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The History of Art Undergraduate Thune Travel Fellowship: A Summer in Israel

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The History of Art Undergraduate Thune Travel Fellowship: A Summer in Israel

By Virginia Seymour

When I received the Thune Summer Travel Fellowship there was relative calm in Israel and I had no reason to suspect that would change during my time there. By the time I revealed my travel plans to my friends, the war had started and they were less than excited for me. Between conflicting opinions and less-than-reliable news, it is easy to see why they hesitated to congratulate me. But my bags were packed and I was determined to go anyway.

Going into art history I knew the importance of viewing art in person, getting outside the lecture hall and away from the slides. In my hometown, art was hard to come by and every trip to a museum precious. During my college search, Penn immediately appealed to me with its proximity and access to major American institutions.

After starting my degree, I quickly realized that I couldn’t access most of the art presented in class just by hopping on SEPTA’s Market Frankford Line or taking a bus to Manhattan. I cringed every time another student would interject that they saw this piece at the Louvre or that exhibition at Tate Britain. When I came to Penn, I had never left the continental United States. I didn’t have a passport. I had flown twice in my life. By sophomore year, an incredible trip to the Venice Biennale over fall break with the Spiegel Seminar curbed some of this “FOMO.” I saw contemporary works on display for the first time and experienced art curated on a massive scale. At the same time, something bothered me that I couldn't pinpoint at the time. Looking back, it was a lack of the cultural context that pervaded my experience in Israel.

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    • Family resting against Robert Indiana's Ahava sculpture at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 2014.

Viewing art in person is not just about seeing the brushstrokes or the way the light reflects off of a sculpture. As an art history student interested in ancient Near Eastern art and contemporary Levantine art, I thought traveling to Israel would primarily be about experiencing all the works of art I have studied in person. But as it goes, the best laid plans ... 

After the war started, I checked the news every time I walked past my television, every time I looked at my phone, selfishly hoping it would end. I was walking into a foreign country alone, and now I was doing it in a warzone. It would be an understatement to say that the conflict between Israel and Gaza changed my trip. My travel plans stayed the same, and yet my experience was profoundly different than if I had left just a month before. Many things I hoped to do and see couldn’t happen. For the first time I understood what it felt like to live somewhere where war may actually reach your doorstep. I hesitate to even admit that there were some moments I was truly terrified during my trip, if only because I met so many people who had it worse (and didn’t meet those who were the worst off).

Yet the situation quickly became inseparable from and essential to my experience of the art.

Geographical landscape, cultural history, tradition, and collective experience all effect the art artists choose to create. Too often, these quickly become things only ascertainable secondhand. The information you can reference may be vast, but it is not infinite. Rarely does one experience taking shelter during a missile attack while viewing an exhibition of conflict art. It becomes very clear what prompted the artists to make the work, while acutely reminding you that nearly all art, both representational and abstract, is ultimately a secondhand rendition of experience. Even after being woken by sirens, watching missiles intercepted overhead while laying in the street, learning the difference between the sound of a firework and that of tear gas, being shoved out of violent crowds by armed soldiers, I was still not experiencing what so much of the art I saw reflected on. But it was closer than seeing it in the US. I’d already got my brushstrokes in Venice; Israel gave me the experience.

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    • David Reeb exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. 2014.

As of-the-moment as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be, much of my cultural context came from simply immersing myself in the culture, the environment, and the language. The layering of cultural history on the landscape was unlike anything one could experience in the United States. I started my trip in Jerusalem, staying in the three-thousand-year-old Old City. Emptied of tourists, the city revealed its layers. Children played around excavation sites where archeologists frequently sift through Bible-age remains. After dark, Muslim Quarter vendors dutifully set up shop in medieval-period stalls to sell fruits and baklava to families breaking fast. There were many places I could not visit due to local conflicts, but I feel certain that seeing contemporary life continue on top of so many layers of complex history left an equally strong memory as any trip that included the Mount of Olives or the temple mount.

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    • Old City Jerusalem, empty during one of the most important tourist months. 2014.

After finishing my Thune research, I ended my trip in Ramat Aviv at Tel Aviv University studying Hebrew. I settled in, bought myself a membership to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and hoped I remembered something from that one semester of Hebrew I took an embarrassingly long time ago. During Ulpan (Hebrew language school), I thought I’d put art on the back burner, but art became the way I could make friends in my program, often communicating across very different cultures and language barriers. Going to the museum where I had to speak (mostly argue) with the staff in Hebrew and giving presentations about art in my Hebrew language classes allowed me to do what I’ve always wanted to do with my language requirement: use it to enrich my study of art history while using my desire to access art as the impetus to further my language study.

Waiting in the airport, ready to see 2,500 new faces at Penn (and convince them all to study art history), I had a few precious moments of quiet to reflect on my trip. In July I arrived in an airport targeted by missiles, trudging my way through some of the world’s most stringent immigration checks, unable to communicate with the people questioning me. I leave having spent an hour on the train platform speaking in Hebrew to a woman about my trip and having passed the time in security telling the TSA-equivalent officer about the thousands of amazing works of art I saw.

To check out the art I saw while in Israel, visit my trip Instagram hashtag #thuneinisrael or follow me at @virginiais5lovers.

One of the primary goals of the Thune Summer Travel Fellowship is to get art history students off campus and (usually) out of the United States to experience art in person. Junior majors and minors in the History of Art may apply for the fellowship in the Spring. For more information, visit

Virginia Seymour is a BA candidate in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. She is interested in the intersection of art and gender theory in Near Eastern art. On campus, she is the associate coordinator of the Robinson letterpress, a production assistant at Penn Press, and is on the design staff at Kelly Writers House. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, practicing yoga, and exploring food in Philadelphia.  

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke