Inspiring news today about the new Birkbeck ‘Bridges to Study’ programme

I heard earlier that the first of the workshops in our new Careers and Employability programme, designed especially for students in the History of Art department, went very well yesterday afternoon. Alex Jones led a session on ‘Careers in Arts’, and dropped me a line to say that attendance was very good, and that he’d enjoyed meeting our engaged and lively students! If you haven’t signed up for these workshops as yet, then do take another look at the full details here – and register for your free places at  forthcoming sessions on Eventbrite. This programme is open to all our students in the department, so whether you’re on the Cert HE or Graduate Certificate, a BA or MA programme, or are currently an MPhil/PhD student, if you’re thinking about developing your Career in the Arts, then do make the most of this great opportunity. The next workshop will be ‘Articulate your Story’, on 30th November (4-5pm, Keynes Library)…

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I also want to use this posting to remind all our MA and MPhil/PhD students in History of Art about the London Art History Society Research Fund for 2016-17. We gave out details about this at the induction evenings and via email – but do keep this fund in mind. It’s available to help support our postgraduate students in undertaking research towards their dissertations. Students from any of our Masters programmes are able to apply for up to £150, and MPhil/PhD students for up to £300 – we allocate the money on a first come first served basis, so do apply before it runs out! If you need financial support to undertake a trip to an archive, or a collection, or if you could do with help with costs such as photographing works of art which you’re currently researching, then do put in an application. Full details are available here. We’re very grateful indeed to the London Art History Society for generously providing these funds to help our postgraduate students – and don’t forget that they organise a rich programme of events, which I highly recommend you keep an eye on! This coming Saturday (26th November), for example, Dr. Glyn Davies, curator of late medieval sculpture at the V&A and co-organiser of the museum’s current Opus Anglicanum exhibition, will be giving a lecture following the Society’s AGM: ‘The Power of Pygmalion: Secular Stories on Medieval Caskets of Ivory and Bone’.

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I hope everyone has had a chance to drop in and see the latest exhibition in the Peltz Gallery, as they’ve been coming in and out of the building over the last few weeks? A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting has been on since 7th October – but, if you haven’t yet had a chance to look around, it will be there until 27th January 2017. The display consists of a varied array of intriguing objects from the collections of the Cinema Museum – a museum of cinematic ephemera in Kennington, South London, which has to be visited by appointment. These are the relics of dedicated film enthusiasts – their personal archives and records – their indexes and scrapbooks. Graham Head, an amateur projectionist in the 1940s and 50s, with a cinema in his back garden in Hove, Brighton, for example, would clip squares of celluloid from every film he showed. These are collected in little brown envelopes. Vic Kinson, meanwhile, built up a collection of around 36,000 index cards, recording details of film stars: their careers, and their personal lives. You can read more about the exhibition here, in Sight & Sound. Fascinating – and not to be missed!


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I want to end this blog by drawing everyone’s attention to a wonderful development that was publicly announced today. Our own Leslie Topp, together with a number of other colleagues from across Birkbeck, has been working hard for a long time to get something called the ‘Bridges to Study’ programme off the ground. This is a package of support for asylum seekers and refugees living in London. Birkbeck will be offering funded places on undergraduate and postgraduate certificate courses across the College to 20 asylum seekers per year. This provides a vital opportunity to study for a group who have serious problems accessing educational opportunities in this country. Rebecca Murray, from the charity Article 26, explains some of the key difficulties in the news story which went live today:

“Their immigration status means asylum seekers are treated as international students, so they have to pay tuition fees at an international rate. Secondly, asylum seekers aren’t eligible for student loan support from the Student Loans Company, meaning no financial backing to pay their tuition fees or maintenance. They also have to navigate what can seem a bewilderingly complex academic system and culture.”

Not only will Birkbeck be providing funding for places on these courses of study, but the College will also be offering a programme of additional support alongside, to help the students settle into life at Birkbeck, and the UK educational system more broadly. The Master of Birkbeck, Professor David Latchman, has declared this to be a “fitting continuation” of the mission established by our founder, George Birkbeck, nearly 200 years ago: “to bring education to every Londoner who wants to better themselves, regardless of means or background.” You’ll have seen George Birkbeck’s face around the main Malet Street building, as well as his famous declaration (well, famous to us in the College, anyway!): “Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge.” Mr. Birkbeck would be proud – and we are very proud indeed of the commitment and hard work of Leslie and her colleagues, which has helped to make a truly inspiring idea a reality.

after Unknown artist, stipple engraving, 1824 or after

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Congratulations to our graduates!

Many congratulations to those students who graduated on Wednesday this week! It was great to be sitting on the platform at this graduation ceremony, and to see familiar faces from our Cert HE, Graduate Certificate and BA programmes line up, have their names read out by the Executive Dean, Prof. Hilary Fraser, and go on to shake hands with the Master of Birkbeck, Prof. David Latchman, the President, Joan Bakewell, and to receive their degrees. We also saw three History of Art students walk up to get their doctorates: Dr. Frank Ferrie, Dr. Kirstie Imber and Dr. Michael Davies. (How nice to be able to give them their titles!). Here are some snaps I took on my phone at the reception afterwards:


Dr. Frank with his supervisor, Dr. Robert Maniura, both looking rightly proud


Ioanna Makri and Clara Neta, celebrating their BA Hons degrees


– and David Daly (BA Hons History of Art) managing to keep hold of both a glass of wine and an art history book! So impressed to see a student still at the books, even on graduation day..

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At the start of the week, I was delighted to be able to send around more information about our Careers and Employability programme, being run for History of Art students in 2016-17. Thanks to a generous award from the Birkbeck Alumni fund, and the hard work of Mosh Aboobaker and his colleagues in the Careers and Employability team, we have been able to lay on this special programme for students in the department, designed to help with career options, skills, and connections with key institutions and industries.

We’re now encouraging students to sign up for the first part of the programme: a series of six workshops, running from later this month through to late May 2017, covering a variety of important topics – from career possibilities in the Arts, through use of social media and internships, to CVs and interview techniques. You can find full details on this flyer. Do go to the eventbrite page, and sign up for as many of these free, hour-long events as you can. You’ll see we’ve arranged these as one hour sessions from 4-5pm, in the hope that people will be able to fit them in before classes.

It’s a great opportunity, to take advantage of specialist advice, particularly tailored to History of Art students. It’s also important to the department that these go well, and have good attendance, as we can then make a case to run this programme again in the future! The programme is primarily designed for BA and Graduate Certificate, and MA students in the History of Art department – but we’re also making the sessions available to any Cert HE or MPhil/PhD students who may find them relevant. We’re also currently working on developing a series of ‘masterclasses’ with alumni who have used their Birkbeck degrees to good effect – and are developing a workshadowing programme, with a view to giving  students the opportunity to spend time with alumni at their current places of work, to learn more about various careers in the Arts at first hand. Watch this space!

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Some dates for your diaries…

*             The next event in the calendar of the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is next Wednesday, 16th November – Dr. Samuel Bibby, from the Association of Art Historians, will be speaking about ‘”New! Art… Plus Added Social Purpose”: BLOCK and the Periodical Landscape of 1970s British Art History(6:00-7:30pm, Room 106, School of Arts)


*             Then, the following week, early period colleagues will be running not one, but two events! The next Murray research seminar is coming up on Thursday 24th November at 5pm (Room 106, School of Arts): Dr. Pippa Salonius will be speaking on the topic of ‘Authority, Nature and the Image’ in medieval art and culture. Then, the following day, Friday 25th November, there will be a one-day interdisciplinary conference on Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality, also supported by the Murray Bequest. Prompted by the V&A Museum’s current exhibition of medieval embroidery, Opus Anglicanum, this event will be bringing together leading and emerging scholars working on questions of meaning and materiality in medieval textiles – both real and imaginary.

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I was delighted to be sent the piece in the Guardian today, written by an alumna of our MA History of Art programme – Inga Fraser. Do have a look at her story, about how her Masters degree helped her to develop her career. But I’m now going to hand over the final part of this blog to one of our current MA students, Sunil Shah. As well as working towards his Masters in History of Art, Sunil also works as an artist, and a curator….

Sunil Shah, Research and art practice in ‘a rebel scene’

“As an independent curator, artist and a student on the History of Art MA programme at Birkbeck, it is always useful when you can draw your academic research into the real-world scenarios you face as a practitioner. Earlier this year I was co-commissioned by the New Art Exchange in Nottingham for a social engagement project that supplemented a thematic exhibition about street art, protest and activism in Egypt and Iran. The gallery wanted to engage Nottingham’s activists and protest groups to provide a local context for the show. Alongside Kajal Nisha Patel, a Leicester-based artist, we had a brief to explore Nottingham’s rich history of political activism and connect that to the contemporary state of things.

Such a commission was a minefield of potential representational issues. Problematic areas we found in social practice and participatory art ranged from addressing structures and hierarchies within art’s institutional apparatus, the authorship and political positioning of the artist and authentic representation of political and social struggle. We needed a critical approach to this commission and so I decided to base my MA Research Project on this very subject. Through the research, we broadly addressed the history of art and politics from Dada up to the present as a way of revealing how artists, activists, theorists and institutions have typically tackled some of the complex questions that arise from this form of political agency.

courtesy-of-sparrows-nest1 anon

The research helped in defining a methodological approach to the commission – how we worked with the participating groups and how we decided to present the results of the collaboration. We ended up with an approach that aimed to level art and institutional hierarchies, renounce authorship and maintain the creative expression of those involved. We found the research to be a critical and essential part of the commission, without which its meaning and relevance might have been reduced. We worked with four local groups: Nottingham Womens Centre; the Sparrows Nest Anarchist Library and Archive; rebel women; and Reel Equality. The exhibition is titled ‘a rebel scene’ and consists of a poster paste-up wall, participant photo-collages and a political slogan text installation. It is on now at the New Art Exchange in Nottingham and continues until 18th December 2016.”


Do visit the display if you have the opportunity! Thanks Sunil.

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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.”

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Open House at Birkbeck

I write this approaching the end of the second week of our Autumn term. I do hope that everyone is settling in well to the new academic year, whether that’s to a new programme of study, or returning and continuing with work on the Cert HE, one of our BA or MA programmes, or the MPhil/PhD in History of Art. It was very nice indeed to meet our new students at our induction evenings, and to be able to offer a warm welcome alongside my colleagues in the department. Lots of useful material was covered in those events – and I’d like to recap on a couple of key pieces of information here, as a reminder to continuing students, as well as those who’ve just joined us.

  • One is that our Careers and Employability team offer a variety of important services for Birkbeck students. They run workshops on a wide range of useful topics, have a drop in service at Malet Street, and provide access to a careers portal which is accessible through your MyBirkbeck profile. I’m also delighted to announce that we’ve just learned that we have been awarded some monies from the Birkbeck Alumni fund, to run a bespoke programme of events for History of Art students this academic year, 2016-17! We are busily planning, and hope to announce further details soon.
  • Also, Sue Stern kindly joined us at a couple of the induction evenings, to talk about the work of and activities organised by the London Art History Society. Do have a look at their webpage for upcoming events. I would also strongly encourage all our MA and MPhil/PhD students to keep in mind the important Research Fund which the Society has so generously established in the History of Art department. This is to help with expenses relating to research, including travel, accommodation, photography, and photocopying. MA students can apply for a sum up to a maximum of £150; MPhil/PhD students for a sum up to a maximum of £300. Do have a look at this page for further details, and how to apply.

As ever, there’s almost too much news to pass onto you all! Here are a few highlights:

  • One recent development we’re particularly excited about in History of Art is the appointment of T.J. Clark as a Visiting Professor in the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. I thoroughly recommend having a listen of the podcast of the Masterclass which Professor Clark gave at the BIH earlier this year, on ‘Heaven and Earth According to Bruegel’.
  • Dr. Leslie Topp and Dr. Tag Gronberg have just headed off to Vienna, to speak at a symposium exploring Jewish contributions to Viennese Modernism. They will be contributing to a panel on ‘Designed Identities’ taking place tomorrow: Leslie speaking about modern architecture and anti-semitism in early twentieth-century Vienna; Tag giving a paper entitled ‘Myths of the Viennese Café: Ephemerality, Performativity and Loss’.
  • There are plenty of upcoming events to watch out for closer to home as well. On Monday 24th October, at 6pm (room 106, Gordon Square), Tim Satterthwaite will be giving a paper for the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, entitled Spiritualising the Machine: the Modernist Photography of UHU magazine.
  • Meanwhile, I do recommend booking your free place for an exciting symposium being hosted by the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre on Friday 18th November, entitled Spitalfields: On Development and Destruction (Keynes Library). This event will explore the possibilities of Spitalfields’ present and future, in relation to its rich and eventful past. Spitalfields is currently the focal point for a host of conflicting viewpoints on topics such as urban design, economic development, architectural preservation and cultural history, and this welcome symposium will bring together a diverse group of architects, archaeologists, historians and activists to consider the issues at stake.


I want to devote the rest of this blog to the triumph of Open House weekend at the School of Arts building in Gordon Square last month. This was the third year the building opened to the public, thanks to the hard work of a number of colleagues including Leslie Topp and Clare Thomas. Over the two days, a grand total of 244 visitors were greeted and guided around the building by a wonderful team of student volunteers. I now hand you over to one of them, Michael Clegg, who has just completed the MA History of Art here at Birkbeck.

Michael Clegg, Open House 2016 in Gordon Square

“Like many a School of Arts student, my first experiences of the Gordon Square building were about being lost in winding corridors and identical staircases. Last year, however, I volunteered to help out at the London Open House Weekend and, not only did I learn my way around, but I enjoyed it so much that I was back for this year’s event, on the weekend of 17-18 September, once again excellently overseen by Eva Hoog.

Our visitors get a tour of contrasts, opening with an introduction to Gordon Square’s Georgian architect, Thomas Cubbitt. It’s nice to point out how the building changes as you move through to the Victorian terrace at No. 47; a change which people often miss from the outside. Turning attention to the twenty-first century cinema built into the back of the terrace makes for a dramatic transition. Volunteers had been lucky enough to get an introduction to the space from one of its architects, Andy MacFee, and it was a pleasure to channel Andy’s expertise and enthusiasm.

Image result for cinema school of arts birkbeck

Then it’s off to No. 46 and its Bloomsbury heritage as home to Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf and, later, John Maynard Keynes.

For me there are three moments when being in the building gives visitors something unique. It’s great to go into the cinema, talk about its immersive atmosphere, and then stop for a moment of total silence. As a visual treat, visitors can look out the picture windows on the first-floor of No. 46, then see that same view in a Duncan Grant painting (illustrated courtesy of Patrizia di Bello). Finally, the paintings by Bell and Grant in the Keynes library provide the highest end illustrations for a history of the Bloomsbury Group. Whatever visitors come for, all seem genuinely pleased to have seen inside the building.”

They certainly were, judging by these visitor comments: ‘Lovely tour and great contrasts between styles and history’; ‘Really enjoyed the tour – current use for education is very apt – great cinema’; ‘The tour was fascinating. Our guide was wonderful – her enthusiasm was infectious!’ A big thank you to Michael, Eva and all the other students who made this such a success. (And do keep an eye out for a forthcoming short film about our Open House weekend, currently being made by the Derek Jarman Lab, who filmed during the tours, at the training evening for the volunteers, and conducted interviews with those involved such as Leslie and Patrizia.)




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Welcome to the new academic year!

A very warm welcome to the new academic year in the History of Art department at Birkbeck College! Some of you will be reading this blog for the first time, so I shall introduce myself , and the purpose of these postings. I’m Dr. Kate Retford, currently Head of the Department, and also Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and early Nineteenth-Century History of Art. When I became Head of Department, I wanted to set up this blogsite for current staff and students, to advertise the many activities which take place in and around the School of Arts every week, and to spread the word about what members of the department have been getting up to. It’s addressed to students across all our programmes: Cert HE, BA, Graduate Certificate, MA and MPhil/PhD, and I do urge you all to subscribe using the box on the right. I promise this won’t open you up to still more of the spam with which we all have to contend(!) – it just means that each post will come direct to you via email, and you won’t have to remember to keep an eye on this site.

I write a post about once a fortnight, but I also like to feature pieces by students and staff. In a couple of weeks’ time, for example, I’m looking forward to sharing an account of the School of Arts’ appearance in the recent Open House weekend with you all, written by a student just finishing the MA History of Art programme: Michael Clegg. Please do get in touch if you’d also like to contribute something – perhaps an account of an exhibition you’ve been involved in? The tale of how you came to be studying History of Art at Birkbeck? I’ll be delighted to hear from you!

This blog isn’t the only place where you can find out about everything going on in and around Gordon Square. You can also hear about upcoming talks, seminars, conferences, exhibitions in the Peltz gallery, and what will be featuring in Arts Week (held every May) by following tweets from the department (@BirkbeckHoA), and from the School of Arts (@birkbeck_arts). A number of members of staff also tweet – including Fiona Candlin (@FionaCandlin) and Leslie Topp (@LeslieTopp).

entrance cropped

So, we’re rapidly approaching the official first day of the new academic year, next Monday (3rd October), and it’ll be great to see those who’ve already been studying on our programmes again, returning after the summer vacation. I do hope everyone got to have a good break (along with reading, work on dissertations and the like of course!), and is feeling refreshed and ready for the new academic year. For those on taught programmes, the first class of each module is always fun, when everyone gets to meet other students on their new course, and to find out what they’ll be learning about over the coming term(s).

And it will be very nice indeed to welcome our new students! I’ll be at the BA induction evening tonight (Wednesday 28th September), the MA induction evening tomorrow (Thursday 29th September), and will come along to say hello to our new MPhil/PhD students on Thursday 6th October. I do hope you all settle in well over the next few weeks and enjoy your first experiences of studying with us – getting to know each other, as well as those of us on the academic staff, and my colleagues in the administrative team. We very much pride ourselves on being friendly and approachable, and I do encourage you to come and talk to us about any teething problems, or any difficulties as you get used to your programme of study. This is an exciting time, but it’s also a challenging one. You may be returning to study after a period away from education. This could be your first formal academic experience of the History of Art. You’ll probably be moving up a level from previous studies. Please do talk to our administrators – to your module directors (about any issues to do with a specific course) – and, above all, to your Personal Tutors.

All new students are assigned a Personal Tutor when they join us, on induction evening, and that person is there to advise on any issues arising during a programme of study – from general points coming up in essay feedback, through to personal or professional problems which can affect one’s work. Please do keep in touch with your Personal Tutor throughout your time with us. Your allocated member of staff will probably be on research leave for at least part of your programme, if you are here for more than a year, in which case you will be assigned to one of their colleagues, whilst they are away. If at any point you want to double check who your Personal Tutor currently is, then you can always do so on your ‘My Birkbeck’ page.

I want to end this first blog by also welcoming some new members of staff to the department. Dr. Peter Fane-Saunders is coming to us from Durham, as Lecturer in the History of Architecture, 1400-1800, covering Professor Mark Crinson who is currently away on a BA/Leverhulme Fellowship. Dr. Isobel Elstob is also joining us, from Nottingham, as Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture, whilst Dr. Suzannah Biernoff is on leave, on an ISSF/Wellcome research award. Very nice to have you both with us! Meanwhile, Dr. Leslie Topp’s duties for the Autumn term will be covered by a colleague who will be familiar to many of you: Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius, whose specialisms include Caricature, and Russian and East European Art, and who led our 2015/16 field trip to Paris.

Steve Edwards

Very excitingly, we also have a new Professor joining us permanently in the department this term: Professor Steve Edwards! Steve comes to us from the Open University, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to welcome him to the History of Art department, and the School of Arts at Birkbeck. His will be a familiar name to so many reading this blog. His expertise centres in contemporary art, art and social theory, and particularly the history and theory of photography. His Photography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2006) is the ‘go-to’ text in this area, and his 2013 book on Martha Rosler: The Bowery in Two Inadequate Systems  (Afterall, 2013) is a skilful melding of formal, contextual, and theoretical art historical analysis. It provides a seminal reading of this key photo-text experiment, which adds to our understanding of it as a documentary project, by exploring its broader position within conceptual and neo-avant-garde work of the period. Steve will be joining Dr. Patrizia di Bello and Professor Lynn Nead in the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, bolstering our already substantial teaching and research expertise in this area. It will be a great pleasure to introduce Steve to our new, and continuing students, over the next few weeks.


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Wishing you all a great summer vacation!

It’s the final day of the summer term – and I write this just ahead of our BA exam board, this afternoon, and our History of Art summer party this evening! (Friday 1st July, 6-8pm, room G01 in Gordon Square). I look forward to seeing members of staff and students, to raise a glass to the end of the academic year – and, hopefully, to put political turmoil out of our minds for an hour or two. I do want to take this opportunity, though, to draw your attention to the statements put out by the College, following information about the position of EU students issued by the government at the start of the week – At Birkbeck, we are very proud indeed of the diversity of our staff and students, and are firmly committed to welcoming and supporting colleagues and students from across the EU, as well as beyond. The Referendum result will have no immediate impact on the immigration status of any applicant, student, or member of staff. Birkbeck also will not be changing the published 2016/17 tuition fees for EU students. EU students who are registered at Birkbeck in 2016/17 (either as a new or continuing student) will be charged the home student fee for the duration of their course. Furthermore, if you are an EU student on one of our courses, you will continue to receive any loans and grants you have been awarded, until you have completed your programme of study. If you do have any questions about how the result will affect you, then please do contact the Student Advice centre.

At least the summer awaits us, and I hope you all have the opportunity to have a good rest from your studies – as well as to get ahead with dissertations and research projects, and preparation for the modules you’ll be taking next year. I normally pack these blog postings with news of events being organised within the department and School – these are winding up now, although I hope you’ve either had a chance to see, or are planning to see the great exhibition now on in the Peltz? Tejas Verdes: I was not there is a collaborative project, bringing together sociologist Margarita Palacios’s research on violence, and visual artist Livia Marin’s work around loss and care, and it’s on until 15th July.

Tejas Verdes: I was not there

I shall, however, take the opportunity of the quiet of the coming break to tell you a little about what one of our PhD students has been up to recently. Jane Quinn is undertaking a practice-based PhD, entitled Shared Spaces: War Art and the Imagery of Conflict since 1991 – and she has recently been awarded an ArtLess Bursary, by the School of Arts here at Birkbeck, to support her work. Congratulations Jane! The ArtLess Group was established in 2014 to develop creative, entrepreneurial and project possibilities for PhD students across the Arts. It secured AHRC funding for the Arts of Experiment Project, to translate research into potential exhibitions for the art market in partnership with Bury Museum of Art in Manchester. I shall hand you over to Jane, to tell you more about her work, and the bursary….

Jane Quinn, The ArtLess Bursary and Images of Conflict

“I am researching a practice-based PhD on war art and the imagery of conflict since 1991, which combines a written element and a website. Understanding the effect of the images on the audience is an important aspect of the research, and I am building a site which will include the opinions of users who might not be regular museum or gallery visitors, alongside the views of artists and curators. There will be video, audio, stills and text, together with interactive feedback. Aware of the danger of spreading myself too thinly across the different media elements of my research, I have been looking for funding for a web editor to help edit and load the content.

The ArtLess Bursary scheme seemed to fit with the public engagement element of my work. As a way of gathering audience views, my Images of Conflict ArtLess project involves working with sixth form students in the art and photography department at Corelli College in Kidbrooke, Greenwich. Corelli College is a tough school, an Academy, with students from a wide variety of social backgrounds. With the Headteacher’s agreement, I’m collaborating with one of the art teachers there, Alex Davies, to identify a group of 16-18 year olds, show them a range of images of conflict, and ask them to speak about what they see and understand. I’ll then give them more background information about the images, and see how their response to them changes. These interviews will be filmed and loaded onto the Images of Conflict site. The bursary will enable me to get a web editor to edit and post the film alongside text as the basis for an ongoing online discussion amongst an invited audience. If anyone would like to become part of the conversation, starting in late summer, please let me know:

Because of the ArtLess bursary, I will be able to move the video and audio content off my camera and computer and onto the site in an accessible, edited form. The bursary will help develop a public engagement model which I can roll out as part of my research to other audiences. Thank you ArtLess!”

I also can’t resist squeezing in a small anecdote from one of my own PhD students, Hannah Armstrong, which I particularly enjoyed the other week. Hannah is coming up to the end of a PhD on Wanstead – a major eighteenth-century house, once on a par with Chatsworth or Houghton, but razed to the ground in the early 1800s, and now effectively a hole on an east London golf course. Hannah has been painstakingly using a wide variety of sources to reconstruct this property, its furnishings and art collection, and its grounds, and has been finding all manner of fascinating material. Having located a manuscript of eighteenth-century music, written for Wanstead House by one Samuel Poole, she tweeted about the discovery – and someone, out there, had played, recorded and posted the piece online within a matter of days! To imagine yourself, for a moment, at an eighteenth-century assembly in a Palladian mansion, click on this link.

That’s nearly it from me for 2016-17 – but I want to end this final blog by reiterating the news of the exciting, momentous development in the History of Art department at Birkbeck this year: the appointment of not one, but two new Professors! A truly transformative moment. Do have a look at our news story for full details. Today, Friday 1st July, Professor Mark Crinson takes up his post as Professor in the History and Theory of Architecture, joining my colleagues Dr. Leslie Topp, Dr. Tag Gronberg and Dr. Zoe Opacic in the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre, to consolidate this as one of the department’s great strengths in research and teaching.

Professor Mark CrinsonMark will be taking up a one-year Leverhulme/British Academy senior fellowship in September, to work on a project called ‘Shock City: Image and Architecture in Industrial Manchester’, but I am delighted to announce that his duties next academic year will be covered by Dr. Peter Fane-Saunders, coming to us from the University of Durham. Our other new Chair is Steve Edwards, who will be joining us as Professor in the History and Theory of Photography in the Autumn. Together with Dr. Patrizia di Bello, and other colleagues in the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, this will secure our place in this area of research and teaching excellence also.

A warm welcome to our new colleagues, and we look forward to introducing them to our students.

Wishing you all great summers – I shall be blogging again in the Autumn!

Kate Retford, Head of History of Art




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Glad tidings as the end of term approaches

Two weeks to go until the start of the summer vacation – and there’s a lot of activity around the School of Arts! We have some key events coming up for students before the term officially comes to a close, at the end of next week. This Friday, 24th June, is our summer postgraduate conference, on the theme of ‘Looking at the Overlooked’. Registration is open and has been advertised to all MA and MPhil/PhD students – so, if you are a postgraduate in the department, and would like to attend, then please do register for a place: In the morning, we have papers from Dr Carol Jacobi from Tate Britain, and Dr. Robert Mills from UCL. After lunch, we will be treated to presentations from a number of our research students, followed by a panel discussion and a reception. It promises to be a very stimulating day, including lots of fascinating discussion – and we are very grateful to the London Art History Society who are generously funding this event.

I also mentioned some valuable Careers and Employability events coming up in my last blog, intended to help BA, Graduate Certificate and MA students who want to develop their careers in the Arts, or to move into that area. The first of these take place tomorrow, Tuesday 21st June – a session on careers for art historians, and transferrable skills, from 4-5.30pm, followed by a careers evening from 6pm onwards, where you’ll be able to hear from a number of professionals in the field, and ask questions. We then have a follow-up session on Tuesday 28th June, when colleagues from the Careers and Employability service will be providing useful tips on the practicalities of CVs and interviews. Do follow the links in this paragraph to reserve places at these events.

And, of course, a key date for all students’ diaries, whichever programme of study you are on – the annual History of Art summer party! This will be taking place on the final day of term, Friday 1st July, 6-8pm, in room G01 in Gordon Square. We welcome contributions of drinks, and of nibbles – but most of all we’ll welcome your company as we celebrate the end of the academic year, and toast our finalists. We hope to see lots of you there!

46 Gordon Square, Londres, Royaume-Uni

One more seminar coming up in the Murray series before the end of term – Laura Slater will be giving a paper on Wednesday 29th June (5pm, Keynes library), entitled Talking Back to Power? Art and Political Opinion in Early Fourteenth-Century England. Dr. Slater will be exploring the role of art and architecture in challenging political ideas and opinions in early fourteenth-century England, focussing on the activities of Queen Isabella of France. This promises to be a fascinating talk, considering ‘spin’ and reputation management in medieval art and politics. The History and Theory of Photography Research Centre also has one more event scheduled before the summer: a major workshop, organised in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and the Department of Law at LSE: Law and Photography: Mugshots, Passports and Portraiture (Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd July). This workshop will examine the ways in which photographic technologies have contributed – practically and symbolically – to the construction of particular legal, evidential and affective modes of vision. Papers and discussion will consider criminal mugshots, passport photographs and other forms of official and domestic styles of photographing the face in their historical and geographical contexts, and in relation to forms of gendered colonial and post-colonial identity.

I want to end this blog with news of a major triumph for my colleague, Dr. Fiona Candlin, Reader in Museum Studies – indeed, all of us in the department are currently bathing in her reflected glory!


Many of you will know about Fiona’s work on micro museums – she wrote a piece for this blog on her research into very small museums a while ago, and I included a photograph of the launch of her book on the subject with Bloomsbury, earlier this year. Coming out of that work, Fiona began looking at the history of independent museums, and – over the last year or so – she has been developing a major grant proposal, to fund a project to map these organisations over the last 50+ years. Professor Alex Poulovassilis, from Computer Science at Birkbeck, has been collaborating with Fiona on this – and I am delighted to say that they have been successful. The Arts and Humanities Research Council has just awarded them in the region of £1 million(!) to map and analyse the UK independent museums sector from 1960 – 2020. This is a huge undertaking, taking place across the next four years, involving a number of research assistants in a variety of areas (for details of the first post, just advertised, please follow this link.)

It is also a vital undertaking, as records of the approximately 1600 independent museums currently operating in the UK, and those that have opened and closed since 1960, are patchy to say the least. Currently, not enough is known about what opened, when, and where, and what these institutions’ fortunes have been. This is extraordinary gap in knowledge and understanding, as these museums – founded by community and special interest groups, or individual collectors – have revolutionised the sector in the UK. Fiona and Alex, together with their researchers, will be creating a full, searchable dataset, which will be made freely available on a project website. This material will also be used to identify patterns in the emergence, purpose, development and closure of these museums. Fiona will be looking at when exactly they opened; if there was a link between where they opened and their subject matter, or between date and subject matter; if there are areas where few museums opened or survived, and if these patterns correlate to other broader cultural or social factors. Overall, this will provide the first proper history of the UK museum boom. It’s vital work – for scholarship – for the general public – and for policy makers and arts funders looking at the sustainability and future of museums in the UK. Do have a look at the project website, for full details of this impressive project.

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To the banks of the Tiber….

Running this blog, I have been particularly fortunate this academic year in being able to persuade a number of current and former students from the department to write pieces for us. Many thanks to all of you – and I do hope these postings encourage more of you to get in touch, to share your thoughts, experiences and activities with fellow students and staff! We’ve had Gary Haines from the MPhil/PhD History of Art programme writing about his work at Crisis; Jess Stratford (BA History of Art with Curating) on the revived student History of Art society; Anna Jamieson about her time on the MA History of Art; Elizabeth Fullerton (MA History of Art 2013) on her recently published book on BritArt; Annette Waywell from the MA History of Art with Photography, with her highly successful plea for votes for Bedwyr Williams to perform at Somerset House – and, of course, a few days ago, Kathryn Hallam-Howard, BA student, on the recent field trip to Paris. For the second half of this posting, I shall hand you over to Katherine Cuthbert, who completed the BA programme here with us in 2015, and progressed straight onto the MA History of Art. She went to Rome to work on her MA Research Project, and became embroiled in a fascinating art project as a result…

But, before I pass you on for Triumphs and Laments in Rome, I want to let you know about a great opportunity for career development, and some upcoming events.

If you’re currently on our Graduate Certificate or one of our BA or MA programmes, and are thinking about how to develop your career in the Arts, or to move into this area, then I have a couple of dates for your diaries: Tuesday 21st and Tuesday 28th June. On Tuesday 21st June, 4-5.30pm, colleagues from Careers and Employability will be examining the professional routes available to history of art students, from the characteristic to the more unusual. They will also be discussing transferrable skills – where they can be drawn from, and how to use them in career development. If you would like to attend this event, please do sign up here. This session will then be followed by a careers evening organised by the department, from 6pm onwards, when a number of speakers will talk about their careers in the arts, and answer questions. There will also be drinks and nibbles – follow this link to reserve your place. Then, the following week, on Tuesday 28th June, there will be a follow up event with the Careers and Employability service, on some of the practicalities of career development. They will be talking about best practice in creating and using CVs, and about how to prepare and research for, and perform well in an interview. Here’s the link. I do strongly encourage any of you currently thinking about career development to sign up for as many of these three events as you can – they are all free, and promise to offer a wealth of useful advice and information.

So, onto other events… This Thursday, 9th June, the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre hosts its next seminar (6-7.30pm, room 112, School of Arts). Luke Gartlan, from the University of St. Andrews, and editor of the History of Photography journal, will be giving a paper entitled, ‘Before “White Australia”: The Singleton Family Photo Albums and Early Australian-Japanese Relations”. My colleagues who co-organise the Architecture, Space and Society Centre meanwhile, having put on what I’m sure is a record number of events in Arts Week, are still very busy! On Wednesday, 8th June, 6-7.30pm, Tim Benton will be speaking in the Birkbeck Cinema in the School of Arts on ‘Saving E-1027: Trials and tribulations in the re-presentation of Eileen Gray’s house by the sea’ . Tim Benton is Emeritus Professor of Art History at the Open University and will be asking: What are the issues in conserving a house whose unique value lies in the organisation of space through the use of furniture? Almost all the fixed and movable pieces of furniture by Eileen Gray were sold or stolen in the 1980s. Presenting the house empty is not an option. Professor Benton will discuss the problems facing the Association Cap Moderne, which is currently in charge of the restoration, upkeep and management of the villa.


Now for Katherine to take us to the banks of the Tiber….

Katherine Cuthbert, ‘Triumphs and Laments, a project for Rome, 2016’

Kentridge 1

“Planning a short trip to Rome to do some research on Renaissance facade painting, I discovered that William Kentridge was in the process of executing a project on the Tiber embankment wall. As this had relevance to my research project, I emailed the organization involved, requesting an interview. The artistic director agreed and, as I am an artist familiar with a variety of media, asked if I would volunteer to work with the team on the wall.

William Kentridge’s Tiber project, Triumphs and Laments, is a site specific work, 1,800 feet long and 33 feet high, executed on the only straight stretch of embankment wall of the Tiber, between the Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. The project was conceived some twenty years ago by the artist Kristin Jones, who has worked tirelessly and with great determination to bring her vision to life, despite many bureaucratic obstacles, and lack of public funding.

The frieze depicts eighty figures from antiquity to the present, in the form of a procession; themes of estrangement and transience compete with those of victory and ascendancy. Eighty figures from all of Rome’s history converse with each other across this vast space: Michelangelo’s Jeremiah, Anita Garibaldi, Partisans, migrants, Giordano Bruno, Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa,  Aldo Moro, Marcus Aurelius, Pasolini, and scenes from La Dolce Vita, Trajan’s Column, and the Arch of Titus, to name a few. The frieze does not represent a chronological history of Rome: a team of art historians worked for three years gathering images from across the ages, from which Kentridge chose a selection, to present fragments from which the viewer can reconstruct a possible history that connects the ancient and the contemporary.

Kentridge 2  Stencil in Place

Kentridge 3 Power Washing

The imagery was executed in “reverse graffiti”. Kentridge’s small charcoal drawings were magnified, using a computer programme, and cut into huge stencils which were attached to the embankment wall. A technical crew then power washed the walls with warm water and magnesium bicarbonate, revealing the natural colour of the travertine, while the image remained in the original dirt, a combination of pollution and organic matter.

Kentridge 5Kentridge 4

Kentridge 6

Marcus Aurelius, The Triumphs of Caesar (after Mantegna) and Winged Victory (after Trajan’s Column)

The dirt that came off the walls was carefully collected, and I worked with this rather pungent “paint” to correct the details, painting over areas where the lines had been obscured, using the original plans as guidance. Walking up and down 1,800 feet all day in the blazing sun certainly gave me all the exercise I needed! Once the wall was completed there were shadow puppets to cut out of corrugated black plastic, and costumes to make in the vast rooms of La Pelanda, Macro, Testaccio, whilst watching Kentridge rehearse processions and listening to forty musicians practising.

The work was inaugurated on 21st April with an open air opera, composed by Phillip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi, set against the backdrop of the wall frieze, which was brightly lit with spotlights. A procession from opposite ends of the frieze -one an expression of  triumphs, the other of laments – everyone carrying shadow puppets which loomed large on the wall -slowly approached each other  towards the centre, while a cacophony of sounds, both weird and wonderful, projected through the night air.  A evening of pure magic to celebrate the 2769th mythical anniversary of the founding of Rome, in a project brought to life with the vision of Kristin Jones, the drawings of William Kentridge and a team of volunteers.

It was a wonderful experience to work on this ethereal wall which will only last four to five years, as the biological patina gradually returns and obliterates the imagery. Not a trace now remains on the opposite wall of Kristin Jones’s She Wolves 2005.”

Kentridge 8 Kristin Jones, She Wolves, 2005

Kentridge 7

The Opera. 21st April 2016





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Birkbeck Art Historians in Paris, Easter 2016

I have a very special blog posting for you! During the Easter vacation, a few weeks ago, Kasia Murawska Muthesius and Stefan Muthesius took a number of Birkbeck History of Art students, from a range of programmes, to Paris, for the annual departmental study trip. This trip takes place between the Spring and Summer terms every year, and is a wonderful opportunity to visit an important city, and study works of art and architecture in situ, in the company of a couple of experienced tutors. We alternate cities particularly rich in Renaissance and Modern art – and, as last year saw Joanne Anderson and Zuleika Murat’s memorable visit to Florence, it was the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in 2016….

One of the students who went on this year’s trip to Paris very kindly agreed to write a report of the visit – even though she’s only just emerged from sitting her exams! I hand you over to Kathryn Hallam-Howard, currently on the BA History of Art programme, for the rest of this posting.

Kathryn Hallam-Howard on the Birkbeck History of Art Study Trip to Paris, 11-15 April 2016

“A wide cross-section of students from the History of Art department participated in this year’s field trip to Paris, each with their own aspirations for the week. My own hope was that I would see Paris, a city I have visited many times, through fresh eyes. Arriving at the tackily named Hotel Esmeralda – yes, you’ve guessed it – in the shadow of the magnificent Notre Dame, I was immediately shown to a room that can only be described as a boudoir. I had been warned to expect quirky, but had not quite expected to be greeted by a bed adorned with slithering golden snakes and a golden laurel wreath. No tea maker, no TV, no hairdryer – a real nineteenth-century garret to set the tone.

Paris Field Trip 1

A quick stroll through the Tuileries Gardens brought me to the imposing and massive presence of l’Èglise Madeleine, where I met up with my fellow students and our tutors, Kasia Murawska Muthesius and Stefan Muthesius. Stefan then led us around this magnificent Neo-Classical church, which embodied Napoleon’s vision to re-create an ancient classical temple to honour his army. Dodging rain showers, as we wandered through the streets of Paris, we savoured the architecture of the Place Vendôme, before a late afternoon visit to the Louvre. There we had the chance to see some great Academy paintings at close quarters. Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1819-19), Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) and David’s The Coronation of Napoleon (1807), to name but a few.

Tuesday began at the Musée d’Orsay, where fellow students, David Daly, Julija Svetlova and Sheila Robinson treated us to three excellent presentations. David chose a series of five paintings by Claude Monet of La Cathédrale de Rouen (1892-4). To see these five paintings hung adjacent to each other, accompanied by David’s explanation about how Monet set about capturing the light and ambience, was very special. Julija introduced us to a painter unknown to most of us, Gustave Caillebotte. Her presentation on his atmospheric work, The Floor Scrapers (1875), revealed why her infectious enthusiasm for this artist was justified.

Paris Field Trip 2

Photo: Alison Press

Sheila’s choice was a beautiful and vibrant piece by Vincent van Gogh, L’église d’Auvers-sur-Oise (1890).

A quick lunch at the Café des Deux Maggots, favourite haunt of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Pat Wadsworth entered into the spirit of the occasion and became our modern day Simone – a moment brilliantly captured by Frances Snelling.

Paris Field Trip 3

No time to linger, but onwards to the Musée Rodin. The building was formerly the Hôtel Biron and was home to several great artists. Amongst its tenants were the writer, Jean Cocteau, the artist Henri Matisse, the dancer, Isadora Duncan and the sculptress, Clara Westhoff, the future wife of Rainer Maria Rilke. From 1911 onwards, Rodin occupied the whole building and it now houses over three hundred of his works, including The Gates of Hell (1880-90), The Kiss (1882) and The Thinker (1903). It was particularly interesting to see many of his partially completed sculptures, which gave great insight into his artistic process. The day ended brilliantly with a visit to the Petit Palais, built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition. There we saw an interesting collection of works and some opulent murals, which glorified the City of Paris and celebrated the benefits of art.

Wednesday arrived and we were off to the Opera Garnier. This beautifully ornate building is regarded as one of the most recognisable symbols of Paris. It was the setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera, on which the West End musical is based. The interior is a maze of sumptuous internal spaces, leading to the Grand Staircase and the Grand Foyer, where Parisian society paraded in its finery and still does so today.

Paris Field Trip 4

A brisk walk took us through several wonderfully ornate Art Nouveau arcades to the Museé of Gustave Moreau. Located in his former house, it proved to be a treasure trove of his works. Moreau was a Symbolist, whose main emphasis was the illustration of biblical and mythological figures. He had a reputation for eccentricity and this was evident in his work. It is unusual to say the least. Our minds whirring with the most bizarre images, we continued onwards to savour the unique atmosphere of Montmartre. The Église Saint-Jean-de-Montmartre, which lies at the foot of the hill, was one of the first churches to be made of reinforced concrete. Its brick and tile decoration and its stained glass windows all reflect the best qualities of Art Nouveau design.

A short walk up the hill and we passed a rather innocuous looking front door in a building to our left. Kasia gathered us together and informed us that the door led to the atelier where Picasso painted one of his most famous works, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Looking at the ordinariness of the building and the narrowness of the front door, it was amazing to imagine Picasso struggling to deliver it to its first exhibition.

Our next stop was certainly one of the most charming museums in Paris, the Museé Montmartre. It lies tucked away in a little side street in the oldest building in Montmartre. During its heyday, it was the home of Auguste Renoir and its peaceful gardens are named after him. Suzanne Valadon had her studio here.

Paris Field Trip 5

Valadon started life as a circus trapeze artist, but a fall led to her posing as a model for Renoir and Degas. The story goes that nine months after posing for them, she gave birth to a son. She took the boy to Renoir, who declared that the baby could not be his, “the colour was all wrong”. Degas maintained the child could not be his, “the line was all wrong”. Valadon then retired to a nearby café, where she poured out her troubles to the Spanish artist, Miguel Utrilllo. Utrillo told her to give the boy his name, since he would be proud to put his name to a work by Renoir or Degas. That baby grew up to be the artist Maurice Utrillo, famous for his many street scenes of Montmartre.

A short stroll brought us to the Café au Lapin Agile, which, under the tenancy of a local poet, Frédéric Gérard, became a magnet for artists and intellectuals. Frédé’s constant companion was a donkey, Lolo, and Lolo was the chief protagonist in an infamous art hoax, which took place in 1910.  Roland Dorgelès was a writer and vociferous critic of all forms of new art. He attached a paintbrush to Lolo’s tail and held various vegetables in front of his nose, causing the little donkey to swish his tail with excitement.

Paris Field Trip 6The resulting canvas, named “Sunset Over the Adriatic” by the fictitious Genoese painter Joachim Raphaël Boronali, was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants, where it earned high praise and was eventually sold for 400 francs.

Paris Field Trip 7

This artwork was the first of the new “Excessivism Movement”, wrote Dorgelès, for a credulous Salon. The trick was then revealed amidst much hilarity and embarrassment, and Lolo’s place in history was assured.

On Thursday morning, we found ourselves at the Centre Georges Pompidou, where Stefan explained the intricacies of Richard Rogers’s and Renzo Piano’s radical architecture, followed by a tour around some key paintings, led by Kasia. Sitting next to this wonderful gallery was the Atelier Brancusi. Constantin Brancusi was a Romanian sculptor, who lived and worked in Paris. Upon his death, he left his entire body of work to the French State and many items are housed in this replica of his studio, which has been faithfully re-created by Renzo Piano. The afternoon then brought us to the extremely modern Fondation Louis Vuitton, a new private art space, housed in a building designed by Frank Gehry.

Paris Field Trip 8

Friday appeared far too soon, and our last day began at the Place du Dublin, scene of Paris Street: Rainy Day (1877) by Gustave Caillebotte. It was remarkable how little the architecture had changed. From there, we moved onwards and upwards to our final destination, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at Poissy. This marvel of twentieth-century design was fascinating and a fitting place to conclude our trip.

Paris Field Trip 9

All too soon it was over. It was great to meet students from other courses and from such diverse backgrounds. Huddles of Birkbeck art historians, pooling their collective knowledge, became a common sight on the streets of Paris. A huge vote of thanks must go to Kasia and Stefan, who put so much effort into making the field trip so memorable. Their enthusiasm and energy made the whole experience fabulous!”

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From Arts Week to Open House

As I write this, Birkbeck Arts Week 2016 is nearing a highly successful conclusion! The School of Arts building has been a-buzz all week, with staff, students and visitors arriving, setting up events, and trying to dash from one to another, to squeeze in as much as possible. It’s been difficult to choose between all the lectures, panels, screenings, workshops and tours taking place. Last night, my pick was the lecture on ‘Brutalism’ by Professor Mark Crinson, who will be joining us as a new member of staff in the History of Art department in a little over a month’s time. The room was packed, as Professor Crinson took us through an incisive critique of scholarship around and responses to Brutalism. Arts Week is not quite yet done though – do check out the programme for this evening and tomorrow, if you’re able to fit in one or more events – and take at least one more look at the wonderful, woolly installation on the front of the building! This, courtesy of Assistant School Managers Catherine Catrix and Claire Adams, is still proudly announcing Arts Week to all passers by. It’s yarn bombing I’m told!


The panel discussion on ‘Film as Research’ which Professor Lynn Nead organised on Tuesday this week was prompted by an exciting project which emerged out of her exhbition on the Fallen Woman. This took place last Autumn, at the Foundling Museum. I know many of you gladly took advantage of the generous 50% discount on tickets for Birkbeck students – and you’ll also be interested to know of a film which has just been made by Lily Ford, which draws on and develops a cinematic language for the same material as the show. Lily is a Deputy Director at the Derek Jarman Lab, where she recently produced a film on the writer and art critic John Berger, titled ‘The Seasons in Quincy’, with Tilda Swinton. In 2015, Lily completed a PhD on aerial views and the culture of flight in 1920s Britain, with Lynn. She then worked as Researcher in Residence at the Ben Uri Art Gallery and Museum. Lily has directed the film ‘Fallen Women’ as an AHRC Cultural Engagement Fellow at Birkbeck – and it’s more than worth a look! Here’s the link.


Arts Week may be over, but there are still plenty of events coming up to look forward to. Next week, Birkbeck is involved in a major international conference entitled ‘Leonardo in Britain: Collections and Reception’, co-organised with the National Gallery and the Warburg Institute. Do take a look at the full programme, put together by one of our Associate Research Fellows, Juliana Barone. Birkbeck will be hosting the opening lecture, in the Clore Lecture Theatre, on Wednesday 25th May, at 5.15pm. Professor Martin Kemp from Oxford will be giving a talk entitled ‘Spinning a yarn or two: Leonardo’s two matching Madonnas’. His lecture is intended to launch the conference, but it is also possible to book tickets for it as a standalone event – and it’s free – so please do sign up if you’d like to come along.

Then, on Wednesday 1st June, our own Clare Vernon, who’s been teaching for us this year while Zoe Opacic has been on research leave, will be leading the Murray Seminar (Keynes Library, 5pm). Clare will be giving a paper on the fascinating topic of Pseudo-Arabic in Medieval Southern Italy’. Pseudo-Arabic script appears in both Islamic and Christian Mediterranean art in the central Middle Ages. In her talk, Clare will be examining the use of pseudo-Arabic motifs in the region of Puglia in southeast Italy over the course of the eleventh century.  Focussing attention on the mysterious pavement in the basilica of San Nicola in Bari, she will explore how the script-like motif relates to Bari’s role as capital of the Byzantine provinces in Italy.

It’s also time to remind you of the host of events organised by the London Art History Society, which is affiliated to the History of Art Society here at Birkbeck. We have a close relationship with the LAHS, who have generously funded a number of research bursaries for MA and MPhil/PhD students this academic year, and are supporting the upcoming postgraduate conference on ‘Looking at the Overlooked’ on Friday 24th June. The Society have some particularly exciting study events coming up, on subjects as diverse as patronage in Renaissance Italy (led by Caroline Brooke), and the Dutch Golden Age (Clare Ford-Wille). If you aren’t already a member of the Society, I would urge you to consider joining – a true bargain at £20 a year!


A few updates on news items in my last blog postings… A couple of weeks ago, I told you that one of our current PhD students, Vazken Davidian, was organising a panel discussion on 26th April, entitled ‘Towards Inclusive Art Histories: Ottoman Armenian Voices Speak Back’. This was based on a special art history edition of the journal, Études Arméniennes Contemporaines, which Vazken was invited to edit. I’m delighted to say that the event was a great success, and the room was packed.

Dream Team 2

I also heard a few days ago from Annette Waywell, our MA History of Art with Photography student who works as Learning Manager at Somerset House. She wrote a lovely piece for this blog, asking you all to support a proposal for Bedwyr Williams to stage a ‘druidic open mic comedy night’ onsite, for Museums at Night. Well, I am very pleased to be able to share the news that they were successful, and Bedwyr will be performing at Somerset House! Thank you to all those who voted – apparently, at times, it was very close indeed, so every vote very much counted!

Another of our MA students, Steven Dryden, who is currently studying Museum Cultures, also dropped us a line to tell us about an event which he’s been organising. Steven works at the British Library, and his timely symposium on 23rd May will be looking at the potential of the audio and audio-visual academic book of the future. You can find more details on the BL website.


Last, but by no means least, I want to alert all students to a meeting on Wednesday 15th June (6pm, room 112, School of Arts), for anyone interested in volunteering for Open House London on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th September. This is the weekend each year when buildings of architectural interest are opened to the public free of charge.  For the third time, the School of Arts building is going to be included, opening up on both days, and, as ever, we’re after volunteers! We’re looking for students and former students who would like to be part of the event and represent Birkbeck, whether as guides (all access will be by guided tour) or wardens. We’re hoping to recruit enough volunteers to be able to run shifts – so it’d be a matter of committing to one morning or afternoon over that weekend (plus attending the information meeting, and a training event on one evening in September). Previous volunteers have found it a lot of fun – have a look at their accounts on a blog posting from last year – so I encourage you to take part! It’s a chance to meet new people, and to learn a lot more about the fascinating building in which we work and study. If you are interested in volunteering, and coming along to the meeting on the 15th June, then please e-mail Eva Höög at with your name and programme of study. 

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Time to sign up for Arts Week events….

I hope everyone is now settled into the summer term – although I strongly suspect our BA students are feeling far from settled as exam season is just about to start. Good luck with that final push on revision – and with those forthcoming hours in the examination room!

Also imminent is Arts Week, which starts Monday 16th May, and is always an exciting event in the School of Arts calendar – as anyone who’s been at Birkbeck in May in previous years will know. The programme is now live, and I urge you all to go onto the website as soon as you can, browse through the range of tempting events on offer, and to register for as many as possible! Everything is free, as ever, but you do need to reserve a place for anything you want to go along to. For those who haven’t previously been around at this time of year, Arts Week is a time when we showcase our research and teaching interests in the School of Arts, and our relationships with the Creative Arts. There are screenings, workshops, exhibitions, talks, walks….you name it.

Members of the History of Art department are involved in many events taking place across the week. If you’re interested in curating, then do sign up for ‘Curating Difficult Objects’ on the Monday, when Gabriel Koureas and Lynn Nead will be joining Anthony Bale from the Department of English and Humanities to talk about exhibitions of controversial or uncomfortable objects on which they have each worked. Lynn has also organised a panel discussion on the Tuesday, which will look at how film can create new forms of research, and new ways of looking at research materials. Gabriel, meanwhile, has also put together a roundtable discussion on the concept of identity as constructed and performed through social rituals on the Thursday evening, planned to coincide with the exhibition, RELAPSE – Identity, which has just opened in the Peltz Gallery. And he’s finding the energy to participate in another event, around artist-researcher collaborations! Meanwhile, if photography is one of your particular interests, then do look at details of a session organised around ‘Photographic Experience of Space’, on the Monday.

Those colleagues who run the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre have put together a particularly impressive number of events. Our own Fiona Candlin and Leslie Topp will be joined by Swati Chattopadhyay for a discussion, on the Wednesday, of small spaces, from bookshelves through to cells to micromuseums. How do such spaces shape solitary pursuits and social interactions, and how might they inflect our studies of museums, art and architecture? The ASSC has also organised walking tours – two exploring architectural modernism in Bloomsbury (on the Tuesday and Wednesday), and one around Covent Garden (the latter led by one of my own PhD students, Thom Braun). Finally, they’re hosting a lecture being given by Professor Mark Crinson, on the Thursday, entitled ‘Brutalism: From New to Neo’. In this, Professor Crinson will ask: What was Brutalism? And why does it still seem to separate us into either ardent advocates, or angry critics?

Crinson talk image

We’re all particularly excited about this lecture in the History of Art department, as Mark Crinson will be joining us in July, as our new Professor in the History and Theory of Architecture! This will be one of our first chances to offer him a warm welcome to the department. His arrival will be quickly followed by that of another new colleague, Professor Steve Edwards, one of the most acclaimed international scholars in the History and Theory of Photography, who, I’m delighted to say, will be joining us in September.


I have news this week from a couple of MA students from the department – one who completed the MA History of Art programme a few years ago, and one currently studying for her Masters in History of Art with Photography.

The current student is Annette Waywell who, when she’s not at Gordon Square or working on her latest piece of coursework, is Learning Manager at Somerset House. In that capacity, she wrote a proposal to win artist Bedwyr Williams staging a ‘druidic open mic comedy night’ onsite for Museums at Night – and it’s been shortlisted! I shall pass you over to Annette to tell you more about it, and to persuade you to put in a vote ….

“The competition is an annual element of Museums at Night, which takes place in the UK every May and October, encouraging new and existing audiences to explore galleries and museums across the country ‘after hours’. It’s described by Culture 24, the funders,  as a ‘Lates Festival for the culturally curious’.

Part of the festival is an initiative called Connect, in which high profile contemporary artists propose a Museums at Night artwork or intervention. Any venue can then respond to that proposal, describing why their gallery or museum would be the perfect choice to host it. The artist shortlists their favourites, and it is put to a public vote. The venue with the most votes wins the artist, and the event, plus substantial funding to stage it. 

This year there were six Connect artists, including Marcus Coates and Susan Hiller, who had submitted a range of ideas – from an exhibition of sacred water to ultraviolet portraiture, all to take place at the end of October. 

Performance artist Bedwyr Williams’s proposal had a spirit of improvisation and live performance that seemed best suited to Somerset House’s historic site. We’ve now had our bid shortlisted alongside two regional galleries – but both have successfully won Connect artists in previous years, so they clearly have a sound voting strategy! This is a brilliant opportunity to work alongside an artist to help fulfil his vision from concept to fruition. Plus, an open-mic druidic comedy evening with prehistoric snacks will make for a memorable evening… So we hope everyone will vote for us (even though it will make my autumn very busy).”

So, if you like the sound of pagan performance in London (we are on a ley-line apparently!), please cast a vote by 14th May…


The member of our alumni who has been in touch recently is Elizabeth Fullerton, a student on the part-time MA History of Art between 2011 and 2013. I am delighted to tell you that she has just published a book on BritArt, and with no less major a publisher than Thames and Hudson! (Jennifer Sprackling, one of our recently graduated BA students, now also on the MA programme, helped with transcribing the interviews which underpin the book.)

“In 2011, I left my job as a journalist with Reuters and began my part-time MA in History of Art, while writing simultaneously for the American magazine ARTnews. I absolutely loved the MA at Birkbeck – every module was so enriching, I never wanted it to end. About halfway through the course ARTnews commissioned me to write a profile of Grayson Perry. I decided that the interview would dovetail well with my research project, which I did on Perry’s fantastic exhibition at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. For the profile I interviewed Jacky Klein, who had written the only monograph on Perry; we got chatting and she said we should stay in touch as she happened to be commissioning editor at Thames and Hudson. I did stay in touch and in one of our chats we discussed the fact that so many accounts, for and against, had been written of BritArt, but there had been no impartial history of the phenomenon. About half way through my final year on the MA, I was commissioned by T&H to write that book, which has just been published as Artrage! The Story of the BritArt Revolution

Artrage! (taken from a Sun headline around the time of the 1997 Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts) chronicles the rise to prominence of the YBAs from the landmark warehouse show Freeze, curated by Damien Hirst in 1988, to the Momart fire of 2004 that destroyed many of the group’s works and seemed to symbolise their fading from centre stage. Through interviews with around 50 key players (including 35 artists from Hirst,Tracey Emin and the Chapmans to Michael Landy, Rachel Whiteread and Douglas Gordon), I have aimed to bring the period to life, exploring iconic artworks, seminal exhibitions and colourful characters within the political, cultural and economic context of the late 1980s and 1990s. From the core of the group to its fringes, Artrage! examines the diversity of the art produced in the period and the impact these artists had on British culture.”

Fullerton book

More History of Art news in a fortnight! 

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Welcome to the summer term!

A very warm welcome back to all staff and students after the Easter vacation! I hope everyone got to have a good break – even those embedded in coursework due in immediately at the start of term, such as the BA finalists putting the finishing touches to their dissertations. These were submitted on Monday – but, unfortunately, it’s a little longer until these students can take a well deserved rest, as it’s straight into concentrated revision for the exams which begin in only a few weeks time! Our thoughts are with you…

Some of our other BA students are currently deliberating which level 6 option modules to choose next academic year – here’s a word from one of my colleagues, Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius, about some of her recent research activities and how they relate to the BA and MA modules she has on offer in 2016-17:

“I have just been to the 2016 RSA conference in Boston, where I co-organised, with Sandra Cheng (New York City College of Technology), two sessions debating Italian caricatura: Material Practice, Collectors, and Art Theory. This emphasis on caricature, still under-researched by art history, attracted a range of distinguished speakers, including Sheila McTighe (Courtauld), Roger Crum (University of Dayton) and Joris van Gastel (Hertziana). Renewed attention to the bewildering appeal of caricature, to its potential to resist as well as to slander, is particularly urgent today, in the wake of the ‘Muhammad cartoons crisis’ in 2005 and the recent atrocities in Paris in 2015.

I will be replacing Leslie Topp in the forthcoming Autumn Term 2016-17, while she takes up some Wellcome-funded research leave, and will be teaching two modules. My level 6 module on ‘Satire, Caricature, Cartoon: from Punch to Charlie Hebdo’ will focus on the equivocal kinship of caricature both with democracy and racism, exploring its affinities with the avant-garde, as well as the status of the cartoon in the age of the World Wide Web. My MA option ‘The Aesthetics of Resistance: Caricature as Dominance and Defiance’ will be an inquiry into the specific mechanisms of caricature, one of the most articulate voices of dissent against the hegemony of beauty. It will evaluate its capacity to resist the canon, or political power, across a wide historical frame, from early modernity to the present.”

That’s current students – but we were able to celebrate the success of a cohort who have now completed their programme of study with us on Wednesday afternoon this week – our MA students who finished in 2014-15. Many congratulations! My colleagues Gabriel Koureas and Suzannah Biernoff and I were interviewing that afternoon, but managed to make it over to Senate House just in time to join other members of staff and say well done to a couple of our alumni in person. Here’s a lovely picture of Suzannah and Gabriel with Jo Cottrell and Graham Head looking splendid in their robes.


There are lots of events to tell you about, as we embark on the summer term – and I have some notably busy colleagues. Professor Lynn Nead, in particular, has an eye-wateringly packed itinerary over the next week. Tomorrow, Saturday 23rd April, she will be speaking on ‘Picasso as Romantic Artist’ in a study day at the National Gallery connected to the ‘Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art’ exhibition. That evening, she’ll be one of a panel of critics on ‘Saturday Review’ (BBC R4). Then, on Wednesday next week, 27th April, she’ll be speaking at the V&A in the morning on ‘The Image of the Prostitute’, and again in the evening as part of a panel discussing ‘The Crinoline’, along with Brian May. Yes, that’s Brian May of ‘Queen’ fame, as he’s just published a book about his collection of stereoscope photographs on this subject!

Early period colleagues have, as ever, been organising a wonderful array of speakers as part of the Murray series on Medieval and Renaissance Art. Tonight (Friday 22nd April), in the Keynes Library, Bernd Nicolai will be examining the late-gothic west facade of Bern Minster and its extraordinary sculpted portal featuring scenes of the Last Judgement. He’ll be considering the power of change in this and other church-building programmes in imperial cities during the fifteenth century.

But it’s not only staff who have been busy organising events – one of our current PhD students, Vazken Davidian (who also got a first class BA honours with us back in 2010) will be part of a panel discussion around a special art history edition of a peer reviewed journal, Études Arméniennes Contemporaines, which he was invited to edit. This is entitled ‘Towards Inclusive Art Histories: Ottoman Armenian Voices Speak Back’:

Vazken picture

“Despite a focus on art history in its widest sense, the concerns raised in Issue 6 of Études arméniennes contemporaines offer critical reflections upon the manner in which the heavily politicized seas of the Ottoman historical past are navigated by historians of all stripes. The five revisionist essays published in this volume, and presented by their authors, advocate, collectively and individually, new types of methodologically and empirically sound histories that challenge misconstrued and misrepresented historical pasts, and critique the reductive projections of dominant nationalist/nation-centric or Ottomanist historiographies. Furthermore, they introduce into the debate hitherto silenced voices that have thus far been deliberately excluded from history. Two further presentations offer the personal reflections of two working artists on their own Ottoman historical pasts and presents.”

The journal is available online, free of charge, and the event is next Tuesday, 26th April in the Keynes Library, at 6.30pm.

Just before I sign off, a word of thanks to all those students who’ve been completing the various surveys being run at the moment. I’m very proud to say that the NSS response statistics for the History of Art department (yes, we get briefed on how our returns stand in relation to other departments across the College!) are looking exceptionally good, and I have been congratulated on the responsiveness of our students. Well done art historians – and thank you! (And if there’s anyone who hasn’t yet completed the survey, there are still a few days left..)

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Happy Easter!

We have reached the start of the Easter vacation, and the Spring term came to a splendid close last week with the Murray Lecture 2016! Professor Patricia Rubin, Judy and Michael Steinhardt Director at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, delivered a wonderful talk entitled ‘Bent Elbows, Bare Bottoms, and Bending Meanings: Shifting Perspectives on Viewing the Male Body in Art’, to a packed Clore Lecture Theatre.

Murray lecture

Professor Rubin’s focus was Donatello’s David, but her deep and insightful analysis took us all the way from Dante through to 1970s Soho! It was great to see so many familiar faces in the audience: members of staff; retired colleagues, such as Professor Francis Ames-Lewis; the Trustees of the Murray Bequest who generously support this biennial event; interested academics from across London and beyond; and a very wide range of students, past and present. As well as lots of current students from our Certificate, BA, MA and MPhil/PhD programmes, I spotted many who have graduated from those courses in recent years amongst the audience. The best represented cohort in the room, however, was definitely those taking Dr. Monica Bohm-Duchen’s level 6 module, ‘Art and Scandal in the Modern Period’. They’d been scheduled to have a class at the same time as the Murray lecture, but had agreed to move it to 7.30pm, so they could all come and see Professor Rubin’s talk! Here’s an image of the poster I secreted in my bag at the end of the evening, to brighten up my office wall.

Murray posterI’ve been having a number of meetings recently with some colleagues from Careers and Employability, not least as we’re planning an event for History of Art students for late June, which will cover key skills, such as CV writing, as well as potential career paths for those graduating from our programmes. More anon! In the meantime, here are a few words from Alex Jones, Employability Consultant:

‘Birkbeck Careers and Employability is a service created and designed specifically to support our students in the unique environment the University offers. We offer a wide range of activities to enhance your prospects both during and after your study.

We run a programme of workshops throughout the term, have a daily drop in service in Malet Street and provide access to a 24/7 careers portal accessible through your MyBirkbeck profile.

We’re also proud that we have excellent links into industry and frequently have employers here on campus. That could be for a one off event, an ‘employer in the foyer’ drop in visit or attending one of the two careers fairs we’re running across this year.

To find out more about our services, upcoming events or ways to engage with us then find us at or follow us on Twitter @BirkbeckCareers.’

On this subject, I also want to alert you to a very useful new page on the website, recently created by my colleague Dr. Fiona Candlin, on ‘Volunteer and interning opportunities in museums and galleries’. It provides some useful general information about volunteering and internships, and also details of some current opportunities.

I’m going to hand over the final part of this blog to Anna Jamieson, currently on our part-time MA History of Art programme, who’s written a wonderful account of the route that brought her to study in the department, and about her experiences in her time with us. But, before I do, I’d like to wish everyone a restful and productive Easter vacation – and send particular good wishes to those BA students engrossed in the final stages of their dissertations!

Anna Jamieson, current part-time MA History of Art student

‘My decision to study at Birkbeck happened rather quickly. In fact, it didn’t really feel like a conscious decision at all! I’d been thinking about continuing to postgraduate study ever since graduating in History/History of Art from Leeds in 2011. I was working full time for a London based art fair, and felt that, to return to study, a radical life change was in order. I would have to quit my job, which I loved, and find a cheaper place to live.

But when I saw the details of the part-time History of Art MA in the Birkbeck prospectus, I realised it was more manageable than I thought. I could pay the fee each month and coordinate the classes around my job (one lecture or seminar a week was far more feasible than I’d imagined). I put an application together, sent it through and found myself nervously meeting my fellow students in our first class, one late September evening.

What I’ve enjoyed about Birkbeck most is the broad scope of topics that the History of Art MA allows. For someone like me who sometimes finds it hard to find an academic focus, it’s proved ideal. I was able to study Holocaust memorials in Germany and Austria during our first term – a subject I’d studied during my BA – before developing some of these ideas in my summer Research Project, where I dipped my toes into archival research and met some amazing London-based curators and librarians. I took Suzannah Biernoff’s ‘Exhibiting the Body’ module, focusing on the unsettling anatomical models of ‘wax Venuses’: technically medical instruments, but with highly sexualised bodies, parted lips and gendered accessories. Last Autumn, I embarked on Tag Gronberg’s module on fin-de-Siecle Paris, and wrote my essay on the domestic interiors of the fascinating Edouard Vuillard and the balance between intimacy and spectacle within his paintings.

These topics may all seem quite detached, but throughout the course I’ve been able to find underlying themes and theorists that link them together. I’ve now started writing my dissertation on ‘Dark Tourism’ in eighteenth-century London.

At times, balancing the MA with my job has admittedly been a challenge. Having to decline an invitation because I just knew I had to be at the library was, at first, difficult, but, in time, my friends and family got used to the fact that I wasn’t as available as I’d been before. I ended up starting a new job in Development at a central London gallery, a twenty minute walk from Birkbeck which meant I could grab a book in my lunch break or pop in for an hour after work. After a few months, my employers allowed me to work four days a week in order to focus on the course, which helped enormously. I was amazed when they agreed to reduce my hours; it just proves that you never know how flexible your work might be unless you ask.

In December I decided to go freelance, in order to focus on both the Masters and freelance arts events roles. I now plan to continue in academia, and once I’ve finished the Masters will be applying for MPhil/PhD programmes. My MA at Birkbeck has been a great stepping stone for me, allowing me to continue working and developing both my academic and professional interests, and one I thoroughly recommend!’

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