MA History of Art - The Courtauld Institute of Art

MA History of Art

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MA History of Art


Postgraduate Taught Courses

MA History of Art
courtauld students
courtauld students
courtauld students
courtauld students

The hallmark of the MA History of Art at The Courtauld is its intensive and specialised nature.  Studying for the MA History of Art at The Courtauld is a rewarding experience and an excellent gateway to working in the art sector or undertaking further study in the discipline.

The Courtauld’s strength lies in it being a small, single-subject academic institution, providing students with an intimate environment in which to participate, develop their knowledge and gain skills for employment in the Arts sector and beyond.

The MA History of Art programme is designed around the study of specific Special Options and is taught by leading academics. The programme frequently incorporates new Special Options, with recent additions ranging from medieval architecture to early modern Persianate painting to contemporary Chinese art.

Key facts

Status Full-time
Duration 9 months
Language skills English
Initial Application Deadline 5pm GMT 15 January 2019

MA History of Art

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At its core is the Special Option, which gives students the opportunity to immerse themselves in one particular area of the discipline under the guidance of a leading expert in that field. This specialist focus is supplemented by a core methodology seminar which explores the intellectual foundations of our subject. These taught components lead to an independent research project, which is closely supervised by the Special Option tutor.

Each MA Special Option group consists of no more than ten students, whose shared commitment to an in-depth investigation of the topic adds immeasurably to the learning experience. Every year, The Courtauld welcomes approximately 140 -170 students from all over the world on to the MA History of Art programme.

Students follow one Special Option during their MA year. When applying, you are asked to select three from the range of twenty or more Options that are offered annually, stating your order of preference. We hope that most students whom we accept are able to follow one of their preferred Options, but as many are oversubscribed this may not be possible.

The MA History of Art is assessed on the following:

  • Two 4000 word essays on aspects of special option (one each in terms 1 & 2)
  • A virtual exhibition (term 2)
  • A dissertation of approximately 10000 words (completed in term 3)

The virtual exhibition complements the other elements of the coursework and involves the selection and presentation of works of art that you would include in an exhibition addressing a particular theme.

The dissertation is researched and written over a period of approximately three months with full supervision from a member of staff. It forms a complete induction into primary research methods and all aspects of the presentation of research. The topic generally arises from the previous two terms’ study, and the supervisor is usually the member of staff who taught the special option.

Detailed assessment overview

The MA in the History of Art will be assessed by coursework consisting of:

two essays of 4,000 words, with a 5% tolerance upwards (i.e. 200 words) maximum (excluding footnotes). If an essay is over-length, the section beyond the maximum will not be read;
a virtual exhibition with an overall word limit of 3000 words, with a 5% tolerance upwards (i.e. 150 words), maximum (excluding footnotes). If the submission is over-length, the section beyond the maximum will not be read;
a dissertation of no more than 10,000 words, with a 5% tolerance upwards (i.e. 500 words), maximum (excluding footnotes, appendices and bibliography). If a dissertation is over-length, the section beyond the maximum will not be read and the dissertation will not be eligible for a distinction.

It is within the discretion of the Board of Examiners to request an oral examination if a candidate is on the borderline between two classifications and the matter cannot be resolved by recourse to the recorded marks alone. In practice this very rarely occurs; however, students need to be available for a viva in the final two days of term. A viva would normally be held at The Courtauld, but if absolutely necessary could be conducted via Skype.

The final degree classification is calculated by averaging the weighted marks from all the elements of assessments; however, they represent different proportions of the overall mark, with greatest importance placed on the dissertation, as follows:

Essay 1: 27 credits (15%)
Essay 2: 36 credits (20%)
Virtual Exhibition: 27 credits (15%)
Dissertation: 90 credits (50%)

  • Candidates who achieve an overall mark of at least 50% – 59% will be awarded a PASS.
  • Candidates who achieve an overall mark of at least 60% – 69% will be awarded a MERIT.
  • Candidates who achieve an overall mark of at least 70% – 79% will be awarded a DISTINCTION.
  • Candidates who achieve an overall mark of at least 80% and above will be awarded a HIGH DISTINCTION.
Assessed Essays

The subject of the essays should be agreed with the supervisor (your Special Option Tutor). There should be one formal supervisory session for each of the essays; this will have been preceded by advice on the proposed subject and its bibliography. Overlap is allowed only between one of the essays, or the virtual exhibition, and the dissertation.

Virtual Exhibition

The virtual exhibition complements the other elements of coursework. It is intended to assess your response to the full range of material suggested by the Special Option teaching, in a way more visual (and/or sensory) than the research-essay format permits. It aims to enable you to show how you use the selection, arrangement, and juxtaposition of objects to present an argument related to your chosen ‘theme’ and/or to find new ways of looking at the objects. Responses to the assignment will not only differ from option to option, but from student to student; there is no ‘right’ way of completing this project, except as explained below and in the Grade Descriptors (available here) guiding its assessment. If you are still wondering, do ask your option tutor.

Option tutors will set two or three possible exhibition themes at the start of the academic year. These will be broad: ‘Invention’, ‘Classical Revival’, ‘War and Peace’, e.g. Each student chooses and devises a specific exhibition concept and title that addresses the theme. Option tutors approve these choices after the submission of the second assessed essay.  The themes will relate to the ground covered in the taught part of the MA special option, so you should have the exhibition in mind during that part of the course. However, the work will be carried out mainly after submission of the second essay. After approval of the topic, you will receive one supervision session to provide personal guidance on researching and composing the virtual exhibition, although tutors will not read drafts.

This assignment comprises a series of texts relating to a fictional exhibition. It is not intended to assess ‘real’ curatorial skills, so it is not necessary to be constrained by practicalities like the real-life availability of works of art for loan, for example. In part, it is intended to assess your ability to communicate in ways appropriate to different audiences. You select no more than 30 works of art, or other relevant exhibits, with which to explore visually the theme of the exhibition (a single exhibit might include a number of different objects if clearly related — e.g. fragments of a particular work, or multiple examples of the same object-type).  Exhibits need not be works that could be confined to a conventional gallery space. They might include film or video, virtual displays or internet art, and might be large or spatially dispersed (buildings). The exhibition might be conceived as a traditional exhibition in a museum, gallery, or significant space; as a tour or ‘exhibition without walls’ (published or online); this is, it might occupy spaces real, imagined or virtual. The point is to address the works and their collective value for exploring the theme.

The submission must include the following elements (and see also the Grade Descriptors):

1. Exhibition proposal: including a rationale for the exhibition concept, i.e. how the subject has been addressed, why the works have been chosen, how the concept relates to specific art-historical issues and/or wider topical concerns (as well as to the chosen theme). The proposal might also address questions like the exhibition’s relationship to a permanent collection, or to previous exhibitions. It must consider (perhaps with the help of an illustration) the exhibition space, which as noted above might be actual or imaginary, in relation to the arrangement of objects (buildings, films, etc.) and to the visitor’s experience. This section normally includes footnotes (2,000 words max., excluding footnotes);

2. List of exhibits: including, where appropriate, dimensions, materials, lenders, etc. (outside of the word count). Where possible you should include images of your exhibits that are quarter-page sized or larger, depending on how much detail it is necessary to see;

3. List of text panels and sample text panel: these are interpretative panels of the kind typically used to structure exhibitions; the sample should be max. 300 words;

4. Sample exhibition label for a single exhibit: max. 200 words;

5. Sample catalogue entry for an individual exhibit: max. 500 words, excluding footnotes. Like the proposal (but unlike the other elements) this section normally includes footnotes.

6. Bibliography (outside of the word count)

(and see also the Grade Descriptors)

Examiners will consider the virtual exhibition submissions according to the following criteria:

  • adherence to the prescribed structure for the submission, with all six elements presented to the standard expected of an MA History of Art candidate
  • rationale for the exhibition that is clearly explained in relation to specific art-historical issues and/or topical concerns, as well as the chosen theme
  • a selection of objects chosen in accordance with the exhibition’s stated rationale: to advance the visitor’s understanding of its theme, for example, or to provide stimulating juxtapositions from which s/he can draw inferences
  • a clear sense of the exhibition’s intended audience(s), one sustained not just by the exhibition proposal, but by the wording of the sample text panel, exhibition label, and catalogue entry

Part of the requirement of the course is a 10,000-word dissertation with a 5% tolerance upwards, i.e. a maximum of 10,500 words (excluding abstract, footnotes, endnotes, appendices and bibliography). There is no lower word limit but you should bear in mind that if it is noticeably short your dissertation may be given a lower mark on the grounds that it displays insufficient breadth of research.

If the dissertation is over-length, any text over the 10,500 word limit will not be read and marked and the dissertation will not be eligible for a Distinction.

The provisional, or working title of your dissertation must be agreed with your supervisor and submitted via e:vision; you will receive an email when the e:vision portal is open. You can refine, or even radically change, your title on e:\vision until the dissertation submission deadline, but the title will not only appear on your transcript but also on The Courtauld’s library catalogue (and hence, such national academic library catalogues as COPAC). For that reason, it is imperative that the title is registered in its correct form on e:vision by the time you submit the dissertation. Full instructions for the dissertation, which will be submitted in both paper and electronic forms, will be published in December; you will be notified when they are available.


There will be a general meeting with the Head of the History of Art in Spring term to discuss your dissertations. The meeting will provide the opportunity to review broad issues that concern everyone writing an MA History of Art dissertation, as well as raise any questions you might have. It will also prompt you to think about potential topics, though we hope that you will have already begun to do so!

A dissertation may be developed from a topic that the candidate has treated in an assessed essay. In this case, what will be assessed will be the ‘value added’ elements in the dissertation – that is to say, where the candidate has gone substantially beyond, and developed, the topic as originally presented in an assessed essay. Thus the bulk of any such dissertation cannot merely be a reiteration of material in the assessed essay, but should be substantially different in form and content.

It is possible to write a dissertation on an area outside that of your particular Special Option, a choice which might, or might not, involve supervision from a member of academic staff who is not your option tutor. This opportunity reflects the fact that your interests will grow over the course of the programme. However, it is a choice not to be made lightly: working outside your option area could be challenging. For that reason The Courtauld requires you, in such cases, to obtain for your proposed topic the written approval of your option tutor as well as (if applicable) that of the proposed supervisor (who might ask about your language skills, e.g., before agreeing). You do not need to submit this written approval, which could take the form of a simple e-mail exchange, to Student and Academic Services, but you will need to retain it.

See the explanation of ‘assessed essays’, above, about overlap between the dissertation and other elements of assessment.

Bachelor’s Degree – Students will normally have achieved a good 2.1, considered to be an overall average 65% or above.

We accept overseas qualifications equivalent to a 2.1 in a UK first degree (e.g. US applicants should have a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or above).

If you hold a qualification from outside of the UK, please feel free to contact the Admissions Team at

Please be aware that our staff are unable to confirm whether you will be invited to interview, as candidates are judged on the strength of their applications as a whole.


All applicants are expected to have an effective knowledge of English, both spoken and written. For applicants whose first language is not English, we require proof of English proficiency – for details, please see the English Language Requirements page.


2019/20 Fees Available Here

Fees are subject to change each academic year. Fee info, including what qualifies as home, EU, and overseas fees, can be found here.

Financial support for your studies

Find information about loans, grants, and bursaries to support you during your studies at The Courtauld here.

Whilst many options are still accepting applications, others are now full, or only accepting applicants for a place on their wait list. Please see below for details on the status of the options available for 2019/20.

The list of MA Special Options available for the 2019/0 MA History of Art programme is available below.

Please note that the list of Special Options is subject to change.

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