The School of Arts in Open House weekend

I’m pleased to be handing over much of this week’s blog posting to my colleague, Dr. Leslie Topp, who researches and teaches the History of Architecture. In between running courses such as her current level 6 option module on ‘Spaces in Modernity’, co-organising the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre, and much else besides, Leslie tweets, so do follow her @LeslieTopp. We’re not doing badly for tweeters in the department these days! Other colleagues who are currently beating me in their deftness with social media are Dr. Fiona Candlin, Senior Lecturer in Museum Studies, who tweets about her fascinating research into micromuseums @FionaCandlin, and Dr. Clare Vernon, who has just joined us from the Warburg Institute as Lecturer in Medieval Art @drclarevernon. Do also follow the department itself on twitter, @BirkbeckHoA, maintained by the leader of our History of Art admin team, Clare Thomas.

Leslie has put together an account of Open House weekend in the School of Arts building in Gordon Square, including some great quotes from the History of Art students who so kindly volunteered to show visitors round on that Saturday and Sunday in September. But, before I hand over to her, a couple of quick reminders and a notice. One reminder is, of course and predictably, about the free art passes for all History of Art students! The deadline is coming up at the end of next week, 23rd October – so get them while you can. The other is about the current exhibition in the Peltz Gallery, just off the foyer in the Arts building in Gordon Square. Passing Encounters: Recent Photographs by Christopher Jonas ends tomorrow (17th October), so do go in to see the display if you can before it closes. The notice is just to say that I am now going to settle into my normal blogging routine of once a fortnight, so I shall be back in two weeks…

Birkbeck History of Art students welcome the public on Open House weekend

Open House London

‘On the weekend of 19-20 September, we opened the doors of the School of Arts building in Gordon Square to the general public, as part of Open House London. Open City, a charity promoting free public access to London’s rich architecture, historic and contemporary, has been organising Open House weekends every September since 1992.  Convinced that there’d be demand to see our fascinating building, we participated for the first time in 2013, and received over 200 visitors.

This year, the numbers exceeded our wildest expectations, and our brilliant student volunteers guided over 500 visitors through the building.  BA History of Art student Eva Hoog provided friendly and super-efficient oversight, and twelve volunteers from the BA, MA and PhD programmes in the department led and assisted on tours, answered questions, and took care of bookings on the front desk.  A training session a few days before, and a fact sheet covered the early nineteenth-century history of the terrace in the context of the planning of Bloomsbury; the early twentieth-century history of the building as the home of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell and as a gathering place for the Bloomsbury Group; and the early twenty-first-century transformation of the back of the building into the RIBA award-winning cinema and surrounding spaces by Surface Architects.  We were very lucky to have one of the architects of the cinema spaces, Andy MacFee, at the training session, to give a mesmerising and very useful account of the origins of his ideas for the space and his working method.  On the weekend itself, visitors, who had come to see the building because of their interest in one of these aspects, were stunned by the fact that all three layers of history were present in such a relatively small space.  Additional tours of ‘The Wider Gordon Square’, offered by Birkbeck PhD graduate Victoria McNeile and her colleague architectural historian Christopher Woodward, added yet another dimension to this rich mix.

The students involved have been in touch with their impressions of the experience.  They loved learning more about the building they’d been studying in, and had not realised what a fascinating and multi-layered place it was. They also loved the experience of speaking to a group – despite some inevitable nerves in the lead-up, it was fun and very satisfying.

I’ll hand the floor to them’:

“EVERYONE was very impressed by the Cinema and everything related to it.”

“After three years at BBK – HoA, I finally discovered the life behind the lecture rooms. Fascinating, doesn’t quite describe it.”

“One of the participants in the group I guided referred to the space around the cinema as ‘entering the uncanny space of Alice in Wonderland’: pink/mustard/yellow/fuchsia colours for corridors and walls which are not straight, but at an angle. Certainly not your run of the mill Odeon cinema.”

“I paused the group in a corridor near the staircase with GO3 on my left. A corridor I termed ‘The most historical corridor in London’. The group stared around them and looked at me as if they had doubts over who was leading them around the building … I then pointed out what the space of G03 once hosted, the front door which was once red, and the wall that once had paintings by Juliet Margaret Cameron on its now austere surface. The most humble but beautiful object and one of most interesting in this space was the dumb waiter, installed probably by Keynes. Once I highlighted this it bathed in the light of many mobile phone camera flashes for its moment of fame.”

“A high percentage of visitors told me that the BBC series ‘Life in Squares’ on the Bloomsbury set had inspired them to visit Gordon Square. The most witty description used by the volunteers was that ‘they lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles’…Many visitors commented on how lucky we were to study in such an environment…I can honestly say, and I am sure the rest of the volunteers would agree, that it was, in all, very rewarding.”