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.”