Student voices on Black Lives Matter, and Life post-Lockdown (and goodbye from me)

One last post on the History of Art department blog before the summer break (or in the midst of the summer break for some). Really delighted to be able to pass the microphone, as it were, to two students.

Gaynor Tutani is a student on the PG Diploma in Museum Cultures. She’s written an thought-provoking and deeply felt piece for us relating the impact the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement has had on her, and addressing the changes she wants to see in the staffing and policies of museums. In her piece, which you can read in full on Birkbeck Comments here, she writes:

‘As a keen student of history and a cultural facilitator, I believe that museums and other cultural institutions can make lasting contributions and be an example of the change we need, via a true engagement with our society. One that does more than tick the boxes of inclusion and diversity, but actually acknowledges our society’s unique cultural fabric and how it came about. We have to honestly discuss controversial topics such as racism and its intricate connection to our lives. I believe that art can inspire and change people’s perspectives and understanding of their world. Consequently, museums and curators should do more to address difficult issues within their curation and programming.’

Gaynor’s post is the final in a series published on Birkbeck Comments and on this blog over the last few weeks by academics and students from the department on the intersections between racism, slavery’s legacies, decolonisation, protest, memorialisation, statues and visual arts institutions. Here they all are in one place:

Annie Coombes, Making Monuments Matter

Sarah Thomas, (Art) History Matters

Gabriel Burne, To Lie About History: Statues and the British Slave Trade

Gaynor Tutani, The Unfortunate Persistence of Being

Annie Coombes, Decolonizing the Curriculum: “Benin in the World”

Steve Edwards, Field Note on a Discovery


Our second student voice is that of Julia Eberhardt, a student on the MA History of Art. Julia was telling me about being able to continue the research for her project on German art and men’s fashion in the eighteenth century when she went back to her hometown of Jena in Germany during the lockdown. I was green with envy, as many of you may be too, hearing about being able physically to access books and even archival material. But I thought that actually it was a hopeful story, and asked her to send me a few words about what it was like, using libraries post-lockdown. Over to Julia:

At the beginning of 2020 it was unthinkable how academically challenging this year would be for students and scholars all over the world. I had just started my MA History of Art in October 2019 and in the middle of my first Option Module, the situation in Europe grew more precarious by the day forcing us to have the last lectures of the term online. I was put on furlough by my employer at the beginning of April until further notice and decided to go back to my family in Germany for the time being. As for every fellow student I know, a phase of growing uncertainty began – how would we be able to ensure that our research would be sufficiently ensured and the quality of its outcome appropriate? How would we be able to access material, support and lectures throughout the remaining year?

As soon as I arrived in Germany it became clearer that the overall situation at the universities there was already considerably improved compared to the UK, due to the successfully established health and safety guidelines that the German government introduced at an early stage of the crisis. Libraries and other lecture rooms already started to open again at the end of May – a development, which gave me hope in the possibility of improvement of learning conditions in the UK. I was able to successfully continue my research at the University library in Jena, while staying in Germany until the beginning of July. The students there were encouraged to research the library catalogs thoroughly before visiting the facilities and indicate a range of books that they would like to consult or borrow, so the librarian could already prepare them prior to their visit. With allocated work places and the wearing of a mask while talking to staff members, the library users (including me) were able to continue their coursework and research successfully. I was also able to get into contact with professors of the University Jena and meet them in person, respecting the guidelines of social distancing. Also museum archives were open for research again as well as galleries and museum collections. Overall, as a researcher you were able to attend to business almost as usual, it was just necessary to plan and organise your work more upfront and become familiar with the odd sensation of wearing a face mask on a daily basis. Experiencing this, I am very optimistic that similar improvements in the UK will soon start to support our teaching and learning experiences and will hopefully allow for a fruitful and engaging autumn term at Birkbeck.

A p.s. from Leslie: The Birkbeck Library has announced that from this Monday 27 July it will be operating a Click and Collect service, allowing you to order and borrow actual books! They’ll also post books to those who can’t travel. Some details here, and more to come.


On that positive note, I end this post, and indeed my time as author/convenor/compiler of the Department of History of Art blog. My three-year term as Head of Department comes to an end on 31 July, at which point I pass the baton into Prof. Patrizia Di Bello’s extremely capable and creative hands, and head off into the sunny uplands of a year’s research leave. As mentioned in a previous post, this blog has become somewhat technologically creaky, so keep your eyes open for a new mode of communication from Patrizia.

Thanks for your attention, have a good summer, good luck with the coming term and year, and goodbye!


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Benin Bronzes, online events, and actual books

We’re now in that strange part of July that’s beyond the end of term, and things will start getting quieter, but not so much for staff, who are working hard to put things in place for the start of the new academic year. It’ll be upon us sooner than we think.

I think everyone who joined the end of term party and quiz this past Friday would agree that it was a fun experiment! Thanks to all the participants for getting into the spirit of the evening and applying their brain power, visual skills and memory to some mind-bending questions about art, museums, photography, architecture, and boxing. And many congrats to the winners of the quick-fire round at the end. Your book e-tokens are on their way.

Warm congratulations to all those for whom this term represented the completion of their BAs, Graduate Certificates and Cert HE programmes! Hope to see you at graduation in the Autumn, whatever form it takes.

As you’ll know if you’ve been reading the blog for the past few weeks, we’ve commissioned a series of blogposts from staff and students addressing the ways in which our discipline – and particularly our department’s focus on museum cultures and memorialisation – intersects with the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement. The latest is from Gabriel Burne, a student on the MA History of Art, which has been published on the Birkbeck Comments blog here. It’s a very compelling account of, among other things, the ways in which Gabriel’s encounters with ideas and new materials during the course of his MA have altered his understanding and approach to the enormously important issues of public statuary, the role of museums and the legacy of slavery.

I’m delighted as well to include a short piece below by Annie Coombes, Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the department, on the fraught history of the Benin bronzes, her work with the parties planning a new museum in Benin City, and a film she made on the topic (with link and password). The film (5 minutes) is really worth a watch. Here’s a still to tempt you.

Slavery’s legacy, the challenging of curating difficult histories, and the role of art in the British empire will all be in the foreground of the curriculum in the coming academic year and beyond. As previously announced, 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. And on the Graduate Certificate and on our BA History of Art and other BA programmes, students will be able to take the option ‘Art of the British Empire’ taught by Prasannajit De Silva. This is all part of a larger ongoing project in our department and throughout the School of Arts to decolonise the curriculum.

Prof. Lynda Nead recommends an online seminar and screening you can view which also brings to bear a topical angle on visual culture.  You can watch the recording of an online event from last month that was part of Science on Screen series hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image (Astoria, NY, USA). The event features the Centre for Disease Control medical illustrator Alissa Eckert, the person responsible for creating the image of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, as well as science and technology scholar and author David Serlin (Imagining Illness: Public Health and Visual Culture).

More fascinating online events are offered by the Insiders/Outsiders Festival online series between 20 July and 2 August. The Insiders/Outsiders Festival, organised by Birkbeck associate lecturer Monica Bohm-Duchen, celebrates refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture.

And online offerings aside, many of you are I know needing to get your hands on actual books, especially if you’re working on research projects and dissertations. Thanks to MA History of Architecture student Ray Weekes for flagging up the fact that the Senate House Library has now opened a click and collect service allowing people with readers’ cards to borrow books from their shelves. More here.


Decolonizing the Curriculum: “Benin in the World”.

Professor Annie E. Coombes

On the matter of Decolonizing the Curriculum I thought it might be interesting to share a very short film I made in collaboration with Stephen Hills (PhD candidate in the UCL English department) while being trained in camerawork and film editing by the incredibly patient staff at the Derek Jarman Lab. Below is the broader context for the film.

In 2016 the ‘bronzes’ from Benin City – looted by the British in a violent punitive raid in 1897- were in the news again with calls for the immediate restitution of a bronze cockerel (Okukor), taken during the sacking of the Royal palace in 1897 and subsequently displayed in the dining hall of Jesus College Cambridge. The cockerel is part of a body of highly prized royal treasures produced from the 14th century onwards by Edo craftsmen in what was then the Kingdom of Benin. These antiquities have been the subject of heated restitution requests by the Nigerian government and successive Obas (Kings) of Benin including the current Oba Ewuare II. While some of the treasures have remained in Nigeria, the majority were dispersed throughout Europe. Despite repeated requests, the British Museum has systematically refused to return any Benin material in their collections.

In 1994 I published a book, Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, part of which explored the history of the acquisition, display and debate on the origins of the bronzes in Europe and responses from West Africa. As a result of this early research I have recently had the honour of working with members of the Edo State government and the Royal Family in Benin City to promote the building of a new museum to house the bronzes when they are returned from Europe. A consortium of European museums, ‘The Benin Dialogue Group’ have been working to facilitate this with colleagues from Benin City. Sir David Adjaye has been approached as the architect for the new institution.

You can access the film “Benin in the World” at:

Password: jarman



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(Art) History Matters

Delighted to present the second in our series of blogposts by staff and students of the department exploring the urgency and complexity of museums’ and monuments’ involvement in the legacy of slavery and colonialism. The first post, featuring Annie Coombes, can be read again here.

The latest one, which you can read here in Birkbeck Comments, is by Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in the department, and Director of the Centre for Museum Cultures. Sarah reflects on an exhibition that changed her mind in 1990s Sydney, and talks about how her research on the important of wealth derived from slavery in the early development of the public art museum in the UK. (Art) history matters, she argues, allowing us to get to grips with unfinished colonial business, then and now. Do have a read.

Colonial Afterlives exhibition catalogue cover. Image by Christian Thompson, Trinity III, from the Polari series, 2014. Christian Thompson is represented by Sarah Scout Presents (Melbourne) and Michael Reid Gallery (Sydney and Berlin).

Professor Steve Edwards, historian of photograhy in the department, contributes this fascinating field note on a recent discovery and how it inadvertently opens up another angle on current debates. Over to Steve:

For some time, I’ve been working on a history of the daguerreotype trade in Britain between 1839 and 1855. Recently, I decided to clean an interesting batch of these objects, which included a pair of betrothal portraits and a portrait of a young officer from regiment of the East India Company. To clean a daguerreotype, you have to remove the plate, mat and glass from the case and scrap away the paper seals that bind these elements. This enables a restorer to remove dust and moisture from the plate and clean the aged Victorian glass. You then rebind the cleaned components with archive-grade tape and insert the package back into its case. Among the batch there was also a small and unremarkable portrait of a man.

It struck me as an insignificant image, but it was getting late and I realised I wouldn’t be able to do anything else, so I decided to clean this one too. When I removed the plate from the case, I found that it was bound with an anti-slavery flyer. You never know what you might find when dealing with the archive!

Over the last couple of weeks we have heard quite a few people in the media saying it is wrong to judge people from the past by our standards. This argument is mobilised against #BlackLivesMatter, because, we are told, everyone at the time accepted chattel slavery. It simply isn’t true. Religious dissenters, particularly Quakers, often opposed slavery, boycotting coffee and sugar because of the association of these commodities with the plantation economy. Some historians have argued this boycott gave rise to the British habit of tea drinking. Audiences packed lecture halls to hear freed slaves speak about their experiences. Political radicals also opposed slavery and Lancashire factory workers frequently referred to themselves as ‘wage slaves’ making the connection between their own conditions and human bondage in the United States. To call oneself a wage slave was also a way of exposing the hypocrisy of those factory masters who condemned slavery in the Americas, but employed adult workers and children in appalling conditions. The photographers who made this ordinary daguerreotype portrait must have had the leaflet to hand in the studio. It is another little sign that opposition to slavery was circulating in Britain before the Civil War. There have always been voices raised against human bondage, so no, slavery wasn’t universally accepted whatever some media pundits might claim.


Continuing on the theme of my colleagues’ timely and pertinent research… Professor Kate Retford has recorded a wonderful podcast for the rich series British Art Talks, hosted by the Paul Mellon Centre. In it, she discusses the persistent tendency in the 20th century and up to today for country houses to be marketed with an emphasis on their status as private homes – a tendency that’s both effective and politically freighted.

Another podcast, by Professor Mark Crinson, made for this year’s online Arts Weeks, is called ‘The Smoke’. Mark offers a close reading of an engraving (which you can look at on the same link as you listen) showing an aerial view of a section of nineteenth-century Manchester, the industrial city par excellence, complete with dense air pollution, which in those days was a lot more visible than it is now, if not much more deadly.

Finally, a reminder to join us for the end of term party next Friday 10 July at 7pm – quiz time! Link to come.




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