National Trust, Tate to be Destination for Students’ Research

Recent alumni from the Continuing Education Department have been awarded prestigious DPhil research projects, working with two of the highest-profile names in Britain’s heritage and museum sector.

Elisabeth Grass and Amy Lim were both students on the two-year part-time Master’s degree in Literature and Arts (MLA), studying the literature and arts of three different periods of English history between the 16th and the 19th century.

This autumn the graduates embarked on DPhils organised with the National Trust and the Tate art galleries. The collaborative doctoral partnership scheme, run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, brings together universities and museums to offer around 50 doctoral studentships each year.  In each partnership, a museum or heritage partner and a higher education institution jointly supervise a PhD, offering the student the opportunity to gain experience in the sector, often working directly with a museum’s collection or archives, while receiving academic supervision within their university. 

West Indian sugar plantations in the National Trust archives

34-year-old Londoner Elisabeth Grass’s research focuses on West Indian sugar plantation owners of European descent, who lived off plantation profits in Britain as members of the gentry. By examining their collections and commissions of art and architecture, Grass wants to learn what their activities in Britain reveal about attitudes towards empire, nationalism and slavery in the long 18th century.

The doctoral collaboration between Oxford’s History faculty and the National Trust gives Grass access to the National Trust’s archives, collections, and properties, and offers the opportunity to work alongside the Trust’s expert curatorial staff.  ‘By working on site at National Trust properties and other historic places, I will identify some of the uses of plantation and slavery-derived wealth in Britain’s built landscape, and see how far this is represented in our national portfolio of houses and collections,’ Grass says. She hopes the work will inform the ways visitors to historic houses engage with our colonial past.

The MLA was an essential stepping-stone to the new doctorate, which is an extension of Grass’s MLA dissertation on two West Indian sugar plantation owners.

Grass started her academic career with a BA in Classics and Ancient History, and an MA in English Literary Studies, after which she worked in the ‘wonderful’ world of London’s rare book trade as an antiquarian bookseller and rare book cataloguer. But when she heard about Oxford’s MLA, Grass decided to return to university. The MLA’s interdisciplinary focus and 'museum-studies' component appealed to her, as did the part-time enrolment which allowed her to study while working as a freelance book and manuscript cataloguer.

Art patronage and court influence, Tate

Meanwhile 44-year-old Amy Lim is investigating art patronage and court influence from 1660-1714 with her DPhil in partnership with the Tate.

Lim will be working on case studies of art patrons associated with the court, tracing networks of influence, and investigating whether the artistic leadership of the court reflected the considerable political upheavals of the period. 

As part of this, she’s providing research support for a forthcoming exhibition at Tate Britain in 2020.  ‘This is giving me the opportunity to learn about how a major exhibition is planned and executed and I will be able to see the process through from start to finish over the course of my studentship,’ she says. ‘It’s very motivating to know that my research will be both useful to Tate, and shared with a wider public audience.’

After reading History as an undergraduate, Lim, from High Wycombe, embarked on a career in marketing, but after taking time out to look after her three young children, she decided to use the opportunity to change career.  ‘I’ve always been interested in museums and heritage, and considered doing an MA in Museum Studies, but settled instead on the Postgraduate Certificate in Historical Studies as a reintroduction to academic study,’ she says. ‘This course made me realise that my strengths and interests lie more in research and curating than management, and the MLA suited my needs perfectly, both in terms of the academic content, and the part-time residential study model.  

‘The interdisciplinary nature of the MLA has proved invaluable both in being awarded this studentship, and in carrying out my doctoral research, as I seek to embed art patronage in its political context.  Having two supervisors with different areas of expertise is also very beneficial to my studies; my Tate supervisor, who is a curator, shares her immense knowledge of the art of the period, while my Oxford supervisor brings the historical context to the discussion. 

‘I divide my time between Oxford and Tate and luckily I live halfway between the two, although there never quite seem to be enough days in the week to fit everything in!’

Collaborative doctoral partnership students also benefit from a programme of additional training events and funding opportunities for workshops, conferences and career-development placements or training.  ‘It has been great to meet and forge friendships with other students working across a wide range of universities and museums,’ Lim says.  ‘Many of us hope to go on to careers in museums or heritage, and this scheme provides a fantastic opportunity to carry out doctoral study while working within the sector.’


Photo credit: Palmyra ceiling, Osterley Park by Maxwell Hamilton

Published 30 January 2018