Art History in the News

I normally keep this blog to internal matters in the History of Art department – to the activities of, and news stories about staff and students. However, I want to take this opportunity to comment on the sad news, which broke on 12th October, that the final A-level in History of Art, being run by AQA, is being cut.

What made this particularly depressing news is that a lot of work had taken place to renovate the curriculum of this A-level, to be launched next year. With input from leading figures in the field, A-level students were going to be offered a more global reach in their studies, and to explore how pressing social and political issues have been, and are always being played out through visual and material culture. The hope was that this could be the basis of a campaign to encourage more schools to offer the subject – and, crucially, a greater number of state schools. However, reportedly for solely practical reasons, AQA have made the decision instead to axe the A-level. This follows the sad loss of the teaching of other subjects at this level, including Archaeology.

The story has generated much press, some of it promoting a number of frustrating stereotypes about History of Art which have become too familiar over the last few years: primarily the idea is that this is an elitist, and ‘soft’ subject. This was precisely the kind of misunderstanding, and unfair profile which the new curriculum was supposed to tackle, and I feel confident that I am writing here for an audience much better informed than that. As a student currently on one of our programmes in the History of Art department here at Birkbeck, you’ll fully appreciate what a wide-ranging, exciting, topical, and challenging discipline History of Art actually is. Furthermore, we have always enjoyed welcoming a diverse range of students from all kinds of backgrounds onto all our courses. One silver lining of the news story has been that it has led to a number of very fine pieces in defence of the subject – I’d particularly recommend Griselda Pollock’s article on The Conversation.

A number of us in the field signed a letter addressed to the Chief Executive of AQA, pointing out how critical this subject is in an age in which it is imperative that our understanding of visual culture is sophisticated and informed, and expressing concern for the potential impact of this decision on the studying of History of Art at University level, and the various professions for which it is so important – especially those based in museums, galleries and the heritage sector. You can read this via the BBC News website. But I particularly want to draw your attention here to a live petition to save the subject at A-level: The number of signatories has reached an impressive 17,648 at the time of writing, but it needs to grow still further. I would encourage anyone reading this, who would like to support and defend the subject, to sign.

Birkbeck MA Museum Culture students at the V&A last year

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I want to give the second half of this blog to Mark Liebenrood, and a more cheering tale! Mark completed his Masters with us in September – and has just co-authored his first publication as an art historian for the Tate’s ‘In Focus’ projects. I’m proud to say that this came out of a work placement which Mark had at Tate last year, as part of his MA History of Art degree. For those not currently on one of the MA programmes in the History of Art department, this is an opportunity we make available to students at this level, to give them valuable practical experience of working in a museum, gallery or archive as part of their programme of study. Following the placements, students are then required to produce a record of the work, a long essay, and a portfolio of practical work for assessment. To find out more about the module, please see here – and to read more about recent placements, follow this link. Over to Mark…

Mark Liebenrood on Louise Nevelson’s Black Wall

“After two terms of my History of Art MA, I was offered the chance to do a work placement, and was fortunate to secure a position in Tate’s research department.

I spent part of my time assisting one of the research fellows, Alex Taylor, with research for a series of in-depth online articles on works of American art in Tate’s collection. One of the most interesting tasks was to transcribe a section of an interview between David Sylvester and the American sculptor Louise Nevelson. This had been broadcast on the BBC in 1964 and a segment was to be included in an article on Nevelson’s sculpture Black Wall. I had been provided with a much older typed transcript, but, as I transcribed afresh, I realised that the transcript and the audio did not match. This was not just a matter of small errors. Although some words had been missed out or mistranscribed, elsewhere whole sentences had been edited out, in some cases changing Nevelson’s descriptions of her working process. Intrigued, I made a more thorough comparison that confirmed that Sylvester had substantially edited sections of the original interview recording for broadcast, and changed the transcript even more when it was published later on in a book of his interviews. Alex invited me to write up my findings and generously offered to include them in the final article, now online: Black Wall is on view in the Boiler House at Tate Modern.”

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Open House at Birkbeck

I write this approaching the end of the second week of our Autumn term. I do hope that everyone is settling in well to the new academic year, whether that’s to a new programme of study, or returning and continuing with work on the Cert HE, one of our BA or MA programmes, or the MPhil/PhD in History of Art. It was very nice indeed to meet our new students at our induction evenings, and to be able to offer a warm welcome alongside my colleagues in the department. Lots of useful material was covered in those events – and I’d like to recap on a couple of key pieces of information here, as a reminder to continuing students, as well as those who’ve just joined us.

  • One is that our Careers and Employability team offer a variety of important services for Birkbeck students. They run workshops on a wide range of useful topics, have a drop in service at Malet Street, and provide access to a careers portal which is accessible through your MyBirkbeck profile. I’m also delighted to announce that we’ve just learned that we have been awarded some monies from the Birkbeck Alumni fund, to run a bespoke programme of events for History of Art students this academic year, 2016-17! We are busily planning, and hope to announce further details soon.
  • Also, Sue Stern kindly joined us at a couple of the induction evenings, to talk about the work of and activities organised by the London Art History Society. Do have a look at their webpage for upcoming events. I would also strongly encourage all our MA and MPhil/PhD students to keep in mind the important Research Fund which the Society has so generously established in the History of Art department. This is to help with expenses relating to research, including travel, accommodation, photography, and photocopying. MA students can apply for a sum up to a maximum of £150; MPhil/PhD students for a sum up to a maximum of £300. Do have a look at this page for further details, and how to apply.

As ever, there’s almost too much news to pass onto you all! Here are a few highlights:

  • One recent development we’re particularly excited about in History of Art is the appointment of T.J. Clark as a Visiting Professor in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. I thoroughly recommend having a listen of the podcast of the Masterclass which Professor Clark gave at the BIH earlier this year, on ‘Heaven and Earth According to Bruegel’.
  • Dr. Leslie Topp and Dr. Tag Gronberg have just headed off to Vienna, to speak at a symposium exploring Jewish contributions to Viennese Modernism. They will be contributing to a panel on ‘Designed Identities’ taking place tomorrow: Leslie speaking about modern architecture and anti-semitism in early twentieth-century Vienna; Tag giving a paper entitled ‘Myths of the Viennese Café: Ephemerality, Performativity and Loss’.
  • There are plenty of upcoming events to watch out for closer to home as well. On Monday 24th October, at 6pm (room 106, Gordon Square), Tim Satterthwaite will be giving a paper for the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, entitled Spiritualising the Machine: the Modernist Photography of UHU magazine.
  • Meanwhile, I do recommend booking your free place for an exciting symposium being hosted by the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre on Friday 18th November, entitled Spitalfields: On Development and Destruction (Keynes Library). This event will explore the possibilities of Spitalfields’ present and future, in relation to its rich and eventful past. Spitalfields is currently the focal point for a host of conflicting viewpoints on topics such as urban design, economic development, architectural preservation and cultural history, and this welcome symposium will bring together a diverse group of architects, archaeologists, historians and activists to consider the issues at stake.


I want to devote the rest of this blog to the triumph of Open House weekend at the School of Arts building in Gordon Square last month. This was the third year the building opened to the public, thanks to the hard work of a number of colleagues including Leslie Topp and Clare Thomas. Over the two days, a grand total of 244 visitors were greeted and guided around the building by a wonderful team of student volunteers. I now hand you over to one of them, Michael Clegg, who has just completed the MA History of Art here at Birkbeck.

Michael Clegg, Open House 2016 in Gordon Square

“Like many a School of Arts student, my first experiences of the Gordon Square building were about being lost in winding corridors and identical staircases. Last year, however, I volunteered to help out at the London Open House Weekend and, not only did I learn my way around, but I enjoyed it so much that I was back for this year’s event, on the weekend of 17-18 September, once again excellently overseen by Eva Hoog.

Our visitors get a tour of contrasts, opening with an introduction to Gordon Square’s Georgian architect, Thomas Cubbitt. It’s nice to point out how the building changes as you move through to the Victorian terrace at No. 47; a change which people often miss from the outside. Turning attention to the twenty-first century cinema built into the back of the terrace makes for a dramatic transition. Volunteers had been lucky enough to get an introduction to the space from one of its architects, Andy MacFee, and it was a pleasure to channel Andy’s expertise and enthusiasm.

Image result for cinema school of arts birkbeck

Then it’s off to No. 46 and its Bloomsbury heritage as home to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and, later, John Maynard Keynes.

For me there are three moments when being in the building gives visitors something unique. It’s great to go into the cinema, talk about its immersive atmosphere, and then stop for a moment of total silence. As a visual treat, visitors can look out the picture windows on the first-floor of No. 46, then see that same view in a Duncan Grant painting (illustrated courtesy of Patrizia di Bello). Finally, the paintings by Bell and Grant in the Keynes library provide the highest end illustrations for a history of the Bloomsbury Group. Whatever visitors come for, all seem genuinely pleased to have seen inside the building.”

They certainly were, judging by these visitor comments: ‘Lovely tour and great contrasts between styles and history’; ‘Really enjoyed the tour – current use for education is very apt – great cinema’; ‘The tour was fascinating. Our guide was wonderful – her enthusiasm was infectious!’ A big thank you to Michael, Eva and all the other students who made this such a success. (And do keep an eye out for a forthcoming short film about our Open House weekend, currently being made by the Derek Jarman Lab, who filmed during the tours, at the training evening for the volunteers, and conducted interviews with those involved such as Leslie and Patrizia.)




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