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