Jim Harris is Andrew W Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator, leading the Ashmolean's academic engagement programmes across the curriculum of the University of Oxford.
He trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and as an art historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art, where he wrote his PhD thesis on the polychrome sculpture of Donatello, under the supervision of Professor Patricia Rubin. He subsequently held the Courtauld's Andrew W Mellon Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellowship and the Caroline Villers Research Fellowship in Conservation.
His research employs the technical examination of sculptural materials and surfaces, alongside archival work, to investigate issues of artistic and patronal intention and the shifting meanings of objects.
In 2012, Jim came to Oxford as part of the Mellon-funded University Engagement Programme, where he took on responsibility for exploring the use of the Ashmolean’s collections in university pedagogy; devising and delivering teaching across a wide range of disciplines, and training faculty and early-career researchers to deploy objects and images in developing a more diverse, equitable and inclusive teaching practice. He is also responsible for the Ashmolean Faculty Fellows programme, which offers Oxford faculty the opportunity to work in the Museum to develop new, collections-based teaching. He has curated collaborative exhibitions at the Ashmolean, with Mathematicians and Historians, and has received two Oxford Teaching Excellence Awards, as well as a Humanities Teaching Project Grant for the Krasis programme. He has published on object-based teaching and spoken widely on the subject in the UK, Europe and North America.
I am an art historian, focusing on the sculpture of late-medieval and early-Renaissance Europe. My primary interests lie in sculptural materials and techniques, and especially in the question of how three-dimensional surfaces are transformed by polychromy, the addition of paint, gold and inlays, and by the subsequent, successive alterations, deliberate or by chance, that they undergo during their lifetimes. These serial transformations can inform our understanding of an artist’s intentions and workshop practice, of an object’s physical history and of changes in its function and meaning, as well as touching on wider issues of taste, aesthetics, belief and reception.
Questions raised by the making, function and meaning of objects (and words), have driven my research in other areas, for example the extraordinary, monochrome Passion Cycle painted for the Benedictine house of San Nicolò del Boschetto in Genoa, the language of Ghiberti’s Commentarii and drawings made by sculptors.
Since arriving at the Ashmolean, detailed attention to object and text has remained at the heart of my work, as I have focused on museum collections as tools in university teaching.
It is my position that the object-centred classroom offers a democratic, inclusive and equitable alternative to more traditionally hierarchical spaces for teaching and study. In the face of the fundamental question, 'What do you see?', no member of a group speaks with more privilege than another: looking collectively, in order to build a shared understanding of an object, is an activity in which every student is heard and valued. In a culturally and socially diverse student body, therefore, the Museum represents an equally and uniquely diverse resource for drawing out otherwise disregarded or less-audible voices.
As far as objects themselves are concerned, I am interested particularly in three things: their value in developing transferable skills derived from detailed, attentive examination; their capacity to act as a starting point for research and investigation in disparate and unexpected disciplines; and their usefulness to faculty and early-career researchers in pursuing accessible, alternative learning strategies, complementary to textual studies.
These capacities are independent of any direct thematic, functional or historical connection between the object and the discipline under consideration but, rather, are reliant on the object’s inherent quality of ‘agility’ - its potential to submit to interrogation from and to speak into any number of disciplinary standpoints. Teaching faculty and early-career scholars to work with objects in order to better exploit the potential of museum collections has come to form a significant part of my work, as articulated in my recent article, ‘Agile Objects’, co-authored with Dr Senta German for the Journal of Museum Education.
In other lives, I worked extensively as an actor and musician, was a director of the contemporary gallery Man & Eve and am Chair of Trustees of the educational charity Our Hut, which teaches on architecture and the built environment in inner-London schools.
2021 Building a House for Repentance: the monochrome Passion cycle of San Nicolò del Boschetto in A Suerbaum and A Sutherland (eds), Medieval Temporalities: the Experience of Time in Medieval Europe (DS Brewer: Cambridge), pp.203-227
2018 A Comparison of Change Blindness and the Visual Perception of Museum Artefacts in Real-World and On-Screen Scenarios, with Jonathan Attwood, Christopher Kennard and Chrystalina Antoniades, in Zoi Kapoula et. al. (eds), Exploring Transdisciplinarity in Art and Sciences, (Springer: Cham), pp.213-233
2017 Agile Objects, with Senta German, Journal of Museum Education, vol.42, no.3, pp.248-257
2017 Lorenzo Ghiberti and the Language of Praise, Sculpture Journal, vol.26, no.1, pp.107-118
2016 Exploring Psychiatry through Images and Objects, with Charlotte Allan, Maria Turri, Kate Stein and Felipe da Silva, Medical Humanities, vol.42, pp.205-6
2011 Pentecost: The Master of the Regensburg Hosteinsfrevel in S. Nash, Late Medieval Panel Paintings: Methods, Materials Meanings (London), pp.76-87
2011 Looking at Colour on post-Antique Sculpture review of Vinzenz Brinkmann, Oliver Primavesi, Max Hollein, (eds), Circumlitio. The Polychromy of Antique and Medieval Sculpture (Liebighaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 2010) in Journal of Art Historiography, no. 5
2011 Defying the predictable: Donatello and the discomfiture of Vasari, in J.Harris, S. Nethersole and P. Rumberg (eds.), ‘Una insalata di più erbe…’: A Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin (London), pp.151-163
2009 Northern European Polychromed Sculpture in V. Brilliant (ed.), Gothic Art in the Gilded Age, exh. cat., John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida (Sarasota), pp. 78-93.
2007 (Re-)Making Beauneveu: The Scholarly Construction of a Great Artist, and Digest of Documents, in S. Nash, André Beauneveu, “No Equal in Any Land” – Artist to the Courts of France and Flanders (London), pp. 178-205
2006 Whose Perspective? Andrea del Castagno, Paolo Uccello and the Patron’s Point of View, immediations, vol. 1, no. 3, (2006), pp. 5-23
2011 ‘Una insalata di più erbe…’: A Festschrift for Patricia Rubin, with S. Nethersole and P. Rumberg, (London)
2009 immediations: The Courtauld Institute of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research, vol. 2, no. 2 (London)
2009 immediations Conference Papers 1: Art and Nature – Studies in Medieval Art and Architecture, with L. Cleaver and K. Gerry, (London)
2008 immediations: The Courtauld Institute of Art Journal of Postgraduate Research, vol. 2, no. 1 (London)
Selected Lectures and Papers
2018: Agile Objects and Agile Teachers, 11th International Conference on the Inclusive Museum, University of Granada, Spain
2018: Set in Stone: choosing the right materials in fifteenth-century Florence, invited paper, Thomas Puttfarken Workshop: Private Chapels in the Italian Renaissance, Patronage and Iconography, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens
2018: Building a House for Repentance: the Monochrome Passion Cloths of San Nicolo del Boschetto, Genoa, invitational lecture, National Gallery, London
2017: Teaching with Objects and Teaching about Teaching with Objects at Oxford, Association of Academic Museums and Galleries Annual Conference, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon
2017: Objects of Inquiry: Ways of Seeing, Ways of Knowing in the Humanities, panel discussion chair, Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, University of Wyoming
2017: Why Didn’t Sculptors Draw?, invited paper, Robert H Smith Renaissance Sculpture Conference: Creating Sculpture: The Drawings and Models of Renaissance Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum
2017: Lorenzo Ghiberti and the Language of Praise, invitational seminar, Italian Renaissance Seminar, St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford
2016: Agile Objects: Teaching and Learning with Real Things, invitational Lecture, Philadelphia Museum of Art/University of Pennsylvania
2015: Substance and History: Donatello, Colour and the Stories of Sculpture, invitational Lecture, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
2014: Agile Objects, Agile Minds: Teaching and Learning in the University Museum, invitational Lecture, Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research, University of Wyoming
2014: Ghiberti, the Siena Font and the Idea of Expertise, invitational seminar, Robert H Smith Renaissance Sculpture in Context Seminar Series, Victoria and Albert Museum
2014: Painting in Three Dimensions: Colour and Sculpture, invited paper, Colour, The Warburg Institute and National Gallery
2014: Agile Objects: Collaborating with (real) Doctors, invited paper, Expanding a Shared Vision: the Art Museum and the University, Yale University Art Gallery
2013: ”What are we that you should care for us?” Merchants and Courtiers Monuments in Elizabethan and Jacobean London, invitational lecture, History Department Colloquium Series, Simon Fraser University, Vancouver
2013 Donatello and the Stuff of Florence, Local Heroes: Artists and the Importance of Place, The Frick Collection, New York
2012: The Image of Violence and the Promise of Peace: pain, suffering and death in the visual culture of fifteenth-century Florence, invited paper, The Arts of Peacebuilding, University of Edinburgh Centre for Theology and Public Issues/Kroc Centre for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame
2012: Changing Colour: Sculptural Polychromy and Environmental Legibility, invited paper, Saturated Space Research Cluster, The Architectural Association, London
2011: The Sum of the Parts: the fragments of Donatello’s Santo Altarpiece, invited paper, Taking Shape: Italian Altarpieces before 1500, National Gallery/Courtauld Institute of Art
2010 : Donatello and Polychromy: Transforming and Transcending the Materials of Sculpture, invited paper, 2nd Copenhagen Seminar on Polychrome Sculpture, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek/Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Copenhagen
Our Museum Our Voices
Our Museum Our Voices is a programme designed to open the Museum's public displays to interpretation from diverse communities, enabling them to respond to the collections and speak directly to objects in new labels, unfiltered by the curatorial lens. The labels in the first iteration of the programme in 2020 were written by University of Oxford students of diverse ethnicities and/or identifying as LGBTQ+. In 2021 we will be working with Year 12 and 13 students from Oxford secondary schools, and in 2022 with members of Oxford's rich and diverse Islamic communities.
Krasis brings together early-career researchers and undergraduates in a termly series of cross-disciplinary symposia held at the Ashmolean and centred on objects from the Museum’s peerless collections. The symposia are led by the Ashmolean Junior Teaching Fellows, early career scholars from disciplines as diverse as Music, Japanese Studies, Material Physics, Egyptology and Anthropology and attended by the Krasis Scholars, undergraduates chosen by competition from any subject and at any stage in their university career. Krasis received an Oxford Humanities Division Teaching Excellence Award for 2018 and is funded by a Humanities Division Teaching Project Grant.
Eloquent Things is the Ashmolean's unique training course for doctoral students and postdocs, grounding early-career researchers in the principles and practice of museum-based, object-centred teaching. The course is offered as part of the University's Doctoral Training Programme, funded by the UK's national Arts and Humanities Research Council. Many graduates of Eloquent Things have gone on to join Krasis as Ashmolean Junior Teaching Fellows.
Ashmolean Faculty Fellows Programme
The Faculty Fellows programe, funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, enables six faculty members each academic year to spend one day a week over the course of a term working collaboratively with the museum to develop new teaching for the Oxford curriculum. Fellows have come from a wide variety of disciplines including English, History of Science, Tibetan and Himalayan Studies, Physics, Portuguese and Mathematics.
In the Autumn of 2018, Jim worked with a team of early-career researchers to develop a series of gallery talks associated with the exhibition No Offence. The exhibition highlighted some of the overlooked and underexplored histories of LGBTQ communities and the talks enabled the Museum and its visitors to hear the voices of queer students and scholars drawing on their own expertise and experience to tell otherwise hidden stories.
This project, led by two final-year doctoral candidates in Art History and Classics, offers a group of DPhil students and post-doctoral researchers from different academic disciplines the opportunity to explore the subject of the senses in a series of workshops and public gallery talks. The workshops provide training in undertaking cross-disciplinary, museum-based research and in the practical skills of public speaking and constructing a presentation, whilst the gallery talks provide a public forum for their research, focusing on objects chosen from the Museum’s collections.
In 2020, the next iteration of the Talking... series addressed the emotional world embodied in the Ashmolean's collections. Owing to the Covid crisis, the public talks and a series of community engagement events had to be postponed, but the team, led by art historian and archaeologist Alexis Gorby and historian of science Amélie Bonney, will be releasing their research in a series of podcasts in the summer of 2021.
Dimensions: the Mathematics of Symmetry and Space
Dimensions is an exhibition co-curated with Dr Federica Gigante and a team of doctoral and post-doctoral mathematicians from the Oxford Mathematical Institute, exploring the concept of dimensionality through ceramics, prehistoric carvings, Renaissance prints and virtual reality technology.
Ovid 2000 Trail
The Ovid 2000 trail was conceived in collaboration with historian Dr Oren Margolis and Italianist Professor Nicola Gardini as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Ovid's death. It takes visitors on a journey around the Museum tracing the impact of Ovid's poetry on the visual culture of Europe from ancient Rome to Renaissance Italy and the early-modern Netherlands. Click here to listen to a podcast discussing Ovid at the Ashmolean.
Boomtown: Silver and Science, Riches and Radicalism in Renaissance Bohemia
This research project, undertaken with Dr Erin Maglaque, grew out of classes taught in the History Faculty and produced a collaboratively-curated, research-led display in the Money Gallery. The project focused on a single object from the Wellby Collection of European Metalwork, a sixteenth-century silver bowl, drawing together strands of economic, political, religious, social and technological history.
Art and Neuroscience
For the past seven years, Jim has worked with Dr Chrystalina Antoniades of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences on teaching, research and public engagement, including bringing research and clinical neuroscientists to the Ashmolean each March for Brain Awareness Week. Click here to read the publication of experimental work in the neuroscience of perception, undertaken in the Ashmolean by one of Chrystalina and Jim's students, Dr Jonathan Attwood.
Exploring Psychiatry through Images and Objects
This award-winning project, now in its ninth year, brings senior and junior psychiatrists, and medical students on specialist rotation in psychiatry, to the Ashmolean to reflect on and consider their clinical practice in light of thematically selected images from the Museum’s collections.
Looking, Seeing and Understanding: Developing medical skills in a non-clinical environment
This collaboration with the University's Medical Sciences Division brings fifth-year medical students to the Ashmolean as part of a move by the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences to incorporate the humanities into medical training. A further project has also been developed with the University's Department of Theology and Religion and the Wellcome Trust, Advancing medical professionalism through humanities-based teaching, which now forms part of the fifth-year curriculum for trainee doctors in Psychiatry and Neurology.
The University Museum and the University
Over the past five years Jim has been involved in an exchange of ideas and expertise in the area of integrating faculty teaching in the university museum with colleagues at the University of Wyoming History Faculty and the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research.