Ranging from ‘Quality Assurance Mechanisms’ to Diamonds and Giotto….

I hope everyone’s Spring term is going well so far? It’s been a busy few weeks for the Department. Lots of marking – and we’ve been continuing work on our Careers and Employability programme, putting the finishing touches to our upcoming series of masterclasses with alumni, for example. An email went out to all students a couple of days ago, so I do hope that lots of you have been signing up for these valuable opportunities to hear from, and talk to, people who have developed fascinating careers in the Arts: Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum, in a couple of weeks’ time (Monday 13th February); Alice Payne, Head of Content at Art UK (Tuesday 21st February); and Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant (Tuesday 28th February).

We’ve also been bustling about, preparing and submitting materials for an upcoming Internal Review, due to take place in late March. This is a process which every department in the College goes through every four years – as one of what’s known as our ‘quality assurance mechanisms’. It’s not the most catchy label(!), but these are the vital ways in which we constantly monitor our programmes of study, check that everything is working as well as possible, and think about ways to improve and develop what we do. Quality assurance mechanisms include some things you’ll be familiar with as students here – the module questionnaires we ask you to complete at the end of every course, or the Staff-Student Exchange meetings we hold in the Autumn and Spring terms, for example. They also include some things you might not be as aware of – the role of external examiners in checking our processes and results at every level of study, for example, or the paperwork we need to get approved when we want to develop a new module, or change one we’ve taught before. The Internal Review at the end of this term will begin with the panel – three colleagues from other Schools in the College, and an external specialist in History of Art – meeting with a range of our students, to chat with them about their experiences here. I’ll be emailing some of you over the next week or so, to ask if you would be able to take part in this process – and we’ll all be very grateful indeed to those who agree!

Another of these quality assurance mechanisms that’s very much on our minds at the moment is the National Student Survey – now open for responses from all final year undergraduate students. Birkbeck runs a range of surveys, which are crucial for this process of reflecting on what we should be doing more of, and what we can improve – but the NSS results are also vital for prospective students, considering where they might like to study.

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I have lots of upcoming events to tell you about, but a couple of pieces of news first.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will be familiar with the name of Gary Haines, I’m sure! Gary is one of our research students in the department, working on cultural perceptions of the blinded British soldier in the first world war. He’s written for the blog in the past about Access, Birkbeck and our Disability Office, and also about his valuable work with Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people. I’ve been in touch with Gary this week, and was delighted to hear that he’s recently been appointed as Archivist at the Museum of Childhood – congratulations Gary! Inevitably, I have asked him to write another piece for us about this post – but, in the meantime, he’s tipped me off about a fun event, coming up at the Museum on the evening of Thursday 23rd February: an East London Quiz Night. Book your place if you fancy seeing just how much cockney rhyming slang you really do know!

The other piece of good news I wanted to share is a new publication from one of our new Professors: Steve Edwards. This is an edited volume, containing some 32 articles and essays by Adrian Rifkin, about art, urbanism, music and popular life in France and Britain over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As well as being editor, Steve has provided an extended introduction for Communards and Other Cultural Histories, in which he considers the key theories and disciplinary formations which underpin Rifkin’s essays.

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Onto events, and there are a couple of important ones coming up later this week. This Thursday, 2nd February (6-7.30pm, room B04), we will be welcoming Professor Marcia Pointon, giving a lecture entitled Robert Harris’s Photography at De Beer’s Kimberley Diamond Mine 1875-1890. This is co-hosted by the Departmental postgraduate seminar series and the History and Theory of Photography Centre. Professor Pointon’s name will be familiar to many of you, and we have been lucky enough to welcome her as a speaker at Birkbeck before – she came to give the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture some years ago. As someone who specialises in portraiture, I have many of her books on my shelves: a very well thumbed copy of Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England, for example, and her Portrayal and the Search for Identity, published by Reaktion in 2013. One of Professor Pointon’s many other interests is in gems and jewellery – the subject of her Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery (2009), and a theme which will be developed in her new book, soon to be published: Rocks, Ice and Dirty Stones: Diamond Histories. Thursday’s lecture is a key opportunity for our postgraduates to hear Professor Pointon’s very latest work in progress.

healing-spaces

Then, this Friday, 3rd February (2-5pm, Keynes Library), the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre, together with the Centre for Medical Humanities, will be hosting the next in their ‘New Books’ series. This event will mark the recent publication of a collected volume entitled Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture and the Body (Routledge, 2016). The book explores the various ways in which architects, urban planners, medical practitioners, and others have applied modern ideas about health and the body to the spaces in which they live, work, and heal. The coeditors – Dr Sarah Schrank (Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach) and Dr Didem Ekici (Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Nottingham) – will be joined by Caitjan Gainty from Kings College London as respondent. The event is free, but you do need to book your place.

The final event I want to bring to your attention isn’t until Thursday 2nd March, but I’m sure it will soon get booked out – so reserve your place now! Birkbeck is currently extremely fortunate to have T.J. Clark as a Visiting Professor, with the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities. Professor Clark will be asking ‘What can Art History Say about Giotto’? – get onto Eventbrite now to make sure you find out!

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Happy new year!

A very happy new year to all of you! I hope everyone had a good break, and a chance both to rest and make merry over the festive season? Quite a lot of coursework deadlines were set for this first week of term, so I know that many students will also have been beavering away on essays, in between the mince pies and mulled wine.

There’s been a lot of bustling around the School of Arts this week, with staff and students picking up the reins again, and diaries are already full with upcoming events. I told you all in my last blog that we’ve now finalised the next stage of our History of Art Careers and Employability programme: a series of three masterclasses with alumni. An email went out to all students just after that, with links to eventbrite pages for these sessions – but I wanted to take this opportunity to remind you to sign up at the earliest opportunity! The masterclasses are all free, and organised at a range of times of the day in the hope that there’s something to suit everyone – so do come along to hear stellar alumni talk about their fascinating jobs, and how their studies in the History of Art have helped them to advance their careers…

  • Monday 13th February, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum.
  • Tuesday 21st February, 4-5.30pm, Keynes Library: a chance to hear from Alice Payne, Head of Content at the Public Catalogue Foundation (Art UK).
  • Tuesday 28th February, 7.30-9pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant to the likes of Mike Leigh.

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As ever, I have the pick of a host of events and activities taking place around the School, and the College as whole, to tell you about. On Monday, 16th January (6pm, The Bevan Suite, BMA House, Tavistock Square ), we’ll be welcoming back an ex-colleague, who will have taught many of you reading this blog – perhaps on the level 5 ‘Art and Society in the Nineteenth Century’ module, or on his level 6 ‘Gothic Revivals’ option: Dominic Janes. We were sad to say goodbye to Dominic a couple of years ago, but also very pleased for him as he left us to take up a new, prestigious post as Professor of Modern History at the University of Keele. Dominic will be back in Bloomsbury to give a lecture hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for Gender and Sexuality, in collaboration with The Raphael Samuel History Centre: British Caricature and Queer Fashioning 1750-1900In his talk, Dominic will be asking: what are the links between the histories of fashion and of sexuality? Did Oscar Wilde invent the image of the camp and dandified homosexual? Or did he simply become its most celebrated exemplar through the sensational media coverage of his trials in 1895? I know Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will be going along with those BA and Graduate Certificate students on her ‘Satire, Caricature, Cartoon’ option module – and I hope others of you will be able to join them. The lecture is free, but do book your place here on eventbrite.

dominics-lectureThere are so many other events I could tell you about – or remind you about, such as our own Dr. Sarah Thomas’s lunchtime talk at the National Gallery on 30th January, being given in conjunction with the Australian Impressionists exhibition, included in my last blog. It’s always well worth keeping an eye on the websites of Research Centres and Institutes of interest around Birkbeck. The Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, for example, has just announced its programme for this term. BIMI’s events take place in the Birkbeck Cinema, and most are free. Meanwhile, the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is soon to host its first event of term: Professor Margaret Iversen from the University of Essex will be coming to give a paper entitled Profane Illuminations on Thursday 19th  January (6-7:30pm, Room 120 Gordon Square). Walter Benjamin credited the Surrealist movement with ‘a true, creative overcoming of religious illumination’ by replacing it with a kind of ‘profane illumination’. Professor Iversen’s talk will attend to two key moments in the art of producing technically mediated, profane illuminations: the innovations of the Surrealist movement itself; and Leo Steinberg’s ‘Other Criteria’, with its conception of the picture plane as a receptive surface or, as he put it, ‘a consciousness immersed in the brain of the city’. A great opportunity to hear from a great art historian of truly international repute.

Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus, 1955

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For the final part of this blog, I’m going to hand you over to Dr Laura Jacobus, my colleague who specialises in early Italian art. I mentioned the hugely successful Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality conference which she organised in late November in a previous posting. Laura kindly promised me a piece for the blog a while ago, and has just sent me this account of her research and teaching last term, and how the two fed into one another…

Laura Jacobus on research, and research-led teaching

“Last term was a busy one for me – so busy that I’ve only just got round to contributing to the blog. There were quite a few new lectures to prepare for remodelled undergraduate modules, plus a number of my own research projects to work on – and that got me thinking about what ‘research-led teaching’ means in my practice. Research-led teaching is what distinguishes university-level study in the UK, and our commitment to it is behind the fact that staff often seem to be on leave. In fact, Birkbeck allows each of us to take one term in nine as research leave, and one reason I was so busy last term is that some of the research I did on my last period of leave has started to come to fruition. There were several  elements of research that kept me occupied, and each of these fed into my teaching in one way or another. The question I’ve been asking is: how exactly did that happen?

A major element of last term’s research concerned medieval portraiture. I was working on the proofs of an article on questions of likeness in portraiture (it will be published in June 2017 in The Art Bulletin) and at the same time I was delivering a partially-remodelled series of lectures for the second-year BA course ‘Art and Architecture in Europe, 1250-1400’. This course has been running for a number of years, and, while I’ve always slipped material on portraiture into my lectures, I’d never devoted a whole class to the topic. That’s now changed, and I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the new lecture on Portraiture that resulted.

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In reading week, I didn’t get much reading done! Instead, I went to a conference in New Orleans to deliver a paper on a related element of my research (also on portraiture, but using different case-studies to raise a different set of issues). This is the only conference in the world that deals exclusively with my area of expertise – fourteenth-century Italian art – and was a not-to-be-missed occasion, as it only takes place every few years. It was great to experience total immersion in research so related to my own (24 papers in over two days), and to get feedback on my research from those most in the know. Thankfully, it was both favourable and useful feedback, and I also heard a huge amount of really interesting research in my field. Some of this fed back into my teaching – pretty much immediately after touch-down in London, when I was able to share with my MA class some of the things I’d heard, and to give them a sense of what seems to be most  at the cutting-edge of research in this area (Materiality is going up. Gender is going down….).

A separate aspect of my research – perhaps not surprisingly given the trends I observed at the New Orleans conference – is that my work on women and art in fourteenth-century Italy has led me by a roundabout route to become interested in textiles. The coincidence of there being a major exhibition of English medieval embroidery at the V&A (Opus Anglicanum – a fabulous exhibition which ends 5 February – don’t miss it!) led me to organise a one-day conference at Birkbeck on Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality. It was great to see a number of past and present students there, and it proved to be a sell-out. I hope to get recordings of the papers on Panopto soon so that all Birkbeck students can hear them if they’re interested. Once again, I was prompted to try to integrate this research into teaching, and so our new level 4 ‘Material and Process in Art’ module, for BA and Certificate students, included a lecture from me on Textiles.

These are some of the obvious manifestations of what research-led teaching means in practice: students can get to hear what’s new in the discipline of Art History, before it’s even been published, while knowledge is actively being made. Students can also (I hope) benefit from being taught by people whose enthusiasm for their subject is constantly being refreshed at source by the chance to do research. And last, but very far from least, staff can benefit from the experience of communicating their ideas to students and having those ideas tested by the enquiring minds of the next generation of scholars.”

I entirely echo all those sentiments – thank you Laura!

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