In this blog, we caught up with Caroline to find out more about her career, her tips on what makes a good exhibition, what students can expect from the National Gallery's MA modules and more.
Could you tell us a bit about your background and career?
I grew up in Northern Ireland and it wasn’t an obvious path to the National Gallery, or indeed to studying art history or becoming a curator. I studied history as an undergraduate, and I remain so glad that I had that formation. I was very fortunate to be able to undertake an MA and PhD at the Courtauld Institute in London. It was a wonderful time, I’ve never worked so hard or been so intellectually stimulated, and I made great friends. One of the most joyous parts of my student experience were the hours I spent in the Warburg Library. There’s truly nowhere better to lose yourself, and to make unexpected discoveries.
What led you to working at the National Gallery?
I love working as a curator because it combines private passion with public purpose. I’ve been fortunate to spend my working life in three great but very different museums, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Courtauld Gallery, and the National Gallery. This is my second stint working at the NG! The attraction has always been the incredible collection and the great colleagues – including curators, conservators, scientists, educators, digital and exhibitions specialists. If you study Western Renaissance paintings there is nowhere else in the world you can work with a collection of such high calibre and of such range.
Please could you tell us a bit about your role as Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery? What is a highlight of your role or week?
My job is wonderfully varied, something I very much enjoy. An average week will include looking at pictures in the gallery outside opening hours, visiting the conservation studios, discussing issues with colleagues, looking at new imaging of one of our paintings, meeting donors, visiting other collections, writing or research in the library, and talking with students or young people (as well as the necessary meetings and emails). What I like best about it is that no day is the same. There is always a serendipitous encounter with a work of art, and with people.
What’s a project you are working on at the moment that you excited about?
The National Gallery will celebrate its 200th birthday in 2024. I’m working on many aspects of the bicentenary, and how this becomes an enduring celebration for the nation and the art-loving world. It’s exciting to be taking a great museum into its third century.
What do you love most about working at the National Gallery / your job as a curator?
The National Gallery’s collection and the special access to it that I have. I never forget what a great privilege it is. I am also blessed to work with wonderfully talented and committed colleagues.
What is key to a good exhibition?
A clear concept, a story which is told visually, not ideas on a wall. Something which excites the audience and makes the experience memorable and different.
What can prospective students expect from the National Gallery's modules, offered as part of the Warburg's MA in Art History, Curatorship and Renaissance Culture?
An opportunity to take a deep dive into one of the great museums of the world; a chance to think creatively about the many intellectual possibilities offered by an object and by object-based research. As an art historian or historian, an object is your friend: you can go anywhere with it. In the MA, we explore a variety of means of studying and understanding paintings, and how this research and these ideas can be presented to a wider public.
What advice would you give to a budding student of curating?
Visit as many collections and exhibitions (including digital ones) as you can. Keep a notebook, and analyse and reflect on what you have seen. Think about the spaces in which art is displayed; what works, what you like and dislike, and why.
Develop your visual skills. These will be key to your intellectual formation and to your career. If you’re interested in an object, or have an idea that springs from one, look at it and think about it carefully, before you read anything about it.
Caroline Campbell is the Director of Collections and Research, and Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 at The National Gallery. Earlier in her career, Caroline held curatorial positions at The Courtauld Gallery, London, The National Gallery and the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Caroline has curated and co-curated many exhibitions, including 'Bellini and the East' (2005–2006), 'Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence' (2009), 'Building the Picture: Architecture in Italian Renaissance Painting' (2014) 'Duccio/Caro: In Dialogue' (2015), and 'Mantegna and Bellini' at The National Gallery (2018). She's currently working on future projects which include celebrating the National Gallery's 200th birthday in 2024.