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Jessica Thompson

Art History
“Most of my project uses photographs and primary sources that I collected myself.”

Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Ann Johns, Art and Art History

Please tell us a little bit about your research project.

I am researching the Pisa Baptistery for my Art History Special Honors project. The baptistery was built when Pisa was one of the most powerful maritime republics in Italy, and had strong trade relationships with North Africa and the Holy Land. I am investigating how these international influences exhibited themselves in the baptistery’s design, and how this speaks to the cultural identity of late medieval Pisa.

How did you get involved with your current research project?

My current research project actually built on a paper I wrote for my Art Historical Methods seminar class. As I read more about Pisa’s history, I realized there were gaps in the scholarship written about its monuments. Pisa was a very powerful city in the late middle ages, and acts as a precursor to the Italian Renaissance in many ways. I thought those gaps warranted some investigation.

Do you see your research connecting with your plans for your future?

At the core of my project is how communities exhibit their history, relationships, and values through artwork. I plan to be a museum educator when I graduate, and I hope to carry this theme through the curriculum and programming I design.

What’s it like working in an art historical research environment?

Art historical research is incredibly diverse and interdisciplinary. Not only do you expand on the subject of your research, you’re constantly exposed to different points of view and ways of thinking. In that respect, it can be pretty challenging because you’re taking in so much, but that’s also why it’s so rewarding — you learn a lot too.

How is doing art historical research different from or the same as some of the more traditional definitions of “research” out there?

Ultimately, the goal of art historical research is to make new connections and distill meaning from our material culture. Art historians do lots of reading and considering other kinds of scholarship and points of view to make those connections. Art historical research may not necessarily take place in a lab, but we collect data from lots of different sources to create a bigger picture.

What advice would you give to a student who was thinking about research?

Research, especially individual research, is not easy, and can be frustrating and time consuming. However, it is very much worth the effort and time put into the project because of how much you learn. If you have an idea or interest that you believe is important, especially if you think it will make a difference to others, then you owe it to yourself to investigate it.

What is the most interesting or surprising thing you’ve gotten to do for this project?

Ideally, I would have already seen some of Italy’s great monuments before starting my college career, but I never had the means to go. Given that the Pisa Baptistery was poorly researched and documented, I decided to apply for some travel grants to go see the monument in person. I wasn’t expecting anything, but my project ended up being funded! Not only was I able to go to Europe for the first time, I got to go for a project I cared a lot about. Now, most of my project uses photographs and primary sources that I collected myself during my trip.

Research Week showcases the exciting work of undergraduates across campus and highlights opportunities for students interested in getting involved. Co-sponsored by the Senate of College Councils and the School of Undergraduate Studies, Research Week takes place in the middle of April each year. Take a look at the online schedule of events to find out more about Research Week events.