Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Student Spotlight: Rhea Stark ’18.5

Concentration: Middle East Studies and Archeology and the Ancient World

Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

On November 18th, it was announced that you were the 56th student at Brown to receive the Rhodes Scholarship, allowing you to pursue graduate study at the University of Oxford. What are you looking forward to about studying at Oxford?

I am excited to continue my study of Islamic art and archeology in a more directed and specific capacity. I intend to read for a Masters of Philosophy in Islamic Art and Archeology, and I am looking forward to joining the fabulous community of scholars that exists at the Khalili Research Centre at Oxford. I am also just excited to live in a new place and experience something new.

What are some of the projects you have worked on throughout your time at Brown?

When I studied abroad in London, I did a Global Independent Study Project with Professor Holly Shaffer (History of Art and Architecture) that focused on the history of British museums and their Islamic art collections. I was able to look at the colonial histories of the first modern museums and consider how that history continues to impact collecting and curatorial practice today. I have also worked with the RISD Museum curator of ancient art, Dr. Gina Borromeo, and with the curator of painting and sculpture, Maureen O’Brien. Right now I am researching a 13th century wooden head of Christ or a saint that is in the museum’s collection and looking into its identification.

How do you think your studies at Brown and within the Watson Institute will shape your future pursuits?

What I loved about Middle East Studies is that it gave me the academic freedom to pursue my interests in Islamic art while also providing me with its relevant historical and contemporary context. I think it is really important that conversations about Islamic art don’t happen in a bubble but rather with what is going on in the contemporary Middle East — talking about climate change, talking about conflict, talking about refugees. Having a more complex conversation about art originating in the Middle East can add to or perhaps even alter our understanding of the region. Middle East Studies helped me make some of those connections in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

My study of archaeology has also added to my understanding of Islamic art. By analyzing objects and materials through an archaeological lens, it’s possible to gain access to people otherwise unreachable in the historical record. I am particularly interested in studying the experience of women and the experience of non-elite people, and archaeology is great for that. This has been really important to me and something I hope I can bring to my study of Islamic art in the future.

--Elise Ryan '21