Helen Goulston

Helen Goulston

Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies
Doctoral researcher

Contact details

The Barber Institute
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

Phd title: Where Art and Science Meet: Art and Design at Oxford University Museum of Natural History



  • MA Decorative Arts and Historic Interiors (Buckingham)
  • BSc (Hons) Psychology (York)


Prior to starting my PhD, I completed an MA in Decorative Arts and Historic Interiors at the University of Buckingham.  This course allowed me to develop my knowledge of decorative arts from the late 17th century through to the 19th century, whilst placing them in their architectural and historical contexts.  The MA culminated in a dissertation on the historic decorative arts display at The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.  Before this, I was an auctioneer and valuer for ten years; this provided me with invaluable hands-on experience of decorative arts across a wide range of eras and mediums.


  • PGTA Historical Concepts , First Year BA History of Art Module (2018-2019)


In collaboration with the University of Birmingham and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I am researching the interior decorative scheme of the Museum.  The Museum was intended as a centre of scientific learning for the University of Oxford.  Henry Acland and John Ruskin were leading figures in the early development of the project, with the Dublin-based architects, Deane and Woodward, winning the building design competition in 1855.  By 1859, work had begun on the interior fittings and by 1860 the Museum was open. 

The interior includes portrait statues and busts, decorative stonework and ironwork, as well as murals and bespoke furnishings.  I am examining the function and effect of these decorative objects in a museum dedicated to scientific education.  The focus of my research is to chart the diversity of intentions, needs and uses at play within the building and to consider how these dynamics impacted on the decorative scheme.  In addition, I am examining contemporary Victorian theories of decoration to understand how diverse concepts concerning ornament and nature are enshrined in the decorative scheme.  I am hoping this will also lead to a new understanding of some of the contemporary criticism of the building’s decoration.  This is proving to be a truly interdisciplinary project, assessing the art and design of the Museum in relation to institutional history, history of collections, museology and the development of different scientific disciplines.

Research interests:

  • Victorian theories of ornament and colour
  • Victorian portrait sculpture
  • Exhibitions and taxonomies of display in the nineteenth century
  • History of museums, with a focus on natural history museums and their decoration

Other activities

  • Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain

Conference papers:

  • ‘The Founders of Natural Knowledge’: Sculpture at The Oxford University Museum of Natural History at (Re-)Forming Sculpture, Association for Art History Summer Symposium 2018