Open Arts Objects: teaching Art History at a distance

How do we make Art History easier to teach? How can we bring the museum into the classroom? How do we widen participation in a discipline that is often seen as elitist?

These are just some of the questions I was grappling with when my colleagues and I at the Open University were thinking about new ways to engage diverse audiences and to encourage the teaching of Art History at A-level, here in the UK.

If you’re unaware of the Open University, it’s a distance-learning university in the UK that was founded in the 1960s by the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, as a way to provide access to higher education for people who might not have otherwise had the opportunity to go to university. Envisioned as a ‘university of the air’ by Wilson, it used television as a primary means of engaging with diverse audiences (then an innovative approach). We still co-produce BBC productions, such as the latest Civilisations, but we also provide free educational content online. We also work in partnership with national and local organisations to open up higher education to underrepresented groups, reaching out to potential students in their communities.

Since 2016 the department of Art History at the Open University has been working on Open Arts Objects (OAO), a project that provides free open access films and teaching materials to support the teaching of Art History at A-level as well as to teach the general public on how to look closely at a wide range of works of art. This project is part of the current strategy within the Open University to develop a series of public facing initiatives that can help inspire wider and diverse constituencies to enjoy and understand art works and visual culture.

In short videos on selected objects hosted on the Open Arts Archive, members of the department showcase their research to the public; the series sheds light on some of the unsolved mysteries of material objects, exploring what is left out of standard art history textbooks. It also teaches viewers how to look closely—a critical tool for Art History. OAO has collaborated with museums across the UK, as a way to bring the museum into the classroom, with expert curators from institutions as wide ranging as the Wallace Collection and the Victoria and Albert Museum to Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Ashmolean. The objects explored include paintings, sculpture, prints, ceramics, architecture and design, film and video, and installation and performance art.In autumn 2016, Art History as a taught subject within UK schools became under threat as the exam board AQA withdrew their support, meaning the subject would no longer be taught at A-level (the equivalent of High School in North America). One of the key issues had been the lack of resources and specialist knowledge for the teaching of art history and visual culture by non-subject specialists and art and design teachers to a broad demographic. Due to a very visible campaign in which art historians involved in the Open Arts Objects project at the OU were present, a new exam board – Pearson – agreed to continue the provision. The impact of Open Arts Objects on the A-level campaign has demonstrated the important role the project has in enabling teachers to teach the subject at A-level, while the promotion of our resources through the Association for Art History (the lead body for UK Art History) has also disseminated the project across the UK. Our films and support materials are now widely used in schools and have been written into the new A-level specification offered by Pearson.

Open Arts Objects however isn’t only about A-level in the UK. We wanted to ensure that our resources could be accessible and that they could serve a range of users. The project has also enabled us to reflect on art historical pedagogical practice more broadly, and the extent to which we can widen participation in the discipline. Art History is often seen as an elitist subject and we hope to break down such distinctions by making it accessible to all and to make it meaningful for a wide range of communities, while providing young people with employability skills. For example, by filming with curators, often in study rooms as well as galleries, we hope to make museums and galleries familiar spaces for viewers who might not otherwise have felt comfortable walking into a museum. These films are also aimed to provide a sort of ‘virtual handling session’ for students who might go to a school that is far removed from a collection or doesn’t have the resources to take a field trip to a museum.  The project also raises new questions about how we make Art History engaging in the digital age and how we can use new technologies to teach Art History at a distance.

We now have over 35 films on our website and we will be adding more in the coming year. Alongside these films, we also have a range of free Art History courses, that are worth checking out on OpenLearn. From 20 August – 31 August 2018, we’re also conducting a social media campaign on ‘why art history matters’ as a way to promote the discipline more broadly, showcasing a variety of voices from alumni, OU academics, and current students to artists, A-level students, and other practitioners.

We believe by offering a range of free art historical resources, all types of learners gain access to understanding art and its histories, as well as the visual world around them.

We live in a world bombarded with visual images from advertising to social media. More than ever we need the critical skills to assess and understand the world around us.

Our films and teaching support materials can be found on our the Open Arts Archive website (where there are a range of resources):

We also have a youtube channel:



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