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The Young Historians: Margaret Marnell

The Young Historians is a series exploring the lives of recent art history graduates with ties to the Chicago area. In this third installment, I spoke with Margaret Marnell, 2010 graduate of Depaul’s Art History Program. She is currently working as a departmental program assistant in the Art History department at Depaul and preparing for graduate study in ancient Meso and South American art history.

Zachary Johnson (ZJ): To start off, what did you focus on in your art history program and what initially sparked your interest in that subject?

Margaret Marnell (MM): I could not point out the single thing that drew me to Meso and South American art.  While I enjoy all aspects of art history, the first class I took in ancient Meso and South American art captured my imagination.  The art is beautiful, and spurs my intellectual curiosity.  Who were these people who made these cities, sculptures, and murals?  What messages were they trying to convey and to whom were their messages addressed?  There are whole cities to be discovered and new questions to answer.  The cultures are diverse, and yet there is an underlying congruity in much of the art and culture of ancient Meso and South American people.

Later I became interested in Native North American art.  We do not have an ancient Native North American art historian so I was not able to pursue this interest directly at DePaul.  Instead, since I now work for the university, I am able to take classes for free and I took a class on Native North American religions.  In this class I was able to bring my art historian skills to bear and link what I learned of the culture with the art, achieving a deeper appreciation and understanding of the material.  I am still interested in the subject, and I’m pursuing any options I have open to study this art and culture.

Studying native North, Meso and South American art history can be problematic.  People tend to exoticize native art.  They view Mesoamerican cultures as either bloodthirsty or stargazers who communed with nature.  There is an unfortunate tendency for people to look at Native North American cultures as one monolithic culture and miss the astounding diversity in their [societies], religions and art.  Native people of North, Meso and South America have not disappeared, and their cultures continue to flourish, despite worldviews that relegate them firmly to the past.  In my studies I have to make a conscious effort to understand that I am an outsider studying an oft-overlooked culture that has been misunderstood, simplified, and ultimately neglected.  Through studying, writing and teaching ancient North, Meso and South American art I hope to help expand understanding and appreciation of the cultures that created it. 

ZJ: As DePaul doesn’t assign a senior art history thesis, did they have a different sort of capstone for the program?

Margaret Marnell at Chichen Itza, Mexico. (photo courtesy of Margaret Marnell)

MM: Instead of a senior thesis DePaul requires a capstone class for all majors.  The capstone program that I took was a methodology and research class.  We would look at different methodologies for studying art history: iconography, formalism, psychology, class and social history, gender and social history, Marxism, Feminism, etc.  We looked at the strengths and weaknesses of using each type of methodology and which would work best for our particular interests.  The readings were extremely diverse and dealt with everything from medieval to colonial Mexico to post World War II Germany, and students had to step out of their comfort zones while reading and discussing these essays.  The research paper was also different than a normal art history paper.  We chose an artwork or artist and then we analyzed current (1970 or later) writings on the topic.  We then analyzed major debates on our topic, what the authors said, what evidence or methodology they used and what evidence was potentially missing or what could strengthen their arguments.

Professors were more than willing to work with students on an optional thesis, though I would have loved to have had an assigned thesis.  The optional thesis was particularly helpful because you could work with a professor who shared your interests and, in the end, have a paper that would work as a writing sample for graduate school.  The Senior Capstone was extremely helpful as well because it, forced you out of your comfort zone, and made you more aware of the faults that may lurk in a written argument, and as a result be better prepared to construct your own arguments.  It also made you consider the methodologies that art historians used and what agenda an art historian may have had when explaining a piece.

ZJ: What do you view as the strengths of your art history program?

MM: The best aspect of DePaul’s art history program is the diversity of approaches and views held by the professors.  For example, in my Pre-Modern Architecture class we not only learned about the places themselves but also about the motives behind their construction: the politics, economics or religion.  In my Late Medieval Art class we read primary sources such as Bernard of Clairvaux’s Apology and Abbot Suger’s On What was Done During His Administration.  Going straight to the primary sources helped us understand the reasoning behind the construction of beautiful medieval churches and what made them so important to their creators and the people of that age.  We examined how trade routes brought changes to religion, politics, and beliefs, and how those changes could be examined through the art created during those periods. Similarly, my Meso and South American art history classes followed the vast migrations of people and how they shaped art, creating a message to the populace.

Art can be a tool used to understand a society and give one a deeper understanding of the world at the moment a piece was created. It gives you insight into an artist’s view of their society and their place in it.  Every art history class I took delved deeper into the society behind the art, the agendas of the artists, and the importance of art in society.

There are such a vast number of periods and places to study in DePaul’s art history program that I felt I could have studied nearly any culture or time period I chose. We have an extremely diverse faculty including Latin Americanists, Africanists, Islamist, architectural historians, feminist art historians, medievalists, modern and contemporary art historians.  They also come from a broad background.  Some of our professors have worked as art critics, appraisers, in museums, and as curators.  They, therefore, are able to give advice for people looking to go into these areas.  One addition I would like to see, however, would be an Oceanic art history class, but I hope to take such a course during my graduate work.

ZJ: What are you up to currently?

MM: At the moment I am working for the Department of History of Art and Architecture at DePaul University.  I’m now helping students find their love for art history just as I found mine, as well as helping the professors who taught me.  At the same time, I’m taking classes in Spanish in preparation for going into a graduate program in ancient Meso and South American art history.  I’m also studying on my own and attending conferences and lectures on art history when I have the time.

ZJ: How do you feel you use the knowledge and skills gained in your study of art history in your current life?

MM: I feel like I study everything I see in a different light, from the graffiti on the street to the art hanging in museums.  I look at something and wonder why that person made it, what they where trying to express and who they were making it for.  The major also helped me learn how to research a topic so that I can answer almost any question students or professors may have.  This ability to research also helps me to continue my interest in my field of study.


The next installment of The Young Historians will be published on April 23rd. To view past articles in the series, click here.

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