Rhea Stark ’18.5 was awarded a 2019 Rhodes Scholarship Nov. 17, one of the most highly regarded international fellowship awards. Stark, along with 31 other award recipients from the United States, will pursue a master’s degree at Oxford University beginning October 2019.
Stark is the 56th student from Brown to earn the scholarship, according to the Rhodes Trust website. Before Stark, the most recent University student to receive the award was Andrew Kaplan ’15, who was awarded the scholarship in November 2015.
Stark hopes to use her experiences at Oxford to eventually become a curator and design museum exhibits. She will graduate from the University in May with a double concentration in Middle East Studies and in Archaeology and the Ancient World. As a curator, she plans to elevate the “narratives and perspectives that are traditionally not talked about in museums … particularly (those of) women and people of color,” she said.
“It’s really important that we start to unwind the colonial history that has gone into making modern museums into what they are today,” Stark said. “For instances, if you walk into the (Metropolitan Museum of Art) in New York and you’re standing in the front, to the right will be the Egyptian gallery, to your left the Greco-Roman gallery and to your front the medieval gallery. That’s an Enlightenment-era argument about what a museum should be and what the height of civilization is.” But a museum “should be a place to learn about other modes of being and other types of people,” she said.
At Oxford, Stark plans to complete a Master of Philosophy in Islamic Art and Archaeology. She said that it was one of the only universities that “approaches Islamic art not only through an art historical perspective but also an archaeological one.”
“Islamic art is a great place to start putting into practice a lot of the more progressive museum policies that I’m talking about,” Stark said.
Students do not apply directly for the Rhodes Scholarship, according to Linda Dunleavy, associate dean of the college for fellowships. Instead, students apply for nomination through the school, which ultimately decides who to nominate to the Rhodes Trust based on four qualities outlined by the scholarship: academic strength and promise, public service and a commitment to helping others, leadership and vigor, Dunleavy said. This year, between 30 and 35 students applied for nomination, of which Brown nominated 23. Five of those 23 were invited to the final interview stage, Dunleavy said. In total, more than 2,500 students across the country sought their institution’s endorsement, with 880 students nominated by 281 different institutions for the 32 scholarships, according to a Nov. 17 Rhodes Trust press release.
Dunleavy said that while “we were very enthusiastic about all” of the 23 candidates nominated, Stark especially stood out. “When she did some of the practice interviews, she represented herself very well and people could get a good sense of who she was” in just a 30-minute time frame, Dunleavy said.
Over the past few years, Stark has been involved with multiple archaeological digs. As part of the Gabii Project, she traveled to a site near Rome to unearth an ancient Latin city-state that proved to be a “really great place to learn how to excavate.” She has also worked with former Brown professor Matthew Reilly, where she looked at the history of slavery on plantations in Barbados.
In addition, while studying in London, Stark completed an independent study project with Assistant Professor of History of Art and Architecture Holly Shaffer, where she researched collecting, colonialism and their “relationship to the display of Islamic Art in British Museums,” Shaffer wrote in an email to The Herald. Shaffer serves as a co-advisor to Stark’s archival and visual research “into the patronage networks that produced two inlaid marble table tops” at two museums, which eventually became Stark’s honors thesis.
Stark “recognizes how museums and other institutions of cultural heritage can (not only) serve as sites of dialogue and a means of understanding other cultures, but they can also embolden long standing prejudices and maintain colonial practices,” Shaffer wrote. “It is her commitment to confronting these types of questions that made her a compelling Rhodes candidate.”
When Stark found out that she had earned the scholarship, she felt shocked and surprised but also “incredibly grateful” for her experiences at Brown.
“When I came to Brown I had no idea what I wanted to study,” Stark said. “It was the professors at Brown who helped me find my path and supported me in doing research that didn’t necessarily align with class assignments. So it was really to their credit that I got (the scholarship).”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Holly Shaffer serves as the advisor to Stark's research that eventually became her honors thesis. In fact, Holly Shaffer serves as a co-advisor to Stark's research that eventually became her honors thesis.