Questions, questions

Did you enjoy Arts Week? Hope it provided a good respite from exam revision, dissertation prep, etc, etc.

What is a museum? And how would we know? Those questions will be answered, or if not answered, then the problems with answering them unpacked in enlightening ways by Fiona Candlin, Professor of Museology in the department, at her Inaugural Professorial lecture TONIGHT at 6pm in Clore, B01. More here. Ticket bookings are over, but even if you haven’t booked you can always come along and see if there’s a seat free. Believe me, it’ll be good. And how often do you get invited to a professorial inaugural lecture? I just bumped into the Dean of the School of Arts, and he’ll be giving a speech about Fiona too…

How on earth does someone afford to do an MA? Well, funny you should ask… This Friday 31 May is the application deadline for a whole range of MA bursaries and studentships offered by the School of Arts. Two particular ones to draw your attention to: Dean’s Awards are for recent alumni or current students who have or are likely to receive a first on their BA. They are for all MA programmes in the School, but don’t be put off by that – it’s very much worth applying if you meet the criteria. Wallace Studentships are just for MAs in our department (History of Art, Photography, Architecture, Museum Cultures) and are awarded based on both academic strength and financial need. You don’t need to have studied at Birkbeck before, and a first on the BA isn’t necessary.  Deadline for both is 31 May. All info is available here .

OK, no more questions.

You may have seen around the place copies of Lamplight, Birkbeck’s new student-produced magazine of arts and culture. Do pick one up (there are lots on the shelves in the reception of the School of Arts). It includes photography, painting and poetry by Birkbeck students, as well as interviews, essays and reviews, including a great piece on the Tate Britain exhibition of war photographer Don McCullin’s work, by BA History of Art with Curating student Adrian Peyrot. Contact info in there for the editors, in case you’re inspired to contribute or get involved.

As ever, lots of events coming up to attend, and exhibitions to see:

Next week, 6-8 June, is the excellent conference ‘Building-Object/Design-Architecture’, co-organised by the Design History Society, the European Architectural History Network, and the Architecture Space and Society Centre. The conference will explore old, new and future interconnections between Design History and Architectural History. There will be a Book Fair, Walking Tours and Keynote Speakers including: Ben Highmore (Sussex), Adrian Forty (Bartlett) and Doris Behrens-Abouseif (SOAS). There is a fee to attend, with significant concessions for students. More here.

Also opening next week on 4 June is the next exhibition in the Peltz Gallery, Refugees, Newcomers, Citizens: Migration Stories from Picture Post, 1938-1956. This exhibition brings together, for the first time, over sixty original prints by renowned émigré photographers Gerti Deutsch and Kurt Hutton, together with Bert Hardy and Haywood Magee, revealing Picture Post magazine’s stories of refugees and immigrants to Britain from the 1930s to the 1950s.  Images focus on the Kindertransport and Windrush-era migrations, as well as on lesser-known histories of wartime African-American women Red Cross volunteers, and post-war child Holocaust survivors who found refuge in the Lake District. It is curated by Mike Berlin, from the History department at Birkbeck, and is part of the amazing Insiders Outsiders Festival, organised by Monica Bohm-Duchen, associate lecturer in History of Art.

Two events for your diary on 12 June, and luckily the timing means you could attend both of them:

The next Murray seminar on Medieval and Renaissance Art will be given by Luca Palozzi, who’ll be speaking on ‘The Holy-Water Basin of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in Pistoia, c. 1270: Petrography, Materiality and Function’. 12 June, 5pm in Keynes Library – no booking necessary. Giorgio Vasari writes in his Lives of the Artists that Giovanni Pisano “carved in marble the holy-water font of the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista in Pistoia,” and that this work, “by reason of its having then been held very beautiful, was placed in the centre of that church as a remarkable thing (come cosa singolare).” Despite Vasari’s mention in his Lives, the Pistoia holy-water basin remains little-known. The scant literature focusses on issues of style, date and authorship, failing to address the reasons why contemporary observers considered the Pistoia holy-water basin a truly beautiful and remarkable object. This paper explores this object’s surprising materiality, considering Nicola and Giovanni Pisano’s daring technical and artistic experimentations with stones and minerals scarcely used in monumental sculpture from the period. Their knowledge of materials, as well as their awareness of liturgy, crucially informed the making of this extraordinary object. The basin casts light on the ‘material turn’ of the 1260s and 1270s in Italian sculpture–a phenomenon whose magnitude and importance still await to be assessed.

Then at 6pm in the main building, room 355 is the next Arts Employability event featuring Dr Katy Barrett, Birkbeck alumna and Curator of Art Collections at the Science Museum, speaking about careers in museums – this should be a very useful and interesting event for anyone considering a career in the museum sector.

And, sorry, a final question: What do we do when we do art history? You may have attended (or missed) the event back in February with this title. It was a screening of two French-made films about the art historians Svetlana Alpers and Georges Didi-Huberman, from the series Un Oeil Une Histoire. There was a fascinating discussion afterwards about the films, focusing on how art historians at the beginning of their careers understand what it is that they do when they do art history. It included our own Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra, alongside scholars from the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Whether you were there or not, have a listen to the podcast that’s now been made available on the website of the film’s distributors Senso-Projekt here.

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Arts Week! And some inspiration

The School of Arts is the home the History of Art department shares with the departments of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, Cultures and Languages, and English and Humanties. Arts Week is the annual showcase for the amazing range of discovering, thinking, creating and debating that goes on there. Every evening next week, you can come along to talks, screenings, panels, walks, workshops and more. You can even take part in a social media competition for the best arts-related pun. Here’s a message about that from our social media czar Oliver Chinyere:

We’ve launched our Arts Week pun contest and are looking for submissions! If you’re on social, please feel free to share with your audiences and/or participate yourself! (Twitter / FB). Winner wins a £25 gift card…and bragging rights.

Do browse through all the listings, but here for your convenience are the art/art history/museums-related events:

Monday 20 May

Accidental gardens: Natura Urbana | 5.45- 7.20pm | Book your ticket
Cinema, 43 Gordon Square.
 Natura Urbana: The Brachen of Berlin (dir. Matthew Gandy, 2017) explores the ecology of ‘accidental gardens’ flourishing in post-war Berlin. The changing vegetation serves as a parallel history to war-time destruction, geopolitical division, and the newest phase of urban transformation.

Jews, money, myth | 6:00-7.20 | Book your ticket
Room 122, 43 Gordon Square. 
How can museums best confront the stereotypes that feed anti-semitism? Explore the challenges of exhibiting difficult histories and shaping the stories objects tell with Sarah Thomas, Anthony Bale, Marc Volovici and curator of the current exhibition at The Jewish Museum, Joanne Rosenthal.

Thinking (about) automata in Descartes, Shaftesbury, and Diderot | 6.00-7.20pm |  Keynes library, 43 Gordon Square. What was the soul and what was the body? From Descartes to Diderot, the automaton crystallised this problem. Dr James Fowler discusses this Enlightenment crisis in how philosophers imagined non-human and human animals as ‘bêtes-machines’, clockwork and living statues.

Tuesday 21 May

Victorian dolls and fashion: exhibition and workshop | 12-7pm | Book your ticket
Room 122, 43 Gordon Square. 
This exhibition brings nineteenth-century dress to life on a small scale. Costume designer Claudia Vogt shows replicas of dresses and reproduces works from the Bedale’s Costume Collection. Join us to learn Victorian dress-making techniques for yourself.

Bridging the distance: a collaborative photography research project | 6-7.20pm | Book your ticket
Keynes library, 43 Gordon Square. 
Members of Ph: The Photography Research Network discuss their collaborative exhibition project with diverse works on environment, portraiture, surveillance and resistance. Explore hierarchies between theory and practice and how photography might bridge these distances. Guest chair and speaker Kathy Kubicki (Kingston, Goldsmiths).

Wednesday 22 May

Platform KX: a tour of the new King’s Cross | 2-4.00pm | Book your ticket
Meet at London King’s Cross Station. 
North of King’s Cross Station, once home to gasworks, railways and industry, one finds KX: a ‘creative quarter’ of flats, offices, shops, galleries, and restaurants. Join Birkbeck’s Scott Rodgers on a tour exploring KX and its platforms including Facebook and Google.

Female Human Animal: on surrealism, film, and fantasy | 5.30-7.20pm | Book your ticket Cinema, 43 Gordon Square. Josh Appignanesi’s psycho-thriller evokes the atmosphere of Leonora Carrington’s work, raising fascinating questions about gender, sexuality, and the inner life. The director joins Birkbeck’s Katherine Angel, Catherine Grant and Mark Blacklock.

Euston twilight: hotels, boarding houses and luxury squats in the post-war era | 7.40-9pm | Book your ticket Meet outside the School of Arts. A twilight walking tour visits the ghosts of Euston’s grand hotels and down-at-heel boarding houses. Uncover the history of residential hotels and other defunct forms of private rented accommodation, and learn about their subsequent history.

Thursday 23 May

Renaissance Women: learning from images | 2-5.00pm | Book your ticket
Meet at the front entrance National Portrait Gallery. 
What can an image tell us about the women of the past? Join our team of Birkbeck investigators as we mine the National Portrait Gallery’s unrivalled collection of portraits of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century queens, poets and patrons for stories of women’s worlds.

Patrons and Lovers of Art: nineteenth-century collecting and the wealth of empire | 6-7.20pm | Book your ticket Room B03, 43 Gordon Square. Pieter Christoffel Wonder’s Patrons and Lovers of Art (1830) commemorates the foundation of the National Gallery (1824). Sarah Thomas (Birkbeck), Catherine Roach (VCU), and Susanna Avery-Quash (National Gallery) discuss the painting from different perspectives within the context of British cultural history.

But are you doing anything? Curating, producing and managing as practice research | 6-9.00pm | Book your ticket Keynes library, 43 Gordon Square. How do thinking, talking and meditating rate as work? What is productivity in curating? This event is co-organised by the Arts Management programmes and Corkscrew, School of Arts Practice Based Research Group.

Friday 24 May

Architecture and dust: a discussion with Teresa Stoppani | 6-7.20pm | Book your ticket
Cinema, 43 Gordon Square. 
Dust can be a fragment, fragmented, or an accumulation. Teresa Stoppani (Architecture Association) discusses the idea of dust in relation to architecture, the body and the city. An Architecture, Space and Society Centre event with a response by Birkbeck’s Joel McKim.

And not to miss…

Last night music | 7.40-9.00pm | Book your ticket Room G10, 43 Gordon Square. Some of the School’s finest performers play live. Featuring contributions from The Bluegreen Trio (Louise Owen, Tony Fisher and Neil Livingstone) and Anthony J Shepherd. Acoustic jazz, folk and soul to celebrate Arts Week.

Hope you enjoy all the events, and the buzz around the place that always accompanies Arts Week!

And in other news…

Sean Willcock, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, has been awarded a Visting Scholarship for a month in 2020 at the Yale Centre for British Art in the US – many congratulations to him!

Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in the department, is giving a talk entitled ‘Slavery, Patronage and the Love of Art: Slave-ownership and the Politics of Collecting in Early Nineteenth-century Britain’ at a conference on Art Institutions and Race in the Atlantic World, 1619–1833 at The Courtauld Institute, May 24 & 25, 2019

The Arts Employability event featuring Dr Katy Barrett, Birkbeck Alumna and Curator of Art Collections at the Science Museum, speaking about careers in museums, has been rescheduled for 12 June, 6pm – so if you missed the first date, you have another chance to attend this very useful and interesting event.

And last but very much not least, for those of you starting out, or battling through to the end of your degrees (exams, anyone?), some inspiration. Here are some of our MA graduates (and supporters) at last month’s graduation ceremonies. It was lovely to see them looking so happy and relaxed!

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24-hour art history

Welcome back! Summer term is of course a busy but in some ways solitary time, with fewer classes, but lots to be getting on with: especially exam revision and dissertation prep. If you’re a proper night person, you’ll be interested to hear that the library is open round the clock until 16th June, to cover the exam period. You can find more details here:

If you feel like breaking up the revising and writing with another kind of intellectual stimulation (needing less self-motivation) we have a rich programme of events over the next couple of weeks.

On Tuesday 7 May 5pm in the COUNCIL ROOM (Birkbeck main building – a chance to see the power centre of the college!) is the first of the term’s Murray seminars:

Alexandra Gajewski from Burlington Magazine will be speaking on ‘Jerusalem and Rome on the Rhône? The City Views in Enguerrand Quarton’s Coronation of the VirginSince first coming to the wider attention of the public in the 1904 exhibition Primitifs français at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, Enguerrand Quarton’s Coronation of the Virgin (Musée du Luxembourg, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon) has been the subject of much scholarly attention focussing on questions of patronage and iconography. Its depiction of the Trinity, notable for the almost complete resemblance between God the Father and the Son, been the subject of much debate, but the painting’s detailed city views have received far less attention. This limited consideration is out of proportion with the length and detail accorded to the instructions for depicting the “world” in the famous surviving contract for the painting. This paper attempts to show that the city views are key to our understanding of the painting.

On Weds 8 May 6pm in Keynes Library (43 Gordon Sq room 114) you can go along to the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre’s seminar by Miriam Brusius of the German Historical Institute, speaking on ‘The Spaces of Photography. Five New Arguments on William Henry Fox Talbot’. William Henry Fox Talbot had to be excavated. In October 1966 digs began on the grounds of Lacock Abbey in the hope of uncovering relics of the Victorian gentleman of science, antiquarian, and inventor of the calotype. In the following decades Talbot became well known as a major protagonist in early Fine Art photography, yet his papers suggest that he was more concerned with the sciences than ‘high art’ in the strictest sense. This is echoed in the large bulk of photo archives that derive from the medium’s industrial and scientific applications or vernacular genres, in which aesthetics only appears as a single piece in a puzzle. So, who or what ‘turned’ Talbot into an artist? Taking material and archival practices as a starting point, Mirjam Brusius will give insight into the book project she is about to complete. The paper argues that not only the actual photographs and the complex practices surrounding them but also their detachments from their original archival context, and their dispersal between different institutions, museums and the art market determine the framework for the study of Talbot, and that of the history of photography itself.

And on Wednesday 15 May 6pm in Keynes you can hear the artists Kay Burns and James Mansfield speak about ‘The Museum of the Flat Earth: Curating as Art Practice?‘ Throughout the 20th Century, artists have sought to be collected and exhibited by museums, and many have also presented critiques of the social and economic structures of museums. More recently, moving away from the expected role of the public art institution, a number of artists have appropriated the physical space, attributes, and authority of museums in the creation of their work, including Kay Burns’ Museum of the Flat Earth. Kay founded this Museum, located on Fogo Island in Newfoundland in 2016, as a repository and adaptation of many years of artistic research and practice. The Museum combines fictional narrative, historical artefacts, and museological practices with creative performance and interpretation to provide a participatory experience for visitors. Kay will talk about how she came to create the Museum and will also be joined by James Mansfield, artist and PhD candidate at the University of Reading, for a discussion around how the Museum functions as a contemporary artwork and as a work of institutional critique.

In addition, on 14 May at 6pm over on Bedford Square at the Paul Mellon Centre, you can take in a screening of new films by our own Professor Lynda Nead (with John Wyver) about the work of Picture Post photographer Bert Hardy, and a discussion with Lynn and others.

Then hot on the heels of all these events is the annual intellectual and cultural bonanza known as Birkbeck’s Arts Week, during the week of 20 May. Do check out the programme and browse the events. I’ll post again highlighting the many art history-related events.

The next in the series of Arts employability events is of particular interest to History of Art students, and features one of our alumnae.  On 14 May 2019, 6-7:30, RUS (28) 109, Dr Katy Barrett – she is a Curator of Art Collections at the Science Museum and a BBK Alumna – will be talking about her work experience and transition from study to work, and answering any questions you might have about working in the museum sector. Find out more and book here.

Don’t miss the current exhibition in the Peltz, which uses the gallery space to refract the work of eminent Birkbeck academic Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen through the prism of art. Primarily known as film theorists and filmmakers, engagement with art and artists has always been a central dimension of Mulvey and Wollen’s activities. Their numerous documentaries and ‘theory films’ about or featuring artists are evidence of this, as well as their role as important interlocutors for artists, together with their critical writings, teaching, artwork, and curating. Find out more about the exhibition and related events here.

Finally, exciting news from two members of the department. Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in Museum Studies, has been awarded a Visiting Scholar Award at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut for four weeks in July, where she’ll be conducting research for her project “Slave-ownership and the Rise of the British Art Museum”. Peter Fane-Saunders, Honorary Research Fellow, has a fellowship during 2019-20 at the Villa I Tatti (The Harvard University Centre for Italian Renaissance Studies) in Florence, where he’ll be working on his project ‘Ancient Greek Accounts of Lost Architecture and their Influence, from the Renaissance to the Romantic Age’. It explores the influence, from the Renaissance onwards, of the reports of Eastern architecture found in ancient Greek authors such as Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus and Pausanias. Congratulations to both of them!








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British art awards, and bon voyage!

The Paul Mellon Centre for British Art is a key London institution supporting the study of British art, architecture and visual culture, though its publishing activities (including the excellent online British Art Studies journal, which is very much worth a browse) and through fellowships and grants. Our department has in the past few years established itself a major centre for British art history, and this is reflected in the announcement of the latest Paul Mellon Centre funding round. Prof Lynda Nead has been awarded a Senior Fellowship to carry out research on her book ‘British Blonde: Glamour, Desire and Femininity in Post-War Britain c.1945-70.’ Prof Steve Edwards received a Research Support Grant for visits to the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to carry out research on his project ‘British daguerreotypes – Antoine Claudet’. PhD student Shijia Yu was also awarded a Research Support Grant for a trip to the US (where she’ll visit seven archives and libraries, including Yale Centre for British Art, Winterthur Library, and the Morgan Library) to research her dissertation project ‘Amusing, Interesting and Curious’: A Study of English Paper Peepshows, 1825-1851.’ Many congratulations to all three of them! Some sample images below.

Diana Dors in Picture Post, 1956

Viorama, or the Way to St. Paul’s, 1825, Ingrey & Madeley, Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner Collection of Paper Peepshows, Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum

Congratulations as well to Adelheid Ruthenberger, a student on the MA Museum Cultures, who has been named runner-up for the first Lorraine Lim Prize. The prize was set up in honour of Dr Lorraine Lim, Lecturer in Arts Management at Birkbeck, who died last year. It is awarded on the basis of a college-wide competition to an exceptional undergraduate or postgraduate student who has excelled in contributing to the understanding of cultural policy, especially addressing cultural work, equality and justice in the cultural sector. Adelheid received the runner-up award for her submission questioning the relevance of the National Pavilion Structure of the Venice Biennale. The winning essay  was by Karla Pauline Gudiño Yañez, a student on the MA in Arts Policy and Management in the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies. Karla’s essay argued for a human rights-based approach to contested local heritage policy in her home country of Mexico. Both essays were commended for demonstrating originality and the potential to enhance the knowledge pool in cultural policy studies, honouring and ensuring the legacy of Dr Lim.

In the ‘very short notice’ department: I am giving a public lecture this evening, 1 April, 6pm at the Art Workers Guild on Queen’s Square as part of the series organised by the London Art History Society. The title is: ‘When Room becomes Cell: solitude and isolation in asylum architecture’. Free admission; more details on the lecture and all the other events organised by the society here.

Giving you considerably more notice about a major upcoming lecture by Professor Fiona Candlin, on 28 May, 6pm. It’s her inaugural lecture (these are public lectures organised to mark colleagues’ promotion to professor). She’ll ask the deceptively simple question: ‘What is a Museum? (And how would we know?)’ It’ll be a great event for the department and it’d be good to see you there. More information and a booking link here.

Finally, and how could I forget to mention, Spring term is over, the sun is shining, and the break is upon us. Bon voyage to all of you embarking on the field trip to Venice next weekend. The itinerary sounds amazing, with a vaporetto trip, the Doge’s Palace, walking tours, a day trip to Padua, and a special outing for the foodies to the historic spaghetti farms of the Veneto.

More on all of that in a future blog.

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Banksy, Port Talbot, and Venice

You may remember over Christmas that the street art trickster Banksy was in the news again when a new piece appeared on a garage wall in the steel town of Port Talbot in Wales, putting that community in the art world spotlight. As it happens, one of our current MA students, Amanda Roderick, knows Port Talbot, and the Welsh contemporary art scene, well. Amanda splits her time between Port Talbot and London, and is currently on a sabbatical away from her role as Director & Curator of Mission Gallery, a publicly funded contemporary art gallery based in Swansea. I thought she’d be perfectly positioned to comment on the appearance of the Banksy and its current and potential future impact on her home town. Turns out the garage wall in question is on the street she grew up in! Take a moment to read her reflections on the Birkbeck Comments blog on Banksy, Port Talbot, funding for the arts, and ownership in the public realm.

We’re delighted to announce the results of the selection process for this year’s Venice Fellowships. Patricia Yaker Ekall (BA History of Art) and Corinna Henderson (MA History of Art) have been selected to represent Birkbeck on the scheme. Birkbeck School of Arts partners with the British Council to offer these fellowships every year as part of the Venice Biennale (or, in alternate years, the Architecture Biennale); Venice fellows spend a month in Venice, conducting independent research and mediating the exhibition in the British Pavilion. This year, the British Council has commissioned the artist Cathy Wilkes to represent Britain; the exhibition will be curated by Dr Zoe Whitley. You can read more about the new fellows, the scheme, and Cathy Wilkes here.

Exterior of the British Pavilion on the occasion of Sarah Lucas’s exhibition, I SCREAM DADDIO, at the British Pavilion, 2015. © Cristiano Corte.

As announced in previous blogs, there’s a lecture in the Murray seminar series this evening: Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia) will be speaking on the questions surrounding a medieval manuscript: ‘The Tiberius Psalter: a book for Archbishop Stigand?’, today, 18 March 5pm in Keynes Library.

And Jennifer Tucker, Associate Professor of History and Science in Society at Wesleyan University (USA), is giving two talks next week on aspects of her work on the visual culture and museology of firearms. The Centre for Museum Cultures hosts her on 25 March 6pm in Keynes, when she’ll speak alongside Jonathan Ferguson (Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds) on‘Curating Firearms in Museums in the 21st Century’. Then on 26 March 6pm she’ll be back in Keynes giving a talk organised by the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre entitled ‘Load, Point and Shoot:  Cameras, Gun Cartridges, and the “Black Boxes” of History’.

All welcome to both of these events!

Finally, for BA finalists and Graduate Certificate students, as the term comes to an end, you may be thinking about what next. We have an expanding range of postgraduate programmes in the department, in History of Art, History of Architecture, History of Photography and Museum Cultures. You can study for MAs, Postgraduate Certificates and Postgraduate Diplomas in all these areas. And there’s funding available – including the Wallace Studentships, which are specifically for MA students in our department. Funding deadline is 31 May.

Please contact Patrizia Di Bello, admissions tutor, with any queries about the application process (or, from the beginning of next term, Dorigen Caldwell.);


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Feedback, Festivals, and Firearms

It’s student survey time again: your chance as Birkbeck students to give your feedback on your experience here, negative and, hopefully, positive. 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. 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

Our students and staff continue to be active in the blogosphere. Here, Associate Lecturer Monica Bohm-Duchen how she’s launched a major national arts festival, Insiders/Outsiders, devoted to documenting the experiences of refugees from Nazi Europe and their contribution to British culture. Part of the inspiration was a course she taught for us (which will be offered again in 2018-19) on The Immigrant Experience in British Art. See her blog post for upcoming film screenings in the Birkbeck cinema and an exhibition in the Peltz Gallery.

Lorna Robertson, who graduated recently from the MA History of Art with Photography, posts here about her research in our department’s Jo Spence Memorial Library on what the holdings convey about the representation of women in visual culture. If you’re inspired to apply to the MA, you may have seen that we now offer a separate MA History of Photography, as well as MA History of Architecture, MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures. All are open for applications for 2019-20 until October 2019.

And some news and an invitation from alumna Fiona Clague:

‘I graduated from the BA History of Art programme at Birkbeck in 2015 where an introduction into contemporary strategies of display in my final year has proved an invaluable resource. I am currently working for arts organisation Roaming Room (, involved in all aspects of the development and administration of its most recent project, The Theatre of Buildings which explores the potential of showing contemporary art in unexpected architectural spaces and abandoned buildings. The project is focussed on supporting artists working in installation, film, performance and two dimensional work across four different buildings in London, including an old telephone exchange, a 19th century library, a cinema and the now disused Lambeth County Court rooms in Kennington (Greta Alfaro solo show starts 25th April).  Next Thursday 7th March, Roaming Room will host a pop-up evening of artists’ short films at the refurbished Art Deco cinema, Gracepoint, in Islington. Everyone welcome – drinks from 6.30 pm, films will start at 7pm – programme 75 minutes. Do come along – see poster for details.’

I (this is Leslie again) was part of an event when I was visiting fellow at Queen’s University in Ontario with a fun format and a serious topic – it was a free-form conversation, complete with sofa, between me and Queen’s philosopher Lisa Guenther, on the topic of liberation and confinement in the single room. They’ve just launched a podcast series, and our conversation is first up. So, for your listening pleasure on your next long journey, here it is. And if you want to see something similar live, put 24 June in your diary. Lisa Guenther will be visiting Birkbeck and we’re planning a reprise, with a third participant, the renowned historian Barbara Taylor, from Queen Mary University of London.

Our research centres are hosting a whole clutch of events over the coming weeks:

As mentioned in my last blog, the Architecture Space and Society Centre has two diverse and fascinating talks by distinguished visiting academics coming up: Caroline Van Eck (Cambridge University) will give our annual Thinker in Architecture lecture this Friday 8 March 6pm in Keynes Library on ‘Changing Objectscapes, Mediterranean Connectivity and the Emergence of the Empire Style in Rome and Paris’. Then the following Friday 15 March, 6pm, in Gordon Sq room 106, Claire Zimmerman (University of Michigan) gives a paper on a 20th-century American topic with global dimensions: ‘Building the World Capitalist System: Albert Kahn Associates of Detroit, 1900-1961’.

The next Murray seminar features Sandy Heslop (University of East Anglia) on the questions surrounding a medieval manuscript: ‘The Tiberius Psalter: a book for Archbishop Stigand?’, 18 March 5pm in Keynes Library.

Jennifer Tucker, who is Associate Professor of History and Science in Society at Wesleyan University (USA), is visiting Birkbeck and giving two talks on aspects of her work on the visual culture and museology of firearms (a hot topic in the US). The Centre for Museum Cultures hosts her on 25 March 6pm in Keynes, when she’ll speak alongside Jonathan Ferguson (Keeper of Firearms & Artillery, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds) on ‘Curating Firearms in Museums in the 21st Century’. Then on 26 March 6pm she’ll be back in Keynes at a talk organised by the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre entitled ‘Load, Point and Shoot:  Cameras, Gun Cartridges, and the “Black Boxes” of History’ in which among other things she’ll be discussing this amazing image:

Laurie Simmons, Walking Gun (1991), gelatine silver print, Metropolitan Museum of Art

And this week, Wednesday 6 March, 7:30-9, GOR G20, is the latest in the Arts employability events, featuring Clifford Thompson, writer and journalist for the BBC, talking about his work experience. All welcome – book here. Plus a future date for your diary: Tuesday 14 May, evening, will be a special History of Art-focused employability event. More in a future post!

Plus another employment-focused opportunity later this month on 22 March in case you’d like to explore a career in teaching art history: a Discovery Day for Art History and Fine Art undergraduate students, post-graduate students and new and potential teachers of Art History A level, to be held at Dulwich Picture Gallery. This will be a chance to prepare materials, share ideas and test out strategies for teaching, that could be used for A level Art History, Art & Design Personal Studies and EPQs. Participants should bring laptops if possible.




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A blogpost for reading week

I hope you’re all enjoying reading week. I spoke recently to a colleague at another university (which shall remain nameless) – she told me they’d abolished reading week, which seemed like cruel treatment, of both staff and students!

Once you’re back you’ll want to be joining these exciting events:

On Friday 1 March, 6-8pm, the Centre for Museum Cultures welcomes Professor Wendy Shaw Professor of the Art History of Islamic cultures at the Free University Berlin to give a talk entitled ‘Museums and Islamic Art: Whose Culture? Whose Colony?’, Gordon Sq room B04. This talk examines how Islamic art history emerges from methodological art historical layers, and becomes globalised in the modern era, both as a representation of Islam and as a representation of power, ultimately to ask how our rich collections might also speak otherwise. Further details and a booking link here.

And also on 1 March, during the day, the ASSC presents a fascinating symposium ‘Conquest and Construction: Architecture and Landscapes in the Medieval Mediterranean’. Much recent scholarship on the medieval Mediterranean focuses on shifting borders and cultural identities. Conquest is one of the causes of such shifts. This one-day symposium will examine how the consequences of conquests were manifested in conquered cities and landscapes, asking how conquerors responded to their new environments and how conquered communities were built and re-built. Featuring a keynote talk by Leonie Hicks (Canterbury Christ Church University): ‘Landscapes of Conquest: Southern Italian Norman Chronicles and Other Animals’. More here.

Please mark  8 March 6pm in your diary, when the ASSC will welcome its latest ‘Thinker in Architecture’, Caroline van Eck (University of Cambridge), who’ll be speaking on ‘Changing Objectscapes, Mediterranean Connectivity and the Emergence of the Empire Style in Rome and Paris.’ More here.

Our current and past students are as busy, creative and productive as ever:

Jo Cottrell is a PhD student in the department working on women and Vorticism. She did her BA and MA in the History of Art at Birkbeck, and has worked for 25 years as an arts consultant in London. She also regularly shares her passion for art as a volunteer guide for Tate.  Jo reports on a very exciting commission she’s received:

‘I’ve been commissioned to write an essay for the catalogue for a forthcoming exhibition at the Barbican, details here:  ‘Into the Night’ will explore the social and artistic role of twentieth-century cabarets, cafes and clubs, proposing an alternative history of artistic production by highlighting how specific sites offered platforms for experimentation and the exchange of ideas between artists, architects, designers, writers, dancers and musicians. My essay will focus on the Cabaret Theatre Club/Cave of the Golden Calf, which I focused on for my MA dissertation, but am also revisiting as part of a chapter of my PhD.’

Helen Saunders, Cabaret, c.1913. Courtauld Institute of Art

Zoe Hollingworth, a recent MA History of Art graduate, tells us about her new job at the V&A and how her work placement on the MA put her in pole position to get it:

‘One of my motivations for applying for the History of Art MA at Birkbeck was to take advantage of the work placement. Despite being in full time employment, I had a very understanding manager and for two days a week I worked in the archive of the Bishopsgate Institute. While there I catalogued photographs, pamphlets, journals, and other social history ephemera, learning a bit about the various roles within an archive and gaining an insight into the incredible team at the Bishopsgate.

This work gave me the necessary experience to apply for a job at the Victoria and Albert Museum as a Senior Documentation Officer working with the collections management system. The guidance provided by Birkbeck’s Careers Service, especially the CV builder, and the support I received from the placement module convener, Sarah Thomas, resulted in my getting an interview. Lots of research and preparation for the interview resulted in an offer and I accepted!

Working with the V&A has been an amazing experience so far. There is an incredible array of people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests working across the museum helping to bring the V&A’s collections to the public. My role supports these people who work behind the scenes and it’s been very rewarding. Since starting, I’ve been promoted into a managerial role and have been guiding the museum through a new digital asset management system. I hope to embark on a PhD in the next couple years, but my intention is to stay with V&A for as long as possible!’

Zoe after chairing a meeting in the V&A boardroom

A third report from Leslie Primo, who did his BA History of Art and MA Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck, on an upcoming media appearance:

‘I will be a guest on the upcoming Radio 4 programme –  Moving Pictures – to be broadcast at 11.30 on Tues 12 Mar where I’ll be a guest discussing the National Gallery painting Adoration of the Magi by Jan Gossaert with Kathy Fitzgerald and her other guests. The programme will be repeated at 15:30 on Sat 16 Mar. You can also read my article on the theme of the Adoration of the Magi available on the Art UK website:’

Let these three be an inspiration to you, and send me news of yourselves and your art-history-related activities for future posts!






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Venice, Bedlam, prizes and studentships!

I begin with a brilliant piece of news which is also an opportunity for those of you considering MA study in the department. For the past three years, we have been able to award Wallace studentships to MA students in the department who demonstrate both academic excellence and financial need. Thanks to a further very generous donation by Graham and Denise Wallace, we can now offer the Wallace studentships for a further five years. We are really really pleased about this, as you can imagine – the studentships attract excellent students to our popular MA programmes who would otherwise not be able to afford to come here. You can find out more about the studentships, as well as about other funding available for post-graduate study in the School of Arts here. Remember too that we’re currently accepting applications for our two new MA programmes: MA History of Architecture and MA History of Photography, as well as MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures. The Wallace studentships support full-time study on any of these programmes by Home/EU students.

Kudos to Professor Kate Retford, whose book The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in 18th-Century Britain has just won the Historians of British Art prize for Exemplary Scholarship on the Period between 1600-1800! The jury commented: ‘Retford argues that the conversation piece played a key role in articulating familiar networks and social norms in Georgian Britain. Notions of politeness and performance take on renewed resonance, and Retford’s book will undoubtedly become the now-standard reference on the topic.’

Facing the Text: Extra-Illustration, Print Culture, and Society in Britain, 1769-1840, by Lucy Peltz, who is Honorary Research Fellow in the department, has won in the post-1800 category, so it’s good news all round for Birkbeck.

A few upcoming events to mention:

Are you interested in exploring your options for employment after you have completed your degree? Are you wondering what kind of work you can do with a degree in History of Art? If so, come to our employability event on Thursday 7 February 2019, 6-7:30, MAL 402. It will feature the presence of Gabriel Toso, who did a BA in History of Art at Birkbeck, talking about his work experience. Gabriel is currently the  manager of Whitford Fine Art, one of London’s leading international art galleries, specialising in European and British 20th Century painting and sculpture. Book here.

Also coming up is a screening and discussion co-sponsored by Birkbeck and the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. Un Oeil, Une Histoire is a series of French-made films, each focused on an influential art historian. On Saturday 9 February, 1-4pm, in the Birkbeck Cinema, we will be screening the films on Svetlana Alpers and Georges Didi-Huberman, followed by a panel discussion and reception. This event is sold out – if you’ve booked a place and can no longer attend, please do cancel your booking to free up a place for someone else.

A notice too about a lecture this Tuesday 5 February 6pm organised by our affiliated society, the London Art History Society. Katherine Cuthbert, an artist and art historian who is a graduate of the MA History of Art, will be lecturing on the ‘Triumphs and Laments’ project by William Kentridge, a South African artist, which is a ‘reverse graffiti’ frieze covering a 550 metre stretch of the Tiber embankment walls in Rome. Katherine worked with Kentridge on the project during a placement in Rome while she was on the MA. Book here.

Anna Jamieson, PhD Student in History of Art, leads the next meeting of the Birkbeck Eighteenth-Century Reading Group, on the topic ‘The Sentimental Look in the Asylum: Henry Mackenzie and Sophie von La Roche at Bedlam’ on Wednesday 13th February, 12-2pm, Gordon Square room 106. Anna will introduce two texts which describe visiting Bethlem Royal Hospital, commonly known as Bedlam, during the latter decades of the eighteenth century: Henry Mackenzie’s novel The Man of Feeling (1771) and Sophie von la Roche’s diary entry of her visit in 1786. All welcome. For copies of the texts please contact Kate Retford:

Finally, some exciting news from an alumna: Gaia Penteriani has been appointed trustee of the Venice in Peril Fund, a UK charity which raises funds for the conservation of monuments, works of art and buildings across the city of Venice and its islands. Gaia has recently completed the MA in History of Art, with a focus on theoretical and empirical issues related to the preservation of art and architecture, in particular in Venice, so this appointment is a very fitting continuation to her studies and interests. Recent campaigns of the Fund range from the conservation of illuminated choir books from the city’s churches, a project to reassemble a Venetian palace’s ceiling, a 17th-century garden statue of an elephant and plans for the Armstrong Mitchell Crane, a masterpiece of Victorian engineering which soars above the Arsenale skyline.

Armstrong Mitchell Crane, Venice, photo Michael Harding

In support of its conservation work, Venice in Peril also promotes a deeper understanding of Venice – its complex history, the contribution it has made to world culture and the challenges it faces today – to encourage responsible and informed engagement with the city, through a programme of lectures, publications and research grants. You can find out more about the Fund, its projects and events programme here.

More on alum activities in my next post – and more on Venice in due course too!



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New term, new programmes, new…

Welcome back! Hope you enjoyed the extra long break and have had a good first week of term.

We’re pleased to welcome a few colleagues back from research leave: Kate Retford, who takes over the role of programme director of the MA History of Art, Steve Edwards and Lynda Nead. Robert Maniura is on leave this term, returning after Easter.

As ever, the new term comes with a rich crop of events for your diary.

The next Murray seminar is this coming Tuesday 22 January, 5pm in Keynes Library. Peter Fane-Saunders, who is Honorary Research Fellow in the department, will be ‘Reading An Ancient Monument in Renaissance Rome’. His topic is the memorably-named Septizodium, one of ancient Rome’s most distinctive monuments, and its rich and diverse architectural fortunes; the paper will explore how interpretations of the monument determined the reuse of elements of its design in Renaissance building projects. Come and hear some fascinating original scholarship by a very engaging speaker.

The Architecture Space and Society Centre has two events coming up.

On Friday 25 January at 5.30, join us for a book launch and discussion marking the publication of two new books by the Centre’s academics: Architecture, Media and Memory: Facing Complexity in Post-9/11 New York by Joel Mckim and The Architecture of Art History: A Historiography by Mark Crinson and Richard J Williams (Edinburgh University). The books will be introduced by their authors, followed by an ‘in conversation’ between them (with me chairing).

Then on Friday 8 February, 6pm, the ASSC welcomes a leading American architectural historian, Daniel Barber, from University of Pennsylvania, give the paper ‘Emergency Exit: Architecture and the Oil Encounter’, linking the history of mid-century international style architecture (think glass boxes) with increases in oil supplies. There’s a strong topical dimension; he will also consider the role of architectural history in engaging the contemporary cultural challenges to a low carbon future. Book your place here.

Another February date for your diary: on Wednesday 6 February, 6pm in the cinema, Prof. Michael Kwakkelstein, Director of the Dutch Institute of the History of Art in Florence, will give the lecture ‘Leonardo da Vinci: the Motions of the Mind’. This exciting event marks the opening in the Peltz Gallery of the exhibition ‘Leonardo da Vinci and Perpetual Motion: Visualizing Impossible Machines‘, curated by Dr Juliana Barone, Honorary Research Fellow in the department, in collaboration with the Vasari Research Centre at Birkbeck and Ravensbourne. Book here. More in future blogs!

Excellent news from the US (nice to be able to say that…): Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra, Lecturer in Contemporary Art, has received a prestigious honour from the College Art Association, the US professional association of art historians and visual arts academics. She has been named as the recipient of the Art Journal Award for her article “Beyond Evil: Politics, Ethics, and Religion in Léon Ferrari’s Illustrated Nunca más Art Journal, Fall 2018 (more on the article in a past blogpost). The award recognises the most distinguished contribution to the journal in 2018. Congratulations Mara!

We can also announce that we’re accepting applications for two exciting new postgraduate programmes in the department. The MA History of Architecture and the MA History of Photography draw on our distinguished academics in these areas and link up with the lively research culture in architecture and photography. Birkbeck is now on the map as the place to study these subjects at postgraduate level. The new programmes complement our existing postgraduate programmes in History of Art and Museum Cultures. Please contact the admissions tutor, Patrizia Di Bello (, for information and advice on applying.

Finally, a plug for the Association for Art History’s new Student Network. It’s for undergraduate or master’s students of art history, visual culture or curating. It helps you to find out about opportunities, talks and events that can support your studies and link you with your peers across the UK. If you join now, there’s a discount offer on student membership of the AAH, which is the UK’s professional association of art historians. Deadline for the offer is 31 January. (You can also just sign up for the Student Network newsletter without becoming a paid-up member of the AAH.)

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One last blog for 2018

One last blog before the end of 2018 and the proper beginning of the holidays.

First some exciting recent events to take note of:

On 10 December, the Centre for Museum Cultures hosted a ‘Meet the Curator’ event with Dr Lucy Peltz, senior curator at the National Portrait Gallery and an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck. The group (shown in the photo here) was treated to an exclusive after-hours tour of the Gainsborough’s Family Album exhibition. Dr Peltz gave some fascinating insights not only into Gainsborough and his acclaimed portraits, but also into some of the challenges faced by the curator in the years building up to opening night, and the excitement of discovering major works that had long been considered lost.  Keep your eyes open for future similar events in London museums organised by the Centre.

We also recently celebrated the publication of Robert Maniura’s new book, Art and Miracle in Renaissance Tuscany, published by Cambridge University Press. The book uses the records of a Prato lawyer, Giuliano Guizzelmi (depicted in the image below), as a guide to the visual and devotional culture of Renaissance Italy. Focussing on his treatment of local miracle shrines, it explores the active role given to the visual among the challenges of everyday life. Warm congratulations to Robert on this major publication.

Leslie Topp (that’s me) was on a panel co-organised by the Design Council and the Wellcome Trust’s Policy unit on ‘Building Healthy Places’, timed to coincide with the fascinating Living with Buildings exhibition currently on at Wellcome Collection until 3 March. I offered the historical perspective alongside an architect, a developer and an urban planner (I seemed to end up saying ‘there’s nothing new about that’ a lot). Health and wellbeing is a hot topic in housing and planning policy at the moment. The image shows the panel in the gorgeous Wellcome library reading room which is right around the corner and open to the public – check it out. Those cushions are a lot more comfortable than the chairs we were sitting on.

Credit: Wellcome Trust

And now for some upcoming events and opportunities:

The Department of History of Art is collaborating with the Courtauld and Warburg Institutes to organise an event you should really try to make it to on Saturday 9 February, 1-4pm in the Gordon Square cinema: ‘Un Oeil, Une Histoire: What do we do when we do art history?’ ‘Un Oeil, Une Histoire’ is a series of French-made documentaries, each of which focuses on a well-known art historian in the setting of their own home, speaking to camera about a personal selection of artworks (present as postcards laid out on a table) and tracing their trajectory of into the discipline and particular mode of thinking about art and its histories. You can see a trailer for the series here. We will be screening two of the films, one on Svetlana Alpers, the American scholar who writes on Northern Renaissance art, and the other on Georges Didi-Huberman, a French art historian and philosopher whose writings explore art historiography, psychoanalysis, and contemporary art. The screenings will be followed by a round table of three early career art historians from each of the participating institutions, reflecting on the films and on their own positions and practices. A great opportunity to see two absorbing and fascinating films and to think about what we do when we do art history. Book your place here.

If you’re looking to future careers and you’re interested in the creative industries you might want to take part in a hackathon Birkbeck is hosting on Friday 25th and Saturday 26th January. Priority is being given to students in the Arts. The event aims to develop participants’ entrepreneurial skills as well as work on innovative ideas for a business. This hackathon will offer students the opportunity to come together to learn, create, test, prototype and present their ideas to tackle some of the big environmental challenges facing the capital. The best teams will walk away with a substantial cash prize: 1st Place = £2,000; 2nd Place = £1,000! Students can register and get more information here. (Password: BBKHACK19)

Last but very much not least, a word about our colleague Dr Tag Gronberg. Tag is retiring at the end of this month, after 26 years in the department, during which she served as Head as well as in other key roles, including Director of Research, and, most recently, Programme Director of the MA History of Art. A brilliant historian of design, visual culture and urban culture, a very popular teacher and a hugely valued colleague, she’ll be much missed. We’re delighted that she’s been granted Emeritus status by Birkbeck’s Academic Board, and in fact we’re not losing her, since she’ll continue to be involved in the rich research culture of the department. In honour of one of her many research interests, here’s a glimpse of Viennese café culture…

Happy holidays! See you in 2019.





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Ah Venice (part 2)

Francis Sydney Unwin, St Mark’s, Venice, etching, 1911. British Museum.

And the destination for our next departmental field trip is, you guessed it, Venice! We are delighted to have two young scholars of Italian art, Zuleika Murat and Sarah Ferrari, acting as the guides. The trip, which is scheduled for 8-12 April 2019, will be an in depth experience of the city, its streets, canals, architecture, religious and daily life, and of course its art collections, with a day trip to Padua to see Giotto’s famous frescos in the Arena chapel. You will hear more soon from the admin team about how to sign up.

Sooner than Venice, tomorrow night in fact, is the latest in the talks organised by the Architecture Space and Society Centre. Neil Shashore, of Liverpool University, will be giving the paper ‘Civic Centre: Architecture, Civic Design, and the Municipal Project in Interwar Norwich’. He’ll be talking about the emergence of the idea of a ‘Civic centre’ connoting deliberately planned and grouped buildings and spaces for public administration and assembly, while expressing civic identity and ceremony in a self-consciously democratic age.

Next week is the next in the excellent and informative series of events exploring your options for employment after you have completed your degree. Are you wondering what kind of work you can do with a degree in Arts? If so, come to our employability event on 11 December 2018. The focus of the event will be on finding employment for those with an Undergraduate degree in English. It will feature Sam Zdzieblo coming from the company Joe Public , talking about his work experience and transition from study to work. All Arts students are welcome to attend.

Find out more and to book your place for the 11 December session here.

And do catch the fascinating and playful exhibition Circus Life, on in the Peltz Gallery, before it closes on Wednesday 12 December. This new exhibition celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of circus and investigates circus’ continuing appeal as a subject for visual artists through the eyes of recent and contemporary British practitioners.

Our academics have been busy with papers, publications and prizes:

Kasia Murawska-Muthesius took part in two conferences in late November: one was organised by ICOM (International Council of Museums), entitled Museum Dimension: What Makes a Curator?, held at the National Museum in Budapest, on 19-20 November. She spoke about the origins and the aftermath of the Critical Museum project she was involved at the National Museum in Warsaw (2009-2010). The other conference was in Prague, with the great title ‘The New Dictionary of Old Ideas’, organised by a centre for contemporary art MeetFactory, where she participated in debates about responsibilities of contemporary art and cultures with her talk on maps: ‘Mapmaking as Imagemaking: The Case of East Central Europe.’

Kate Retford (whom you’ll remember as previous HoD and author of this blog) has had her recent book The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain shortlisted for the Apollo Book of the Year award 2018. The Conversation Piece was published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press. It looks at the emergence of a new type of small group portrait in eighteenth-century Britain, in which diminutive sitters, engaged in activities like taking tea or playing cards, are seen seated in polite interiors, or enjoying their landscape gardens. The book examines the reasons for the development of this innovative art form, unpicks the resonances of that evocative word ‘conversation’, analyses the nature and function of those carefully described settings, and explores the full range of relationships encompassed in these groups.

Kate has been on research leave for a year and a half, since stepping down as Head of Department, but will be back in January, and looking forward to taking over as MA History of Art programme director, and teaching her MA Option on eighteenth-century portraiture. Which will include a class on the conversation piece of course!

(p.s. She’s now Professor Kate Retford – congrats, Kate!)

Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra has had an article published in latest issues of the key American publication Art Journal. “Beyond Evil: Politics, Ethics and Religion in León Ferrari’s Illustrated Nunca Más, looks at the Argentine artist’s controversial series of collages Nunca Más (Never Again, 1995-96), named after the 1984 human rights report by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared. She argues that this series provides a visual rereading of the first extensive investigation of human rights violations during Argentina’s last military dictatorship, foregrounding the conjunction of repressive power and appeal to morality that characterized this regime.

I’ll end with a striking hybrid historical-contemporary image from Mara’s article – and I’ll be back with one more blog before the break.

León Ferrari, “The Inferno” by P. de Limbourg + Jorge Videla and Cardinal Aramburu, from the series Nunca más, 1995-96. Digital print on paper. Fundación Augusto y León Ferrari Archivo y Colección, Buenos Aires

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From Graduates to Gainsborough

We celebrated our graduates earlier this month at the November graduation – mostly BAs but also MA and PhD. It’s such a pleasure to talk to those of you graduating after the ceremony – those infectious grins – and to meet your partners and families, and congratulate them for not having to put up with Birkbeck in their lives anymore (unless you enrol with us again for further study – or they do!)

This photo shows students with Professor Mark Crinson on a field trip for the BA option module ‘Concrete and Flesh: Modern Architecture and the Body’. Within a mile or so of Birkbeck, they were studying three buildings designed by the great Georgian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin for (what was then) the Borough of Finsbury. They visited the Spa Green Estate, the Finsbury Health Centre, and Bevin Court, and the photos show them on the top floor of the stairhall at the last of these, from where they could look down onto Lubetkin’s great Baroque-Constructivist space and out to St Paul’s Cathedral. The architecturally-minded among you will have spotted that the next evening this same stairhall featured in a scene in the BBC’s adaption of John Le Carré’s novel The Little Drummer Girl.

And to learn more about modern British architecture beyond London, come along to the Architecture Space and Society Centre‘s next event, 7 December 6pm in Keynes Library. Neil Shashore, of Liverpool University, will be giving the paper ‘Civic Centre: Architecture, Civic Design, and the Municipal Project in Interwar Norwich’. He’ll be talking about the emergence of the idea of a ‘Civic centre’ connoting deliberately planned and grouped buildings and spaces for public administration and assembly, while expressing civic identity and ceremony in a self-consciously democratic age.

Sean Willcock, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the department, is producing fascinating research on the intersection between colonialism and photography. His article, ‘Aesthetics of the Negative: Orientalist Portraiture in the Digitised Collodion Plates of John Thomson’ was featured in the October issue of the journal Photoresearcher. It’s a response to the recent exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, Through the Lens of John Thomson, considering whether the show’s invitation to pay sustained attention to the photographic negatives – as opposed to the positives that circulated during Thomson’s lifetime – might enable new political readings of nineteenth-century colonial photography to emerge.

John Thomson, Manchu bride, Peking, Penchilie province, China, 1871, Wellcome Library, London.

Sean has also just given a paper on another photography topic: ‘Archiving Atrocity: Photography and the Amritsar Massacre of 1919,’ at the International Conference of Photography and Theory. With the centenary of the infamous Amritsar Massacre approaching, the British government is under increasing pressure to issue an apology for the colonial slaughter of hundreds of Indian civilians which took place on 13 April 1919.  The paper looked at the contested archives of this atrocity, considering how photographs linger to prick conscience or demand explanation in ways that continue to shape notions of national culpability.

Speaking of photography, Patrizia Di Bello, Senior Lecturer in the department, chaired one of the days of the Collecting Photography/Photography as Collecting conference held last weekend to mark the opening at the V&A of their new Centre for Photography, following dramatic expansion of their holdings after the Royal Photographic Society collection was moved there. They now show not just photographic prints, but also equipment and materials (the collection was previously at the National media Museum in Bradford). (For Queen fans: one of the papers was about Brian May’s world-class collection of stereo photographs.)

Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in the department, will be participating in a discussion at the Paul Mellon Centre on ‘Publishing Your Thesis’. Organised by the PMC’s Doctoral Researchers’ Network, the session offers an overview of the changing landscape of academic publishing, including some of the current opportunities and challenges. It includes practical advice from editors at Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre on choosing and approaching publishers, writing book proposals, and turning chapters from your thesis into writing samples. The discussion will also consider how publishing your research during your PhD might impact the process of turning your thesis into a book. Fri 7 December 2018, 16:30 – 17:30, booking essential.

And finally, the Centre for Museum Cultures has organised a gallery talk by Dr Lucy Peltz, Head of Collection Displays (Tudor to Regency) and Senior Curator 18th Century Collections (and Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck). She will give an informal talk and answer questions in Gainsborough’s Family Album about her role in co-curating this fascinating exhibition. Monday 10 December, 6.00-7.00pm.

Book early to avoid disappointment.

NPG 4446 Thomas Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, oil on canvas, circa 1759 © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Ah Venice (Part 1)

There’s a Venetian thread going through this post, which will be picked up again in future installments…

You still have time (just) to catch the first Architecture Space and Society Centre event of the year, tonight (9 November), on the unexpected combination of the historic city of Venice and the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier: Dr Sophia Psarra from the Bartlett speaking about Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital at 6pm in Keynes Library.

And next week current students have a chance to meet, chat and find out more about the  History of Art Society’s planned events at the Welcome Party, Tuesday 13 November 7.30pm in the Keynes.

The History and Theory of Photography Centre is hosting a fascinating-sounding paper by Anna Dahlgren from Stockholm University on ‘i-D and Artforum: the printed magazine and the merging of art and fashion’: Weds 21 November 2018, 6-7.30pm, room TBC.

Nick Knight for i-D magazine

And back to Venice… You may be aware that Birkbeck and the British Council collaborate every year to offer two Steward-Research Fellowships, based at the Venice Biennale. We are now seeking interest from current students interested in applying for the fellowships for the 2019 Biennale, which runs from 11 May to 24 November. Successful candidates work four days a week over a one month period as an invigilator in the British Pavilion (the 2019 artist is Cathy Wilkes) and one day a week pursuing their own research project. As past fellows have reported, it’s an incredibly stimulating, social and even transformative experience. Do read the great blog posts by the two 2018 fellows, Uli Gamper and Danilo Reis. There is a briefing session about the fellowships with Genevieve Marchiniak from the British Council, Sarah Thomas, who coordinates from Birkbeck’s end, and one of the past fellows, on Thurs 22 November 6pm in Gordon Sq room 327.  The deadline for applications is Friday 30 November, 2pm. For any further info please contact Sarah:

Finally, looking back to the future, I want to highlight what is now a full set of excellent blogposts on the ‘Forward Looking’ workshops and the Anniversary lecture, earlier in the term, all written by PhD students in the department. Many thanks to them for these records of a memorable and meaty day. Maria Alambritis blogs about the ‘Futures for Publishing in Art History‘ workshop; Sarah McBryde about the ‘Future of Studying Old Art’, and Mark Liebenrood, on the Centre for Museum Cultures site, about the lecture by Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, on ‘Design for a Nation: The V&A in the 21st Century‘.

Hope you’ve had a good reading week, and we look forward to seeing you back in the classroom next week.


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