Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2019-2020 (archived)

Module MELA45360: Visual Culture: Theory and Practice

Department: Modern Languages and Cultures

MELA45360: Visual Culture: Theory and Practice

Type Tied Level 4 Credits 60 Availability Available in 2019/20 Module Cap None.
Tied to MA in Visual Culture


  • None


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • This module aims to:
  • provide students with a critical overview of the interdisciplinary study of visual arts and culture
  • equip students with key research skills, including an introduction to working practices in museums and galleries
  • offer students the opportunity to develop their own specialized research interests within the broad field of visual arts and culture.


  • This course develops students’ attention to visual literacy by offering critical engagement with the study of visual arts and culture through the study of key theoretical texts, visual culture institutions, and a wide range of visual objects, including painting, sculpture, photography and scientific images, drawn from a variety of historical and geographical contexts.
  • The course focuses on three interrelated approaches: the attentive analysis of visual objects, the study of practices of looking and the investigation of the nature of perception. It draws on key theoretical works in the field, which may include texts by Alpers, Bal, Bann, Barthes, Baxendal, Benjamin, Burgen, Bryson, Kenneth Clark, TJ Clark, Crary, Deleuze, Foster, Greenberg, Krauss, Ranciere, Riegl, Tagg, Vidler and Warburg.
  • The course also includes research visits and fieldwork in leading visual culture institutions, such as the National Media Museum, the Scottish National Gallery and the Scottish National Museum. While the first half of the course offers a broad overview of the field of visual art and culture, the second half is designed to allow students to explore in depth a subject of their own choosing, working with relevant subject specialists.
  • The areas that can be covered are wide, drawing upon the considerable expertise in visual culture in Durham’s Centre for Visual Arts and Culture: from the Italian Renaissance to Japanese manga and anime, from scientific imaging practices to portraiture, from mediaeval iconography to critical landscape studies, students can tailor the course to meet their own research interests.
  • A list of those contributing to the programme and the areas that they are able to supervise, will be available electronically. The acquisition of key research skills will also be embedded in this course through workshops focusing on information retrieval, writing a research proposal, professional writing and working with visual objects, museums and galleries.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Critical understanding of key theories of visual art and culture
  • Knowledge of the working practices of museums, galleries and other heritage organizations
  • Knowledge of visual objects of different types, from a range of historical periods and geographical locations
  • Knowledge of image-making practices
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Ability to engage critically with theories of visual art and culture
  • Ability to describe and analyse a wide range of visual objects, attending to their formal specificity and particular socio-historical provenance
  • Ability to draw upon theories of visual art and culture to analyse visual objects, while also deriving theoretical insights from close analysis of visual objects
  • Competence in critical visual literacy
  • Competence in handling visual material of different kinds
Key Skills:
  • Ability to engage in close reading of a wide range of challenging texts
  • Developing independent research skills
  • Ability to synthesize complex material from a wide range of sources in order to communicate effectively in a range of forms
  • Competence in information technology skills at an appropriate level to support MA learning and research
  • Demonstrate professional conduct

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • The module will be taught by means of 8 seminars, 2 research visits and 2 research skills workshops in the Michaelmas Term and 2 seminars, 2 research skills workshops, and 4 tutorials in the Epiphany Term. Students will be required to prepare specific tasks and questions in advance of each seminar, and play an active role in discussing the issues that arise. Assessment will test students’ ability to understand and analyse critically the key areas of debate and to demonstrate an understanding of key research skills.
  • The forms of summative assessment employed on this course are (1) a portfolio of short pieces of critical writing that allow students to concentrate on a particular subject specific skill; (2) research proposal and annotated bibliography; (3) formal research essay.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 10 tbc 2 hours 20
Workshops 4 tbc 1 hour 4
Research visits 2 tbc Full Day 16
Tutorials 4 tbc 1 hour 4
Student Preparation and Background Reading 556
Total 600

Summative Assessment

Component: Research Proposal and bibliography Component Weighting: 15%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Annotated Bibliography 500 words 50% Yes
Research proposal 500 words 50% Yes
Component: Research Essay Component Weighting: 55%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Research essay 5000 words 100% Yes
Component: Portfolio Component Weighting: 30%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Fieldwork Report 2000 words 33% Yes
Commentary 2000 words 33% Yes
Critical Review 2000 words 34% Yes

Formative Assessment:

Formative assessment will take place throughout the course. Feedback will be provided on the following: (1) oral presentations; (2) workshop exercises, (3) in-class discussion.

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University