Department news – and a party

It’s definitely summer, but this weird academic year isn’t over yet. And there’s still lots of stuff from the department and beyond to enjoy and learn from.

DATE FOR YOUR DIARY: Friday 10 July 7pm – end of term party! Not to be deterred by events, we’re moving our annual end of term party from Keynes library to the glorious online social world. And, of course, there’ll be a QUIZ, so make sure to be there with your art historical thinking caps on. Details and a link soon. (And if anyone reading this has experience with running online pub quizes and wouldn’t mind having their brains picked, please please do get in touch:

But meanwhile, there are several excellent research events to attend.

The Centre for Museum Cultures has organised two super-relevant online events over the rest of term:

On 30 June, 6pm, a live online event will feature the artist group Blast Theory, who, with unbelievable prescience, were artists in residence at the WHO and developed a fascinating piece in 2018 on pandemics, contagion, public health and politics.

And on Thursday 2 July, 6pm, again live online, will be a symposium on Museums in Wartime. A panel with three curators (from Historic England, the V&A and the National Gallery) will discuss how their institutions have responded to crisis during wartime, and what lessons might be learned by museums today.

More details and links for registration here.

The final paper in the explosively popular online Murray Seminars in Medieval and Renaissance Art is happening on 7 July 4.50pm. Gabriele Neher will be giving a paper entitled: Back to Brescia: the self-fashioning of a Renaissance border town in Ferramola’s ‘Tournament in Piazza Maggiore’. If you would like to attend this or other seminars in the series, please write to with the words ‘SUBSCRIBE MURRAY’ in the subject-line.

Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

In past blogs, I’ve drawn attention to the amazing year-long Insiders-Outsiders festival of events paying tribute to the contributions to British culture made by refugees from Nazi Europe. The leading light of the festival has been Monica Bohm-Duchen, Associate Lecturer in the department. Originally scheduled to wrap up in March 2020, the festival’s continued on online during Refugee week earlier in June. You can explore the online legacy of the festival here.

Finally, a reminder that there’s one day left to apply for a Wallace Studentship for students studying any of our MA programmes in the department. There are two awards, covering fees and including a stipend, for full-time students in 2020-21. These are generously funded by Graham and Denise Wallace, and are aimed at excellent students who would not be able to study without financial support. Deadline for applications is June 26, 2pm.


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Statues, activism and the legacy of slavery and colonialism

A month ago, George Floyd was murdered by policemen in Minneapolis and the protests for racial justice are continuing worldwide. Statues of men involved in slavery and colonialism have again become a focus of anger and activism from Bristol to Oxford and London, and now the American South. Annie Coombes, Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the department, has been breaking new ground for decades in her work on monuments and memorials in colonial and postcolonial contexts. She’s written a special post for Birkbeck Comments blog, which I’ve also included in this blog below. You will also be interested in the Birkbeck Comments post by our colleague in Cultures and Languages, Carmen Fracchia, on racial violence and otherness in 15th and 16th-century Spanish art.

Annie’s is the first of a series of blog posts over the remaining weeks of the term, by both staff and students, which bring personal angles and professional expertise together to explore how a critical art history can contribute to the moment we’re in. The posts will provoke and stimulate, and will include links and references allowing you to pursue the themes raised further. Thank you in advance to all contributors.

We are also delighted to announce that we have made an enriching and timely change to the option modules being offered in 2020-21 on MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures. Students will be able to take Sarah Thomas’s option, ‘Slavery and its Cultural Legacies’ in the Autumn term. This, along with the options taught by Sean Willcock (‘Violence and Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century’, Autumn term) and Annie Coombes (‘Curating Difficult Histories: Museums, Exhibitions, Art Activism’, Summer term) will allow students to explore and engage in current research on the intersections between activism, the history of slavery and colonialism, art history and museum cultures. This is all part of a larger ongoing project in our department and throughout the School of Arts to decolonize the curriculum.

Making Monuments Matter: The Statue Wars

Professor Annie E. Coombes, Department of History of Art

Sethembile Msezane performs ‘Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell’, April 2015.

Since the 2015 call to arms of the #Rhodes Must Fall and #Fees Must Fall campaigns started on South African University campuses in a drive to get universities to finally address the legacy of racial inequalities produced by colonialism and apartheid, the baton has been taken up by other students worldwide. They have demanded that educational institutions address colonial amnesia and actively decolonize the curriculum. Birkbeck and other colleges of the University of London have slowly begun to put some energy behind addressing these demands closer to home, although some of us have always had this at the heart of our research and teaching agendas. The recent protests initiated by Black Lives Matter have reignited awareness of the deep structural legacy of racism in the wake of George Floyd’s hideous murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. The ripple effect around the globe has strengthened the long-repeated calls for legislated action to ensure equal rights and their implementation. Here in the UK the Black Lives Matter movement has lent support to the voices of Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon OBE and David Lammy MP in their insistence on the necessity of implementing, rather than ignoring (again) the recommendations made in the numerous reports and reviews on racial inequality in Britain (including the 1997 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s death, Lammy’s own 2017 review into the treatment of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the justice system and Wendy Williams’ review into the lessons learnt from the discriminatory treatment of the Windrush generation (2018 & 2020)).

Municipal statuary has often been the visual centre piece of these protests. For the past twenty years I have been fascinated by monuments and their afterlives. The love, hate and ridicule they inspire, and the ways in which even those originally standing for the very worst aspects of human endeavour can become reanimated to generate a rallying cry for the most progressive solidarity. The recent toppling of the much-maligned statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston during a Black Lives Matter protest is a case in point. That activism and energy was able to accomplish in one fell swoop, something that campaigners and academics in Bristol had been working towards for many years – a greater recognition of the ways in which the history of slavery has shaped the city of Bristol and the removal of celebratory monuments (including Colston’s) to the glory of that hideous trade.

Those who criticise the action as the erasure of history, fail to understand that the gesture has actually reignited an awareness of the importance of an understanding of how history shapes our experience of city spaces and either reinforces or excludes a sense of belonging in swathes of the population. In Bristol it has foregrounded the work of Madge Dresser, David Olusago and others who have produced deep research on the often hidden histories of slavery and colonialism lurking in street names and municipal landmarks. (Dresser, Slavery Obscured: The Social History of an English Provincial Port c. 1698 – 1833, 2001) Perhaps iconoclasm and the deeper histories it draws attention to, can also enable a greater public recognition of the lives and deeds of men and women from BAME and other underrepresented communities. Or as Jared Brock says, writing on the hidden history of the ‘real’ Uncle Tom of the eponymous book – Joseph Henson, an unsung champion of the Underground Railway – “As monuments topple around the globe they leave space for worthier replacements’.

Research I conducted in Kenya at a moment when a new national history was being written in the wake of the unbanning in 2003 of the guerrilla organisation (Mau Mau) that had fought for the creation of an independent Kenya against British colonial rule in the 1950s and 60s, reinforced the potential power of monuments, but also their complicated valencies. In a quest for representativeness and a bid for national unity, following a wave of post-election violence that had rocked the country, local constituencies nationwide were asked to nominate heroes and heroines for national commemoration. While having many beneficial outcomes for some disenfranchised Kenyans, the nationwide competitiveness occasioned by the government ‘Taskforce for National Heroes and Heroines’. ended up reinforcing, rather than diminishing, the perceived and historic ethnic differences that had led to some of the worst post-election violence in Kenya’s history in 2009. ( Coombes, “Monumental Histories: Commemorating Mau Mau with the Statue of Dedan Kimathi”, 2011) But it is also true that the inauguration of these monuments (for example, to the Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi in the heart of downtown Nairobi) provided the occasion for one of the few acknowledgements by the State, of the role of Mau Mau veterans in the creation of an independent Kenya.

On the other hand, perhaps it is worth considering that sometimes ‘disinterest’, can be as powerful a means of countering the hegemonic presumptions of any monument.  In 1994, in the wake of the first democratic elections in South Africa, I began research on the ways in which histories were being re-thought and re-written in the public sphere in relation to different kinds of visual commemorative practice (monuments, memorials and museums). I took a photograph, later used on the cover of my book, History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003). It shows the gigantesque bust of J.G. Strijdom, Prime Minister from 1954 -58 and member of the white supremacist wing of the ruling National Party which established formal apartheid.

At the time the picture was important to me because it showed Black South Africans walking through the square, oblivious to its original significance, to the extent of using the space as an expansion of the entrepreneurial informal economy and setting up market stalls in the shade of Strijdom’s bust. It seemed to encapsulate a complete lack of interest in the overbearing sculpture commemorating a brutal figure in the apartheid regime. I wondered if the act of ignoring the violent history embodied in the monument and the square’s name, could be seen as constituting in and of itself, a form of resistance. In a neat and entirely appropriate twist to this tale, the monument (the head and the surrounding arch) subsequently collapsed, apparently of its own accord ! It has now been renamed Lillian Ngoyi Square after a member of the multi-ethnic crowd of 20,000 women activists, who marched on J.G. Strijdom in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, to present petitions against the extension of the hated Pass Laws to black women in August 1956 – which finally in 2000, gained its own monument commemorating the bravery of the womens’ action, “The Monument to the Women of South Africa”.

Looking back at a moment twenty years ago when monuments were similarly the visual flashpoints at the centre of protest in the UK, what struck me then seems as pertinent in the current statue debate: “… monuments are animated and reanimated only through performance and … performances or rituals focused around a monument are conjunctural. The visibility of a monument is in fact entirely contingent upon the debates concerning the reinterpretation of history that take place at moments of social and political transition. Their significance is consequently constantly being reinvented but always and necessarily in dialogue with their past”. (History After Apartheid, p.12) Thus the knowledge provided by the historian and art historian is absolutely crucial to a more complex understanding of that past and the lived experiences that contribute to its various and often competing interpretations in the present.

If living in Covid times has taught us anything, it is the value of social connectedness, of ‘community’ sought and found in unusual places, of the street as a valuable locus of social interaction. With this in mind, monuments and public memorials could play a critical role in reclaiming those streets and making many who have been disenfranchised and dislocated from British society feel more ‘at home’.





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Work Placement into Dream Job

Delighted to lend the blog’s platform to two recent students on our MA programmes, who’ve found their experience at Birkbeck, and particularly the work placement, gave them the crucial experience they needed to secure their first jobs in the museum sector, one in Cambridge, and one in the town of Bunbury, Australia. Thank you to both students for sharing their experiences.

Florencia Nannetti (MA History of Art) has written a great post for the Birkbeck Comments blog on how her placement at Alexandra Palace and the support she received from Birkbeck set her up for success in landing a job as Community and Visitor Engagement Officer at the Museum of Cambridge. She writes about the unusual but actually quite positive experience of beginning her new job under lockdown conditions – as see in the image below!

Mackenzie Carr (MA Museum Cultures) has checked in from Australia, where the reputation of Birkbeck, and, possibly even more impressive, of the British Museum, where she did her placement, helped secure her a dream job as a curator in a small regional museum.

Over to Mackenzie…

I remember initially applying to Birkbeck to study a MA in Museum Cultures, wanting to be a part of a university that prides itself on its multiculturalism, and offers a good work-study balance, as well as the opportunity to graduate with not only an esteemed education, but a workplace experience. The work placement not only gave me a surreal opportunity – for an international student such as myself from Canada! – to work at the world-renowned British Museum, but allowed me to gain life-long skills in CV and cover letter writing, and interview practice. These are skills I am still using, and which definitely helped me secure my dream job after my Masters degree.

After I completed my studies I moved to Australia to a small city, Bunbury, on the west coast, and I was dedicated to finding a job that would allow me to utilise my passion and education in the field of museology. I initially applied to volunteer with the local museum, the Bunbury Museum Heritage Centre, looking for an opening into the museum community in a city and culture I was unfamiliar with. Then a few long weeks later the staff requested my curatorial experience and knowledge to help the Museum increase its visitor numbers and community support. Now to be clear, and as the staff pointed out, ‘it’s no British Museum!.’ To be fair, nothing in the world is anything like the British Museum, due to its vast collection, amassed over two-and-a-half centuries. But the Bunbury Museum offers a newly graduated Masters student such as me an opportunity the British Museum could never have. Only three years old, it is small in size and collection, with minimal connections to the region’s colonial history: the position of curator and researcher has given me an incredible opportunity to grow as a newer member of the museum profession.

My role as curator here includes a wide array of responsibilities covering all areas of museology and professional practice. Currently I am responsible for designing a brochure and map for visitors, writing out a tour guide format for group tours, assisting with research and design of new exhibitions, and collecting visitor engagement data with the hope of improving the Museum’s layout and design, as well as enhancing marketing strategies. Now this is what I personally call my dream job; I am utilising all the knowledge and skills gained from my MA in Museum Cultures, and my work placement experience from the British Museum, to help develop a much younger museum in Western Australia.

While I am still new to this exciting role, it has been an amazing challenge. The benefit of working for a museum that is new to the community, with little to no curatorial foundations, is that I am able to have the flexibility and autonomy to help build the museum’s visitor engagement profile, conduct research, and create exhibits that can share the local history of the Bunbury area and its residents. The most exciting role however has been conversing with the many donors who have brought in historical objects for examination and hopefully exhibition. Gathering many different objects and then discussing possible uses with the museum’s team, and potential exhibition designs, has helped me dive deep creatively to curate informative and interesting exhibitions that the community are eager to engage with.

It’s not always easy to find such a job – I had assumed it would be out of my reach so soon after I completed my degree – but I would like to remind current, future or past MA Museum Cultures students that what you gain from your time at Birkbeck will go with you anywhere the world takes you.


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Studentships and Pandemic Art

Notification about notifications: Many loyal readers of this blog will be used to getting all new posts conveniently delivered to their email inboxes. For the last few months that seems to have been happening less and less consistently, and I have a feeling that few if any subscribers are getting these any more. Despite valiant efforts on the part of Birkbeck’s IT services, it seems this can’t be fixed, and, very sadly, the subscription list seems to have vanished into a digital black hole. I’ll try my best to send it out to as many students and alumni as possible, but I’d appreciate any help in sending the link further to anyone who usually reads the blog or who might be interested. Thank you!

Anyway, I hope you’re all keeping well and safe, and that lockdown isn’t getting you down. Many congrats to all our BA students for getting through the new-look exams! Students will have seen my messages about what to expect next academic year: basically, all programmes continue in their full wonderfulness, remotely where necessary (i.e. most likely for the entirety of the Autumn term). We are delighted that applications are significantly up!

You will all have been following the worldwide protests for racial justice recently, and specifically those here in the UK focusing on monuments and the legacy of slavery and imperialism. We have groundbreaking research in this area going on in the department, and I hope to bring out a special blog post on these themes soon.

Meanwhile lots to draw your attention to:

We were thrilled to have a winner in the Birkbeck Student Union Awards 2020. Suzannah Biernoff, Reader in Visual Culture received the award for best dissertation supervisor in a very competitive field – warm congrats Suzannah! Congrats too to Kate Retford, Charlotte Ashby and Sean Willcock, who were all nominated in the Best Lecturer category.

For students applying to any of our MA programmes in the department, do consider also applying for a Wallace Studentship. There are two awards, covering fees and including a stipend, for full-time students in 2020-21. These are generously funded by Graham and Denise Wallace, and are aimed at excellent students who would not be able to study without financial support. Deadline for applications is June 26, 2pm.

Arts Weeks continues in online form, with lots of intriguing and engaging literary, art-related and other cultural events you can catch live or enjoy after the fact. Our own Mara Polgovsky-Ezcurra, Lecturer in Contemporary Art, has done a fascinating short video on an aspect of her research, the performative artist books created by Polish-Mexican artist Marcos Kurtycz (1934-1996).

The Centre for Museum Cultures has organised two super-relevant online events over the rest of June.

Come Hell or High Water: Managing Disasters in Museums on 25 June, 6pm, features Natasha McEnroe, Keeper of Medicine at the Science Museum, London, speaking about disaster planning for crises, large and small, and its crucial role in caring for museum collections.

Then on 30 June, 6pm, another live online event will feature the artist group Blast Theory, who, with unbelievable prescience, were artists in residence at the WHO and developed a fascinating piece in 2018 on pandemics, contagion, public health and politics.

More details and links for registration here.

Spit Spreads Death: the Parade by Blast Theory, Phildadelphia, September 28th 2019. Photo by Tivern Turnbull.

The Murray Seminar meets for the last time this term on 7 July, with Gabriele Neher giving a talk on Leonardo and cats (!). If you want to get all the details and be sent the registration link, please contact Laura Jacobus:

Our students have been busy and creative as always.

BA History of Art student Bianca Spaggiari, has contributed this article to the online magazine Mutual Art on Gustav Klimt and what his art can teach us about coping with fear and anxiety.

MA Museum Cultures student Akin Oladimeji has curated an online exhibition entitled ‘error’, featuring the artist Juls Gabs, at Unit 1 Gallery. Using Instagram filters (best viewed on a mobile or tablet), the exhibition deals with the theme of artifice and bending the truth. The four colourful, playful works focus on individuals who manipulate their image in order to enhance their social standing, much like many of us do on social media. The exhibition goes live on 18 June and continues to 4 July.

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