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What do Art Historians do?

Abstract, 1941 by Ben Nicholson (Credit: Kettle's Yard)

Studying Art History doesn’t just mean looking at paintings and sculptures (although we do a lot of that too!): art historians study anything that was made at least partly to be looked at – anything with an aesthetic side to it. Teapots, churches, jewellery, wallpaper, iPhones, gardens, adverts, armchairs, gravestones, spoons, temples, picture frames, coins, graffiti, wall paintings, plates, fans, printed books, clothes, musical instruments, cars, gargoyles, houses, pottery, illuminated manuscripts, palaces, candlesticks, museum design... all of these can be studied by an art historian!

We study these objects in their historical and cultural contexts. We ask a lot of questions: Who made them? What subject is shown? What are they made of? When were they made? How were they used? Who used them? How do they compare to similar objects, or other representations of the same subject? We ask these questions in different combinations and in different ways, but the most important question an art historian asks is: why does this object (be it a painting, sculpture, building, or something else) look the way it does?