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

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

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

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

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

Annie Coombes, Making Monuments Matter

Sarah Thomas, (Art) History Matters

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

Gaynor Tutani, The Unfortunate Persistence of Being

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

Steve Edwards, Field Note on a Discovery


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

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

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

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


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

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


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Benin Bronzes, online events, and actual books

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

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

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

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

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

Slavery’s legacy, the challenging of curating difficult histories, and the role of art in the British empire will all be in the foreground of the curriculum in the coming academic year and beyond. As previously announced, we have made an enriching and timely change to the option modules being offered in 2020-21 on MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures. Students will be able to take Sarah Thomas‘s option, ‘Slavery and its Cultural Legacies’ in the Autumn term. This, along with the options taught by Sean Willcock (‘Violence and Visual Culture in the Long Nineteenth Century’, Autumn term) and Annie Coombes (‘Curating Difficult Histories: Museums, Exhibitions, Art Activism’, Summer term) will allow students to explore and engage in current research on the intersections between activism, the history of slavery and colonialism, art history and museum cultures. And on the Graduate Certificate and on our BA History of Art and other BA programmes, students will be able to take the option ‘Art of the British Empire’ taught by Prasannajit De Silva. This is all part of a larger ongoing project in our department and throughout the School of Arts to decolonise the curriculum.

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

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

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


Decolonizing the Curriculum: “Benin in the World”.

Professor Annie E. Coombes

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

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

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

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

Password: jarman



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(Art) History Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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




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Department news – and a party

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

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

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

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

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

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

More details and links for registration here.

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

Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

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

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


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Statues, activism and the legacy of slavery and colonialism

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

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

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

Making Monuments Matter: The Statue Wars

Professor Annie E. Coombes, Department of History of Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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Work Placement into Dream Job

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

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

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

Over to Mackenzie…

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

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

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

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

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


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Studentships and Pandemic Art

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

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

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

Meanwhile lots to draw your attention to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

More details and links for registration here.

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

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

Our students have been busy and creative as always.

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

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

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The blog’s back

I was shocked – shocked! – to see that my last post on the History of Art department blog was way back in February. You’ll all be able to imagine what’s been getting in the way. If I say I’ve been on extended and simultaneous crash courses on online learning, remote team management, risk assessment for Toronto-based over-80s, and year 6 Maths, RE, History, DT and SPAG (don’t ask), that gives you a taste. You’ll all have been ‘learning’ a great deal too I’m sure! I do hope you’ve been keeping a safe and well as possible and are starting to feel like there might be light at the end of this long tunnel.

The life art historical goes on, and I’ve got lots of departmental and Birkbeck news to share.

The Murray seminars continue online beginning this week, thanks to the stellar efforts of Laura Jacobus. Remember to register in advance and you’ll receive a link to join. Federico Botana is a very good speaker, so do tune in.

21st May:  Federico Botana, A gift for Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici?  The Aritmetica by Filippo Calandri 

Register at:

Two more Murray seminars are happening later this term:

10th June: Clare Vernon, Bohemond’s Enigma: Crusader Architecture in Norman Italy

7th July: Gabriele Neher, Leonardo and Cats

To get advance notice of Murray seminars, including a link for registering, write to with ‘SUBSCRIBE MURRAY’ in the subject line

Arts Week, the School of Arts’ annual May showcase of research and creativity, has reemerged as Arts Weeks (note plural), launching today (!), 19 May, with the author Deborah Levy in conversation. More here, and over the next few weeks.

The April graduation ceremonies, at which many of our students, especially postgraduate students, were meant to be donning their robes and caps and basking in the admiration of their families and friends, have been postoned to the week of 2 November. More here, and here’s a taste of what’s to come (though it may be one at a time for the cap tossing):

Delighted to be able to convey some good news from the department. Two of our colleagues have been awarded coveted Leverhulme Research Fellowships for the 2020-21 academic year. Dorigen Caldwell is pursuing a project on ‘Piety, Patronage and Politics in Early Modern Rome’ and Mara Polgovsky-Ezcurra’s project is ‘The New Life: A Cultural History of Cybernetics in Latin America’. Testament to both the strength and breadth of the department’s research! And more strength and breadth in a project led by Patrizia Di Bello, ‘Women Photographing Architecture: The Royal Photographic Society, knowledge sharing networks and changing gender roles (1890-1939)’ which has received a Training Grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

The department also had a bumper crop of nominations for the Birkbeck Student Union 2020 Awards, as well as two colleagues shortlisted, and one overall winner! (Pretty impressive for a small department). Suzannah Biernoff emerged victorious as Best Dissertation Supervisor – hurray Suzannah!! Kate Retford was shortlisted for Best Lecturer/Seminar Teacher, and Charlotte Ashby was nominated in that category as well. Warm congrats to all – so well deserved!

You may have heard in the news (if you can bear to turn it on) that universities are struggling, and expecting a downturn in new students in 2020-21. I just Zoomed into a meeting with the higher ups where there was cautious optimism and general relief that applications to study here starting in September are still very healthy indeed. If any students are flexible and resilient, it’s Birkbeck students! We all miss our usual lively open evenings, but they’re still going on online, and you can listen to recorded presentations on our programmes in your own time (available here when you scroll to the bottom) as well. Tonight, 19 May, you can join Patrizia Di Bello at 6pm for an Information Evening focussing on our MA, PG Certificate and PG Diplomas.

And there are upcoming information evenings on

17th June, 6pm, MA/PG Certificate/PG Diploma (with Kate Retford):

25th June, 6pm, Graduate Certificate (with Charlotte Ashy):

Finally, please be in touch with news and contributions for the blog. I won’t promise regular posts for the rest of this term, but I will attempt to get a couple more posted.

I’ll leave you with one of the many funny and creative tweaks on the art historical tradition that have come about in the past couple of months (thanks to Suzannah Biernoff for spotting this).

A mural by street artist Lionel Stanhope on a bridge wall in Ladywell, south-east London, Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

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Teach outs and a History of Hanging

Many of you will know that there is a University and Colleges Union strike going on nationally. You may have seen pickets yesterday and today at UCL and elsewhere. Birkbeck lecturers are also going on strike from Monday. The full strike dates are:

Monday 24, Tuesday 25 and Wednesday 26 February

Monday 2, Tuesday 3, Wednesday 4 and Thursday 5 March

Monday 9, Tuesday 10, Wednesday 11, Thursday 12 and Friday 13 March

Thursday 19 and Friday 20 March.

If you’re a current student and have classes on any of those days, please look out on your email to see whether your classes are cancelled. If you were planning on attending research or information events in the department or elsewhere in Birkbeck on these days, also keep your eyes open for cancellations. There is a useful list of FAQs issued by Birkbeck here. If you were planning on attending the Open Day on Saturday 22 February, it is still going ahead.

During the strike, there’ll be pickets outside of the School of Arts and the Main Building, and you can come and speak to members of academic staff there and learn more about the strike. There’ll also be ‘teach out’ events happening outside SOAS and Birkbeck main building, to which all are welcome – you can get more info here: Bloomsbury Teach Outs WEEK 1 (2).

Meanwhile do check out the Centre for Museum Cultures website for some exciting upcoming events:

Sarah Ferrari (whom some of you will know as one of the leaders of the department trip to Venice last year) is giving a Murray seminar with a Museums theme: ‘Provenance matters: acquisitions of Venetian Renaissance art in Northern Europe between the First and the Second World War‘. Monday 16 March 5pm, Keynes Library

Susanna Avery-Quash is Honorary Research Fellow in the department, and Senior Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery. She is part of two events coming up next term. She’ll be speaking about ‘A History of Hanging! 200 Years of Display at the National Gallery’ on Friday 1 May, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library (booking link on CMC website).

Frederick Mackenzie, The National Gallery when at Mr Angerstein’s House, Pall Mall (exhibited 1834). Victoria and Albert Museum.

And there’s a very rare and exciting opportunity to go behind the scenes at the National Gallery to see the Conservation Studio, Library and Archive, with Dr Avery-Quash and Head of Conservation Larry Keith on Friday 5 May, 5-7pm. Book soon, because places are limited and are bound to go quickly.

Anna Jamieson, who is doing a PhD in the department on imagery of women and madness in the 18th and 19th centuries, has recorded a podcast on ‘reflecting madness in art’ for the excellent series ‘Art Matters’ hosted by Art UK. Have a listen!

Millais, John Everett; Ophelia; Tate;

And remember to have a look at and listen to a new programme on Michelangelo and how the artist has been presented over the years by the BBC. Michelangelo: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, features interviews with both our own Dorigen Caldwell, and Birkbeck BA and MA alum Leslie Primo. Available on the iPlayer for 25 more days!

Finally, the call for applications for our annual research fund for MA and PhD students is out. The London Art History Society (check out their website for all their many art historical activities) generously donates an amount to Birkbeck every year which allows us to support student research.

You can apply for a bursary of up to £300 if you are an MPhil/PhD student, and £150 if you are an MA student. This money must be used to support your research, and can include travel to archives, accommodation, photography, etc. You apply with an e-mail or an e-mail with a word document attached – there’s no application form. Please set out the rationale for undertaking the research clearly, and explain what it will be contributing towards (e.g., a chapter of a PhD thesis, or an MA Research Project, etc), be precise about what you will be spending the money on, and provide proper costings of the expenses to be incurred. The deadline for applications is Monday 16 March 2020; 23:59. Please send your applications to Jack Redden (


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Telly viewing tip and Liminal London

It’s that survey time of year again: your chance as Birkbeck students to give your feedback on your experience here. If you’re in your final year of a BA programme, you’ll have received (several) emails from the National Student Survey, which is the big one, the results of which are publicly available, and paid close attention to by the government’s Office for Students. Please do take the time to fill it out (and don’t forget to collect your reward: a £15 Ethical Shop or Waterstones voucher!) There are also internal Birkbeck surveys for all other students, undergrad, postgrad, and PhD, and we are very eager to have as many people as possible fill those out. You can find links to all the surveys here, along with info about how we’ve changed things in the past in response to your feedback. I’m also always very happy to have feedback on any aspect of your programmes and Birkbeck experience – you can email me directly at

A tip for your weekend viewing: One of our own will be on the small screen this Sunday 16 Feb at 9pm on BBC Four (and streamable on the iPlayer after that). Dorigen Caldwell, Senior Lecturer in Italian Renaissance Art in the department, has contributed to ‘Michelangelo: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly‘ and she offers us here her insider’s view of the process of doing art history for the telly:

‘Michelangelo’ is part of a series of programmes looking at ‘Art on the BBC’ – which sets out to investigate how art – and particularly ‘great artists’ – have been discussed in BBC arts programming over the years. The pilot episode focused on Leonardo da Vinci, and the other episodes in the first series are looking at Michelangelo, Picasso and ‘The Nude’. In discussions I had with the director, there was a clear desire to take a critical look at how these big artists and themes had been treated in programming that was more often than not fronted by white men, and tended to perpetuate a fairly traditional narrative. Whether or not the final programmes will really deconstruct that narrative is hard to tell, as I wasn’t involved in the conceptual process, and I’m guessing that my contribution will amount to little more than a few minutes. I was interviewed for the programme over a year ago, and haven’t seen it yet myself, but it was quite fun to do, and the director seemed genuinely interested and enthusiastic about Michelangelo. Apparently there’s another series planned, so you might see some more familiar faces take part in that…

Annie Coombes, Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the department, gave a lecture last week in the Department of Culture and Aesthetics at the University of Stockholm. Her lecture, Decolonizing the Monument/Rethinking the Memorial,’ looked at how the increased demand on many university campuses for institutions to address colonial amnesia and to actively decolonize the curriculum has focused on municipal statuary – with the call for iconoclastic removal ironically transforming them from neglected and banalized remnants of former colonial glory into hyper-visible symbols of colonial power. Using examples from Kenya, Spain and South Africa, her lecture considered the ways in which various visual and cultural strategies might be said to perform the requirements of either a monument or a memorial – a living symbolic commemorative structure – in the contexts of particularly violent pasts targeting civilian populations.

The Keiskamma Guernica, 2010, Mixed media, Hamburg, South Africa. Photo: Robert Hofmeyr

A reminder of the upcoming lecture by the School of Arts’ Professor Dame Marina Warner next Wednesday 19 February 6pm in Clore, as part of the lecture series marking 100 years since the College officially became part of the University of London. Marina’s lecture is entitled ‘The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story’. More information and a link for booking here. A plug for the department: our own Kate Retford is leading on the School of Arts’ contributions to both this anniversary (100 years in the University of London) and the upcoming 200th anniversary of the foundation of Birkbeck in 1823.

Next Friday 21 February two of our PhD students, Jo Cottrell and Alistair Cartwright, have organised a brilliant-sounding day of talks on the theme of Liminal London: Real and Unreal Spaces of the 20th-century Metropolis, sponsored by the Architecture, Space and Society Centre. Academics and writers will explore the existence of heterotopic sites and other spaces straddling the real and the unreal throughout London in the twentieth century. Papers will examine spaces that exist between the public and the private, and the heteroclite communities that have gathered there, considering how such spaces have fostered modes of cosmopolitan life, and helped overcome – or alternatively reinforced – inequalities of race, class, gender and sexuality. 9.30-6 in Keynes Library, followed by a drinks reception, music and poetry. Spaces are limited, so don’t forget to book using the link above.

Birkbeck has just announced an exciting new opportunity: the Diversity100 PhD Studentships. Five generous PhD studentships (fees and stipend) are available across all areas of research represented at Birkbeck for BAME students. We are concerned at Birkbeck with the lack of representation by Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students at doctoral level. Compared with other institutions, our BAME students form a relatively high percentage of overall student numbers, but the proportion of BAME students at PhD level is significantly lower. In this context, Birkbeck is offering five studentships for PhD students starting their studies in Autumn 2020. These scholarships actively address under-representation at the highest level of research, and encourage BAME students to consider academic research in all disciplines. Successful candidates will have a strong academic background and/or exceptional research potential. More information at the link above. The closing date for applications is 11 May 2020.

There are still a few places available on the Study Trip to Budapest (11-15 May) with Kasia Murawska-Muthesius and Stefan Muthesius. Really worth looking into this, I mean it!

The British Council Venice Fellows have been announced for 2020: George Townsend, a PhD student in English (co-supervised with History of Art) and Foteini (Claire) Saramanti, a student on the MA Text and Performance. The Venice Fellowships, which are awarded every year, fund two students from the School of Arts to travel to Venice and work as part of the team at the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale or the Venice Architecture Biennale. Many congratulations to both of them!

And warm congratulations too to Patricia Yaker Ekall, who is a student on the BA History of Art, and one of the 2019 Venice Fellows. She’ll be heading back to Venice in summer 2020 to take up one of the very competitive internships at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, following in the footsteps of Danilo Reis, an recent graduate of the BA History of Art. The Birkbeck invasion continues…


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Europeans in London, Women in Washington

So, it’s Brexit day. The best way I could think of to mark it was celebrate Birkbeck and the department of History of Art as sites of openness, diversity and cosmopolitanism, via some stats: Birkbeck has 12125 students, of which 1840 are EU nationals and a whopping 5158 declare a nationality other than British. In our department, of 372 students, 51 are EU, and 124 are of non-British nationality. We have an international group of staff from 4 continents, and we work on material from across Europe (including Italy, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic, the Nordic countries, France, Kosovo, and Turkey, as well as the UK) and across the world. It’s also worth saying that we’re a department that is committed to understanding and interrogating British culture, in all its complexity and messiness. No simple answers here!

Here’s a work by a European in London about 150 years ago, to contemplate as the witching hour of 11pm passes:

Camille Pissarro, Lordship Lane Station, Dulwich, 1871

Jennifer Tucker (Wesleyan University, Connecticut) was a visiting professor at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities recently, connected to the department’s History and Theory of Photography Research Centre. She’s been in touch to share this fascinating and topical piece from the online magazine Art Net. It’s about on a controversial recent episode of censorship involving the US National Archives and a photo of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington.

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 21: Protesters walk during the Women’s March on Washington, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on January 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. Large crowds are attending the anti-Trump rally a day after U.S. President Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The annual Burlington Magazine Contemporary Art Writing Prize (£1000 – not bad!) is open for entries, with a deadline of 6 April. More here. (Warning – age discrimination: you have to be 35 or under to enter…)

A reminder of some upcoming talks:

3 February, 5pm, Keynes Library: the Murray Seminar in Medieval and Renaissance Art welcomes James Hall, who’ll be speaking on ‘Embattled Exclusivity: the Aesthetics and Politics of Michelangelo’s Attack on Flemish Painting’.

6 February, 6pm, Keynes: The Centre for Museum Cultures presents a joint talk by curator and researcher Bergit Arends and Louise Lawson, Conservation Manager for Time-Based Media at Tate. They’ll address the complex issue of ‘Time-based media in the museum: conserving and activating performance’.

7 February, 6pm, Keynes: The Architecture Space and Society Centre hosts its annual Thinker in Architecture lecture.  Emma Cheatle (University of Sheffield) will be speaking on ‘Feminist Ethnography and “writing-architecture-nearby”’.

Finally, I have some sad news about one of our students that I wanted to share, since many past and current MA students will have known her. Karen Childs passed away on January 19th after a long battle with cancer. Karen was a student on the MA History of Art starting in 2014-15. Those of you who encountered her will I’m sure agree that she was an exceptionally friendly, curious and brave person, as well as being extremely elegant. Turns out she also contributed to advances in cancer treatment as a pioneering participant in a study at the Royal Marsden hospital, as you can see in this piece from BBC news (with a characteristically upbeat Karen featured).

Karen’s family has let us know that all are welcome to come and remember her at the funeral in St Alban’s on Monday 10 February. Please contact me (Leslie Topp: if you would like details.

Here’s a photo of Karen:


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Twas the Season of the Country House

Handing you over to Prof. Kate Retford, for a special blog post. Many of you will know Kate as previous head of department and the originator of this blog; she teaches across the programmes in the department, is author of The Conversation Piece (Yale and Paul Mellon Centre, 2017) and many other publications on eighteenth century art, and is currently programme director of the MA History of Art. Over to you, Kate!

For me, the Autumn term 2019 was all about the British country house! Recently, my research has been concentrating on these sites, such a dominant aspect of British ‘national heritage’. The membership of the National Trust has now topped 5 million: 22 million visits were made to their historic house properties in 2017. As I’d begun thinking about my new country house research project, I’d decided it would be a good idea to develop an MA option on the topic, so ‘The Country House Experience’ module ran for the first time in the Autumn term. A close relationship between research and teaching is always beneficial for everyone concerned, and this course paid great dividends. It got me reading around the subject broadly, and thinking more deeply about certain topics than I had before, and the discussions I had with the group of engaged and informed Masters students who signed up for the course were fascinating. We moved from talking about difficult legacies of slavery in the country house to the recent turning of attention towards servants’ quarters and service wings; we discussed key moments such as the birth of the National Trust Country House scheme in the 1930s, and the Destruction of the Country House exhibition at the V&A in 1974, when visitors were greeted with a tumbling portico and a dramatic soundtrack as part of an emotive plea to halt demolition of properties, and the dispersal of collections.

The highlight of the ten weeks module was a day trip to Audley End in Essex, run by English Heritage: a great success thanks to the generosity and expertise of its Curator, Dr. Peter Moore. Peter was kind enough to look through our course materials ahead of the visit, and then take care to show us spaces and objects in the house which chimed with particular issues of concern. He also spoke openly and engagingly about the joys and challenges of looking after a historic house property, and took us into various parts of the house not normally seen by visitors. We got to look at works of art on racks in the stores, and also went up to the attics where Peter got out a rich variety of archival material for the students to handle (carefully!) and read. One object which really stuck in everyone’s minds was a late nineteenth-century cookery book, handwritten by Avis Crocombe, head cook at Audley End. Mrs Crocombe, we were fascinated to learn, has become a youtube sensation – check out her recipes online!

I also headed up to Manchester at the start of December for a conference on ‘The Houses of Politicians’, exploring the myriad and complex ties between politics and the country house in the long eighteenth century. Speakers came from Canada, and the US, but we also had a triumvirate of representatives from Birkbeck! As well as me, there to moderate a session, Fiona Candlin took part to speak about her ‘Mapping Museums’ project in a paper engagingly entitled: ‘When is a historic house a museum? (and why might it matter)’. One of my PhD students, Juliet Learmouth – currently working on women and eighteenth-century town houses – was also there to give a paper on Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and the highly political town house she built in the early eighteenth century: Marlborough House, now home to the Commonwealth Secretariat. As part of the conference, Juliet, Fiona and I joined the other delegates on a trip out to Wentworth Woodhouse, currently being restored by the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust. It was a memorable sunny winter’s afternoon: not only were we given a guided tour around the interiors, but we were also taken onto the roof, able to see the enormous timber structure without its slates, and were escorted round what one colleague dubbed ‘the urn hospital’!

The restoration work being done at the property is impressive and ambitious, but we also heard from a deeply committed team of volunteers, as well as the CEO, about how the project is working as an important regeneration project, focused on the local community, with plans for the site as a wedding venue, conference centre, hub for small businesses etc. To find out more, have a look at their website.

Then, in the final week of term, the Birkbeck Eighteenth Century Research Group  and the Architecture, Space and Society Centre filled the Keynes Library to capacity for an afternoon symposium on the English country house. The weather was awful, it was election day, but so many people turned out that we ended up running around the building in search of more chairs. Jon Stobart from Manchester Metropolitan spoke about the themes of comfort and family through objects in the eighteenth-century house; Abby van Slyck, over from Connecticut College in the US, shared her new research on the Swiss Cottage at Osborne House, a playhouse constructed for Victoria and Albert’s children while I talked about my new work on the marketing of the country house as a ‘family home’, set up in opposition to a ‘museum’. The papers worked well together, we managed not to think about what was happening in the polling stations for a couple of hours, and it was a great way to wrap up my term of country houses.

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Lots to look forward to

Welcome back! The Spring term has begun – and with luck, by the end of it, it’ll actually start feeling and looking like Spring.

For some memories of nicer weather and a beautiful place (as well as a fascinating account of how contemporary art can trigger debate on all sorts of things), do have a read of a new blogpost on Birkbeck comments. It’s by BA History of Art student Patricia Yaker Ekall, who was one of two Birkbeck British Council Venice Fellows in 2019, allowing her to spend a month in Venice in September, working at the British Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. Patricia, in addition to being a student, is an active arts and style journalist – you can read more from her here.

And speaking of Europe… David Latchman, the Master of Birkbeck, wrote to all staff before the holidays (but after the election), and I thought I’d share part of his message with you: ‘the results of the election now firmly set the course for a Brexit which I know is a cause of concern across the College community. My message on this has always been clear but it is important to say it again. We are committed to welcoming and supporting staff and students from the European Union and across the globe. We are firmly committed to the breadth and scope of our international academic collaborations. I know you will join your voice to mine in making that message direct, heartfelt and real for our EU colleagues and our EU students.’ It is heartfelt and real: in History of Art we hugely value our EU colleagues and our many many EU students and look forward to remaining a department that nurtures these connections well into the future.

And now, because I know you’re all eager to know what’s coming up this term to keep you busy and stimulated, here are the events that have been announced so far for this term:

28 January, 5-5.50pm, Keynes Library: a session for all those interested in finding out more about the 2020 Department study trip to Vienna, which will take place 30 March – 3 April. Details will be emails to all BA, Graduate Certificate, PG Cert, Dip and MA students soon. (And for those with the Central European art and travel bug, a note that the Budapest trip, offered as part of the Cert HE, but open to all, still has places.)

3 February, 5pm, Keynes Library: the Murray Seminar in Medieval and Renaissance Art welcomes James Hall, who’ll be speaking on ‘Embattled Exclusivity: the Aesthetics and Politics of Michelangelo’s Attack on Flemish Painting’. There are further Murray Seminars coming up on 25 February and 16 March – more details in subsequent blogs.

6 February, 6pm, Keynes: The Centre for Museum Cultures presents a joint talk by curator and researcher Bergit Arends and Louise Lawson, Conservation Manager for Time-Based Media at Tate. They’ll address the complex issue of ‘Time-based media in the museum: conserving and activating performance’.

7 February, 6pm, Keynes: The Architecture Space and Society Centre hosts its annual Thinker in Architecture lecture.  Emma Cheatle (University of Sheffield) will be speaking on ‘Feminist Ethnography and “writing-architecture-nearby”’.

18 & 20 February – the series of School of Arts Employability workshops continues, with really good sounding panels of alumni working in various sectors, including visual arts, museums, media, the creative industries, and the civil service. See here and here for details and booking links.

19 February, 6pm, Clore lecture theatre – 2020 marks 100 years since Birkbeck became part of the University of London. There’ll be a series of lectures marking anniversary, including this fascinating and timely one by the School of Arts’ Dame Marina Warner: The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

21 February, 9.30-6, Keynes library – The ASSC and two of our PhD students have organised a one-day symposium called Liminal London, exploring real and unreal spaces of London in the twentieth century.

26 February, 6pm, Keynes – The Eighteenth Century Research Group welcomes Geoff Quilley from the University of Sussex, who will be speaking about ‘The Economy of Human Life: Arthur William Devis’s Representations of 1790s India’.

6 March, 6.30pm, Keynes – Birkbeck’s Rome Lecture Series returns with a programme of lectures on Raphael in Rome, beginning with Philippa Jackson on ‘Raphael’s Death in 1520: Fact and Fiction’


Next up on this blog: a guest post by Prof Kate Retford, on her term with country houses.

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