during the first couple of assessments, clear feedback and tutorials helped me develop a refined approach to my research topics. This is a skill that I continue to apply to all written work.
What would you say to someone considering doing an MA in Art History at the Warburg?
This MA is unparalleled in the way it allows a student to adopt an explorative approach. Unlike many other programmes, you are not bound by the study of a particular art medium or specific period. Languages, art history modules, and seminars at the National Gallery are all interconnected to ensure you are actively prepared to pursue your chosen research topics.
“This MA is unparalleled in the way it allows a student to adopt an explorative approach.”
How would you rate the level of support you received from faculty as an alumni?
For my dissertation, I was very fortunate to work with Dr Deirdre Jackson, who not only offered her support when applying for the internship at the Fitzwilliam, but continued to help me prepare PhD applications. I have continued to receive dedicated academic support after graduating. Although I have now completed my internship, I continue to use the library in preparation for my PhD, all the while attending evening lectures and engaging in conversation with staff about my research.
Did you receive any funding or awards towards your fees at the Warburg Institute?
I was the recipient of the Peltz Award, which waived the cost of tuition fees for the duration of my MA.
How did the funding/award make a difference to you?
Without the award I may not have been able to accept my place to study at the Institute. Certainly, I would have had to work alongside the programme to support myself. Thanks to this award, I was able to devote my full attention to the programme.
Would you recommend the Warburg Institute as a place of study and why?
Absolutely. While considering postgraduate options for myself, I aspired to be amongst and taught by those whose own Renaissance specialisms were informed by interdisciplinary study. In this respect, the MA course is exceptional. Students are encouraged to pursue original research while utilising the excellent research resources at the Institute, or to venture further out to neighbouring archives and museums in order to build confidence consulting primary source material. Upon graduating, you feel well equipped to undertake formative scholarly research.
What advice would you give to graduating students?
Be proactive and confident in taking your next steps. Start thinking about what you might like to pursue after graduating as early as possible. Not only will this help you to tailor your experience on the programme towards your end goal, but it will give you time to consider the study and employment options that are currently available. Whichever path you choose, the MA programmes at the Institute will have prepared you well.
“I think once you have studied at the Institute you cannot help but want to return and continue your research in such an engaging and motivating atmosphere.”
Any future plans?
Having applied to the Warburg Institute for further postgraduate study, I have now been accepted as a PhD student. My project, entitled ‘Art and Plague in Provence’, seeks to investigate how artistic production in eighteenth-century Provence responded to the Great Plague of Marseille (1720-22). I hope that the project will open new lines of enquiry into French imagery generated by experience or in expectation of disease and the role that art played in a time of epidemic disaster. Upon its completion, I hope to pursue a similar role to that which I held at the Fitzwilliam Museum in order to continue developing my curatorial skills; perhaps by applying for a longer post-doctoral curatorial training programme, like those which are offered by the National Gallery, London.
What made you want to conduct your PhD research at the Warburg Institute?
I think once you have studied at the Institute you cannot help but want to return and continue your research in such an engaging and motivating atmosphere. The library is indispensable, and I know that my project will receive excellent support from my prospective supervisors, Dr Paul Taylor and Dr Raphaële Mouren.