The Birkbeck Hours, biopolitics, and Bolivia

I want to open this blog with a big thank you to the three alumni who took time out of their demanding schedules to come back to the History of Art department at Birkbeck, and to give talks to students about their careers – about what they do, and how they have developed their careers in the Arts: Sonia Solicari, Alice Payne and Jacqueline Riding. I was able to go along to the last in the series, and hear Jackie Riding, freelance art historian, author, and historical consultant, speaking about her diverse career: from curatorial work at the Palace of Westminster and her position as founding Director of the Handel House Museum – through her experience of the Clore Leadership Programme – to the recent publication of her book on the Jacobites, her curatorial work at Wilton’s Music Hall (the oldest surviving Music Hall in the world, in Whitechapel) and her work as historical consultant on Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner film. I thought I had a busy professional life, but, as Jackie laid out her current projects, I wanted to go and have a lie down! Highlights include: involvement in the restoration of J.M.W. Turner’s house in Twickenham, opening soon – consultancy work on Mike Leigh’s forthcoming film about the Peterloo Masacre of 1819 – and curating an exhibition at the Foundling Museum, which opens on 29th September this year: ‘Basic Instincts: Love, Lust and Violence in the Art of Joseph Highmore’.

Work continues apace on the other elements of our Careers and Employability programme. I look forward to announcing work shadowing opportunities in the summer term in due course, and the next of our workshops is coming up on 15th March: CVs for Arts (4-5pm, room 106, Gordon Square). Do sign up for your free place if you haven’t already!

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A couple of news items before I whet your appetites with the wide range of events coming up over the next couple of weeks. Just before Christmas, I included the exciting fact that the School of Arts building was to be used as a film set in this blog – and the tantalising detail that this would involve an actor being thrown through Gabriel Koureas’s window! We were all sworn to secrecy about the precise nature of the filming – but I can now formally reveal that 42-47 Gordon Square will be seen playing the part of Baker Street in the upcoming Sony film, ‘Holmes and Watson’ – a comedic take featuring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.

The other piece of news is that the Derek Jarman Lab have made a short film about the rediscovery of four medieval books in Birkbeck’s library by Professor Anthony Bale in the English and Humanities department. Anthony brought these to light when teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ on the MA Medieval Literature and Culture – three of them had never been catalogued, and did not seem to have been viewed since about 1991! They include a book of hours from northern France, dated c.1400, and a history of the Trojan War, printed in Venice in 1499, Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius. Do take a look at the film about this exciting find – it’s fascinating!

Birkbeck Hours; Pentecost (fol. 105r)Birkbeck hours; King David at Prayer (fol. 85r)

from the Birkbeck Hours

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So, onto upcoming events. The Architecture, Space and Society Centre is as busy as ever! The next annual ‘Thinkers in Architecture’ lecture will be held on Monday 20th March (6pm, Keynes Library). Professor Peg Rawes, from the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL, will be talking about ‘Housing Biopolitics and Care’, engaging with Spinoza’s seventeenth-century philosophy and Foucault’s writings on technologies of the self within a biopolitical discussion of the UK housing crisis.


It’s also well worth heading to the ASSC’s website, to read Leslie Topp’s write-up of the most recent event in the ‘New Books’ series, held to mark the publication of a collected volume entitled Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture and the Body (Routledge, 2016).

Meanwhile, the next Murray seminar is coming up next week, on Wednesday 15th March: Péter Bokody, speaking on ‘The Politicization of Rape: Giotto’s Allegory of Injustice in Padua’. Dr. Bokody, from the University of Plymouth, will be looking at the allegory of Injustice in the Arena Chapel in Padua, by Giotto di Bondone, and the allegory of War in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338-39), as key allegorical images of rape. These two monuments are well-known amongst scholars, but they have not, to date, been fully explored as representations of sexual violence – Dr. Bokody’s focus in this paper.

In my blog, I concentrate on events organised by my colleagues in the History of Art department, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on what’s going on in the School of Arts more broadly. Colleagues in Film have been working hard on this year’s Essay Film Festival, which runs from 24th March until 1st April. They’ve got some great filmakers coming to Birkbeck to show and share their work, including Babette Mangolte and Jocelyne Saab. Screenings will be taking place at the ICA, the Birkbeck Cinema, and the Goethe-Institute, and some events are free. As well as going to the website, you can also follow what’s happening on Twitter and/or Facebook.

Finally, as you’ve been negotiating your way around our currently non-functional front door (at least the attendants on the front desk are warmer than usual!), you may have spotted that there’s a new exhibition on in the Peltz Gallery, here in the School of Arts: ‘Decolonising Witchcraft: Portraits of Traditional Healers in Bolivia‘.

Bolivian pic.jpg

This display is a collaboration between the photographer  David Green, and the geographer, Dr. Kate Maclean, who has worked in Bolivia since 2006. It portrays the women whose livelihoods involve the traditional rituals, artefacts and medicines that play a central role in culture and health in Bolivia. The portraits are accompanied by quotes from the women themselves, discussing how they came to this profession and their role in the community. The exhibition opened on Friday, with a panel discussion, and will run until 25th March, so do drop in when you’ve some time on your way in or out of the building. The closing event, on 22nd March, will also be of great interest to everyone interested in the history and theory of photography. Join David Green, our own Patrizia di Bello and others for ‘Photographing the Rituals of Healing and Dying in Latin America‘, to consider some of the visual and ethical challenges of documentary photography.

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Two reminders, two events, and Charlotte Ashby’s new book on Modernism in Scandinavia

I hope everyone on our taught programmes is enjoying the relative tranquillity of reading week! A crucial time to take stock – have a break from those dashes from work or home to make it into Birkbeck for 6pm – to catch up on reading and to make headway on essays and dissertations. I also know that for all those with school-age children out there, the fact this is one reading week in the academic year which coincides with the half-term break is decidedly handy!

The two reminders up first. I’m delighted to report that the first of our Careers and Employability masterclasses yesterday evening, led by Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum, was a great success. Gabriel Koureas chaired the session, and dropped me a line afterwards to say that Sonia had provided a fascinating discussion of her experience in both large and small museums, and a host of useful insights into applying for jobs, CVs and interviews. The next in the series is a masterclass led by Alice Payne, who completed the Graduate Certificate in History of Art with us in 2011, followed by the MA History of Art in 2013. Alice has been working at Art UK since 2011, and is now Head of Content. She has project managed the development of the wonderful Art Detective website, and the build and rebrand of the Art UK website. Currently, Alice is project managing an audience broadening initiative. Do reserve a place on Eventbrite to come along on Tuesday 21st February, 4pm-5.30pm (Keynes Library), to hear Alice speak about her career, and to ask her questions about professional opportunities and development in her field. You can also follow Alice on twitter: @Alice_Payne__

The second reminder is to all final year undergraduate students to complete the National Student Survey (NSS)! I am assured by those in the know that it doesn’t take long at all to complete, and it really does matter to us in the department. I know that these kinds of questionnaires can feel like box-ticking exercises, and a chore, but they do matter to us, and we take them very seriously. We have a whole host of mechanisms by which we scrutinise responses to these surveys and reflect on our courses accordingly: we discuss them at committees; we respond to them formally in annual programme monitoring exercises; and we’ll be talking about them more at our upcoming Internal Review. Birkbeck are currently running a “You said, we did…” initiative, to show how the results of student surveys do lead very directly to improvements in our provision. Take a look at the Student Feedback webpage to find out more. The results of the NSS are also published on Unistats, so, in addition, it provides a useful guide to people working out what they want to study, and where.

Onto the two upcoming events that I’m very keen to advertise. On Wednesday next week, 22nd February, Dr. Laura Jacobus will be giving a paper in the Murray research seminar series (5pm, Keynes Library), with the intriguing title: ‘”Mea culpa?” Penitence, Enrico Scrovegni and me’. Until very recently, the Arena Chapel in Padua was thought to be commissioned as an act of restitution for usury, and its frescoes by Giotto as an expression of penitence on the part of the patron Enrico Scrovegni. Laura and colleagues in the field have challenged that view. But, two of her most recent discoveries have the potential to reinforce the established view, and to undermine her own. Laura will be asking: what happens when a researcher uncovers inconvenient truths, and what is to be done? Go along to the Keynes to find out, and to reflect on the matter over refreshments!

Laura has also asked me to publicise an upcoming CHASE workshop on Medieval and Early Modern Spaces and Places, organised by the Open University and the Architecture, Space and Society Centre here at Birkbeck. This is for MPhil/PhD students, and will take place on 24th February. It’s a fascinating programme, and the morning features Laura, along with Dr. Robert Maniura and Dr. Caroline Goodson from the Department of History, Classics and Archaelogy. Interested research students are strongly encouraged to sign up!

medivial placesThere are a number of key research interests in the History of Art department here, and one is the need to move beyond the regular stamping grounds of Art History. This is true in a whole host of ways – but one in particular is in terms of geography. The desire to look at areas of Europe typically neglected by art historians is at the heart of much of Robert Maniura’s recent work, and it is a major concern of Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius. Kasia recently spoke at a symposium in Paris, organised by the Centre Allemand d’Histoire de l’Art, as part of a series of events devoted to the methods of art history in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Kasia’s paper, entitled ‘Welcome to Slaka, post scriptum’, returned to the issue of the applicability of Postcolonial Discourse Analysis to studying art in East Central Europe.

Meanwhile, Dr. Charlotte Ashby’s work revolves around her interest in Nationalism, transnationalism and modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in art, design and architecture, with a particular focus on Scandinavia. And I am delighted to announce that her new book is imminently to be published by Bloomsbury press! Over to Charlotte, to tell you more:


Charlotte Ashby, on Modernism in Scandinavia: Art, Architecture and Design (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017)

“In 2011 the department gave me the opportunity to run a Cert HE module on Nordic Art. This module developed from the general overview of Nordic culture that I had gained during my PhD, which focused on Finnish architecture. A course on Finnish architecture alone would have been too niche, but I was excited to be able to share my enthusiasm for the art, architecture and design of the Nordic region with Birkbeck students. From this first class I continued to develop my material up into a level 6 option module that I ran at Birkbeck in 2013-14, and again in 2015-16. I also taught on Scandinavian art and design at Oxford University, and as part of the V&A education programme.

All along the way, students would ask me what book they should buy to further their studies – but there was nothing I could really recommend that tried to cover the broad field. There was a fair amount written in English, but it was often out of print, or published by small academic and museum presses in the Nordic countries without international distribution. In addition, all the available books were either about fine art or about architecture and design. No one, it seemed, had considered looking at the relationship between the two, except in the form of national histories of art. Even in these cases, the essays on fine art were written by art historians and those on architecture by architectural historians. My training, practice and teaching as an art historian has always ranged across art, architecture and design as intimately interconnected cultural activities, and this is an approach shared by colleagues at Birkbeck. Especially in the small and interconnected art worlds of the Nordic countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, maintaining divisions between the arts was, in my view, artificial. After three years of teaching on the subject, I decided that the thing to do was to write that book myself.

I wanted the text to capture what I attempted to do in my classes at Birkbeck: to introduce students to the rich visual cultures of the Nordic countries and at the same time consider debates relating to modernity, modernism and national identity. These were among the key factors that had transformed these cultures between the mid nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries. Covering the art, architecture and design of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland was a potentially unmanageable, huge task. I wanted to avoid anything like an exhaustive survey, with an endless series of short entries on unfamiliar figures and places. I could still remember struggling to read such books myself as a student. As a teacher, I find the case study the best teaching tool. New ideas, themes and relationships can be much more graspable when applied to a concrete example. As an undergraduate, I had shifted my degree subject from History to Art History precisely because the social and cultural forces I wanted to examine were so much more legible to me in the subject and handling of a painting or the ornament of a building.

My book, therefore, is arranged as a series of case studies drawn from across the five countries of the Nordic region (sorry Estonia). These case studies were selected to open up the relatively unknown world of Nordic art, architecture and design and allow for both a sense of overview and a window onto the broad array of factors shaping culture in the region. I attempted to strike a balance between a ‘greatest hits’ selection of works of well-established significance and being willfully iconoclastic: no one wants the first book on Scandinavian art they buy to not mention Alvar Aalto or Edvard Munch. I wanted to give a sense of the wider cultural forces shaping the period as well as the developing infrastructure of cultural institutions, the professionalization of art and design practice and the markets within which works were produced. The book is arranged chronologically, but various themes run back and forth allowing for connections to appear between the different countries and across the decades. Some of these key themes are art and the national landscape, the entry of women artists into the profession and the desire to represent national and civic identity in architecture.

The support of the department and of the Birkbeck students I’ve taught, who enthusiastically and intelligently embraced this relatively little known art historical area, lies behind the success of this project and the book that I’m now proud to bring out.”

I shall indulge in some shameless promotion of a colleague’s work, and recommend that everyone reading this goes onto Bloomsbury’s website to pre-order their copy of this fascinating book as soon as they can! 

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Ranging from ‘Quality Assurance Mechanisms’ to Diamonds and Giotto….

I hope everyone’s Spring term is going well so far? It’s been a busy few weeks for the Department. Lots of marking – and we’ve been continuing work on our Careers and Employability programme, putting the finishing touches to our upcoming series of masterclasses with alumni, for example. An email went out to all students a couple of days ago, so I do hope that lots of you have been signing up for these valuable opportunities to hear from, and talk to, people who have developed fascinating careers in the Arts: Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum, in a couple of weeks’ time (Monday 13th February); Alice Payne, Head of Content at Art UK (Tuesday 21st February); and Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant (Tuesday 28th February).

We’ve also been bustling about, preparing and submitting materials for an upcoming Internal Review, due to take place in late March. This is a process which every department in the College goes through every four years – as one of what’s known as our ‘quality assurance mechanisms’. It’s not the most catchy label(!), but these are the vital ways in which we constantly monitor our programmes of study, check that everything is working as well as possible, and think about ways to improve and develop what we do. Quality assurance mechanisms include some things you’ll be familiar with as students here – the module questionnaires we ask you to complete at the end of every course, or the Staff-Student Exchange meetings we hold in the Autumn and Spring terms, for example. They also include some things you might not be as aware of – the role of external examiners in checking our processes and results at every level of study, for example, or the paperwork we need to get approved when we want to develop a new module, or change one we’ve taught before. The Internal Review at the end of this term will begin with the panel – three colleagues from other Schools in the College, and an external specialist in History of Art – meeting with a range of our students, to chat with them about their experiences here. I’ll be emailing some of you over the next week or so, to ask if you would be able to take part in this process – and we’ll all be very grateful indeed to those who agree!

Another of these quality assurance mechanisms that’s very much on our minds at the moment is the National Student Survey – now open for responses from all final year undergraduate students. Birkbeck runs a range of surveys, which are crucial for this process of reflecting on what we should be doing more of, and what we can improve – but the NSS results are also vital for prospective students, considering where they might like to study.

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I have lots of upcoming events to tell you about, but a couple of pieces of news first.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while will be familiar with the name of Gary Haines, I’m sure! Gary is one of our research students in the department, working on cultural perceptions of the blinded British soldier in the first world war. He’s written for the blog in the past about Access, Birkbeck and our Disability Office, and also about his valuable work with Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people. I’ve been in touch with Gary this week, and was delighted to hear that he’s recently been appointed as Archivist at the Museum of Childhood – congratulations Gary! Inevitably, I have asked him to write another piece for us about this post – but, in the meantime, he’s tipped me off about a fun event, coming up at the Museum on the evening of Thursday 23rd February: an East London Quiz Night. Book your place if you fancy seeing just how much cockney rhyming slang you really do know!

The other piece of good news I wanted to share is a new publication from one of our new Professors: Steve Edwards. This is an edited volume, containing some 32 articles and essays by Adrian Rifkin, about art, urbanism, music and popular life in France and Britain over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As well as being editor, Steve has provided an extended introduction for Communards and Other Cultural Histories, in which he considers the key theories and disciplinary formations which underpin Rifkin’s essays.

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Onto events, and there are a couple of important ones coming up later this week. This Thursday, 2nd February (6-7.30pm, room B04), we will be welcoming Professor Marcia Pointon, giving a lecture entitled Robert Harris’s Photography at De Beer’s Kimberley Diamond Mine 1875-1890. This is co-hosted by the Departmental postgraduate seminar series and the History and Theory of Photography Centre. Professor Pointon’s name will be familiar to many of you, and we have been lucky enough to welcome her as a speaker at Birkbeck before – she came to give the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture some years ago. As someone who specialises in portraiture, I have many of her books on my shelves: a very well thumbed copy of Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England, for example, and her Portrayal and the Search for Identity, published by Reaktion in 2013. One of Professor Pointon’s many other interests is in gems and jewellery – the subject of her Brilliant Effects: A Cultural History of Gem Stones and Jewellery (2009), and a theme which will be developed in her new book, soon to be published: Rocks, Ice and Dirty Stones: Diamond Histories. Thursday’s lecture is a key opportunity for our postgraduates to hear Professor Pointon’s very latest work in progress.


Then, this Friday, 3rd February (2-5pm, Keynes Library), the Architecture, Space and Society Research Centre, together with the Centre for Medical Humanities, will be hosting the next in their ‘New Books’ series. This event will mark the recent publication of a collected volume entitled Healing Spaces, Modern Architecture and the Body (Routledge, 2016). The book explores the various ways in which architects, urban planners, medical practitioners, and others have applied modern ideas about health and the body to the spaces in which they live, work, and heal. The coeditors – Dr Sarah Schrank (Professor of History at California State University, Long Beach) and Dr Didem Ekici (Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment at the University of Nottingham) – will be joined by Caitjan Gainty from Kings College London as respondent. The event is free, but you do need to book your place.

The final event I want to bring to your attention isn’t until Thursday 2nd March, but I’m sure it will soon get booked out – so reserve your place now! Birkbeck is currently extremely fortunate to have T.J. Clark as a Visiting Professor, with the Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities. Professor Clark will be asking ‘What can Art History Say about Giotto’? – get onto Eventbrite now to make sure you find out!

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Happy new year!

A very happy new year to all of you! I hope everyone had a good break, and a chance both to rest and make merry over the festive season? Quite a lot of coursework deadlines were set for this first week of term, so I know that many students will also have been beavering away on essays, in between the mince pies and mulled wine.

There’s been a lot of bustling around the School of Arts this week, with staff and students picking up the reins again, and diaries are already full with upcoming events. I told you all in my last blog that we’ve now finalised the next stage of our History of Art Careers and Employability programme: a series of three masterclasses with alumni. An email went out to all students just after that, with links to eventbrite pages for these sessions – but I wanted to take this opportunity to remind you to sign up at the earliest opportunity! The masterclasses are all free, and organised at a range of times of the day in the hope that there’s something to suit everyone – so do come along to hear stellar alumni talk about their fascinating jobs, and how their studies in the History of Art have helped them to advance their careers…

  • Monday 13th February, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Sonia Solicari, Director of the Geffrye Museum.
  • Tuesday 21st February, 4-5.30pm, Keynes Library: a chance to hear from Alice Payne, Head of Content at the Public Catalogue Foundation (Art UK).
  • Tuesday 28th February, 7.30-9pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant to the likes of Mike Leigh.

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As ever, I have the pick of a host of events and activities taking place around the School, and the College as whole, to tell you about. On Monday, 16th January (6pm, The Bevan Suite, BMA House, Tavistock Square ), we’ll be welcoming back an ex-colleague, who will have taught many of you reading this blog – perhaps on the level 5 ‘Art and Society in the Nineteenth Century’ module, or on his level 6 ‘Gothic Revivals’ option: Dominic Janes. We were sad to say goodbye to Dominic a couple of years ago, but also very pleased for him as he left us to take up a new, prestigious post as Professor of Modern History at the University of Keele. Dominic will be back in Bloomsbury to give a lecture hosted by the Birkbeck Institute for Gender and Sexuality, in collaboration with The Raphael Samuel History Centre: British Caricature and Queer Fashioning 1750-1900In his talk, Dominic will be asking: what are the links between the histories of fashion and of sexuality? Did Oscar Wilde invent the image of the camp and dandified homosexual? Or did he simply become its most celebrated exemplar through the sensational media coverage of his trials in 1895? I know Dr. Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will be going along with those BA and Graduate Certificate students on her ‘Satire, Caricature, Cartoon’ option module – and I hope others of you will be able to join them. The lecture is free, but do book your place here on eventbrite.

dominics-lectureThere are so many other events I could tell you about – or remind you about, such as our own Dr. Sarah Thomas’s lunchtime talk at the National Gallery on 30th January, being given in conjunction with the Australian Impressionists exhibition, included in my last blog. It’s always well worth keeping an eye on the websites of Research Centres and Institutes of interest around Birkbeck. The Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, for example, has just announced its programme for this term. BIMI’s events take place in the Birkbeck Cinema, and most are free. Meanwhile, the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre is soon to host its first event of term: Professor Margaret Iversen from the University of Essex will be coming to give a paper entitled Profane Illuminations on Thursday 19th  January (6-7:30pm, Room 120 Gordon Square). Walter Benjamin credited the Surrealist movement with ‘a true, creative overcoming of religious illumination’ by replacing it with a kind of ‘profane illumination’. Professor Iversen’s talk will attend to two key moments in the art of producing technically mediated, profane illuminations: the innovations of the Surrealist movement itself; and Leo Steinberg’s ‘Other Criteria’, with its conception of the picture plane as a receptive surface or, as he put it, ‘a consciousness immersed in the brain of the city’. A great opportunity to hear from a great art historian of truly international repute.

Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus, 1955

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For the final part of this blog, I’m going to hand you over to Dr Laura Jacobus, my colleague who specialises in early Italian art. I mentioned the hugely successful Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality conference which she organised in late November in a previous posting. Laura kindly promised me a piece for the blog a while ago, and has just sent me this account of her research and teaching last term, and how the two fed into one another…

Laura Jacobus on research, and research-led teaching

“Last term was a busy one for me – so busy that I’ve only just got round to contributing to the blog. There were quite a few new lectures to prepare for remodelled undergraduate modules, plus a number of my own research projects to work on – and that got me thinking about what ‘research-led teaching’ means in my practice. Research-led teaching is what distinguishes university-level study in the UK, and our commitment to it is behind the fact that staff often seem to be on leave. In fact, Birkbeck allows each of us to take one term in nine as research leave, and one reason I was so busy last term is that some of the research I did on my last period of leave has started to come to fruition. There were several  elements of research that kept me occupied, and each of these fed into my teaching in one way or another. The question I’ve been asking is: how exactly did that happen?

A major element of last term’s research concerned medieval portraiture. I was working on the proofs of an article on questions of likeness in portraiture (it will be published in June 2017 in The Art Bulletin) and at the same time I was delivering a partially-remodelled series of lectures for the second-year BA course ‘Art and Architecture in Europe, 1250-1400’. This course has been running for a number of years, and, while I’ve always slipped material on portraiture into my lectures, I’d never devoted a whole class to the topic. That’s now changed, and I hope those of you who were there enjoyed the new lecture on Portraiture that resulted.


In reading week, I didn’t get much reading done! Instead, I went to a conference in New Orleans to deliver a paper on a related element of my research (also on portraiture, but using different case-studies to raise a different set of issues). This is the only conference in the world that deals exclusively with my area of expertise – fourteenth-century Italian art – and was a not-to-be-missed occasion, as it only takes place every few years. It was great to experience total immersion in research so related to my own (24 papers in over two days), and to get feedback on my research from those most in the know. Thankfully, it was both favourable and useful feedback, and I also heard a huge amount of really interesting research in my field. Some of this fed back into my teaching – pretty much immediately after touch-down in London, when I was able to share with my MA class some of the things I’d heard, and to give them a sense of what seems to be most  at the cutting-edge of research in this area (Materiality is going up. Gender is going down….).

A separate aspect of my research – perhaps not surprisingly given the trends I observed at the New Orleans conference – is that my work on women and art in fourteenth-century Italy has led me by a roundabout route to become interested in textiles. The coincidence of there being a major exhibition of English medieval embroidery at the V&A (Opus Anglicanum – a fabulous exhibition which ends 5 February – don’t miss it!) led me to organise a one-day conference at Birkbeck on Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality. It was great to see a number of past and present students there, and it proved to be a sell-out. I hope to get recordings of the papers on Panopto soon so that all Birkbeck students can hear them if they’re interested. Once again, I was prompted to try to integrate this research into teaching, and so our new level 4 ‘Material and Process in Art’ module, for BA and Certificate students, included a lecture from me on Textiles.

These are some of the obvious manifestations of what research-led teaching means in practice: students can get to hear what’s new in the discipline of Art History, before it’s even been published, while knowledge is actively being made. Students can also (I hope) benefit from being taught by people whose enthusiasm for their subject is constantly being refreshed at source by the chance to do research. And last, but very far from least, staff can benefit from the experience of communicating their ideas to students and having those ideas tested by the enquiring minds of the next generation of scholars.”

I entirely echo all those sentiments – thank you Laura!

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Wishing you all a very happy Christmas break!

Two days until the end of term – ten days until Christmas day – and I imagine everyone reading this feels well and truly ready for the upcoming break! Final classes are being attended, and essays are being uploaded at regular intervals onto Turnitin. However, I would thoroughly recommend taking ten minutes out, as soon as you’re able, to watch the new film about the Open House London weekend which has just been uploaded to our website. Back in mid October, I wrote about the third opening up of the School of Arts building for Open House London, and Michael Clegg, who has just finished his MA with us, and who acted as a student volunteer during the event, contributed a lovely piece to tell us all about it. I mentioned at the time that the Derek Jarman Lab – based in the School of Arts – were working on a film, about the building and the tours that weekend. I got to watch it for the first time the other week, and it’s truly wonderful. You can listen to Leslie Topp, Patrizia Di Bello, and Victoria McNeile (who did her PhD in the English and Humanities department here) talking about the Bloomsbury area – the townhouses we work and study in – their most famous inhabitants, the Stephens siblings – the paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant – and the life and work of Virginia Woolf. Their discussion ranges across architecture, space, social status and gender. There’s also a fascinating interview with Andy MacFee, the lead architect on the Cinema, describing how that multi-coloured, geometric part of our building was inspired by Virgina Woolf’s famous ‘stream of consciousness’. And the Derek Jarman Lab has contributed some lovely pieces of film, not to mention some nifty graphics, so that it’s impossible not to be reminded how lucky we are to be based here. I’ve been at Birkbeck for more than ten years now, and thought I knew a lot about 39-47 Gordon Square – but there was so much in the film that was new to me. Truly not to be missed!

Image result for cinema gordon square

I know most of us are struggling to think beyond Christmas, but I do have some important dates for your diaries….

First of all, I am delighted to announce that we have finished organising the next stage of our Careers and Employability programme for History of Art students in 2016-17. This, as I mentioned in a previous blog, will consist of a number of masterclasses with alumni, who have kindly agreed to come back and chat about their career trajectories: what they do, and how they got there. We will be circulating Eventbrite links in the near future, but do please make a note of these sessions: –

  • Monday 13th February 2017, 6-7.30pm, Keynes Library: come and meet Sonia Solicari, currently Head of the Guildhall Art Gallery, following curatorial positions at the V&A. However, in the new year, Sonia will be taking up the prestigious post of Director of the Geffrye Museum, on the retirement of David Dewing.
  • Tuesday 21st February 2017, 4-5.30pm, Keynes Library: a chance to hear from Alice Payne, Head of Content at the Public Catalogue Foundation (Art UK). Alice has project managed the development of the Art Detective website, the build and rebrand of the Art UK website, and is currently project managing an audience broadening initiative.
  • Tuesday 28th February 2017, 7.30-9pm, Keynes Library – come and meet Jacqueline Riding, freelance art historian, author and historical consultant. Jackie has recently published a book about the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 and, having worked on Mike Leigh’s award-winning Mr Turner film, is now advising on his upcoming film, Peterloo.

These events will all be free. And you’ll notice that, in recognition of the fact that there is no ideal timing for ‘extra’s at Birkbeck, we’ve gone for a range of options: one session in reading week; one session before teaching starts at 6pm; one session after most classes end at 7.30pm. Hopefully at least one of these will work for you! We’re very grateful indeed that Sonia, Alice and Jackie have agreed to take time out of their busy schedules to come and speak to us about their fascinating jobs, and how their studies in the History of Art have helped them to advance their careers -so please do make the most of this opportunity. And don’t forget about the ongoing Careers and Employability workshops: next up is ‘The Value of Internships’, on 8th February 2017.

Image result for australian impressionists ng

The other date I’d recommend getting in your diary is a lunchtime talk by our own Sarah Thomas at the National Gallery: 1pm, on Monday 30th January. Sarah’s lecture will be on the subject of ‘Australian Impressionism: National Art in a Global Context’, given to coincide with the Gallery current exhibition, Australia’s Impressionists. Before joining us at Birkbeck, Sarah worked as a curator in Australian art museums for many years, and so is very well placed to speak on this subject! The exhibition is definitely at the top of my ‘to do’ list for the Christmas break. I got to visit Melbourne and Sydney for the first time in September, and was fascinated by the work of the late nineteenth-century/ early twentieth-century artists Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, which I hadn’t encountered before. These painters sought out subject matter that was considered uniquely ‘Australian’ – in particular, the pastoral and bush landscapes of New South Wales and Victoria, and the resilient and hard-working pioneer settlers who inhabited them. They played a key role in constructing a national identity in the years leading up to Australian Federation in 1901. But Impressionism was a global movement, and the work of these artists was deeply beholden to European modernism. Sarah’s lecture will examine the tensions between this emergent nationalism and a broader global consciousness. It is free, and all are welcome!

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Finally, before I sign off, I am delighted to be able to fulfil a promise made in my last blog: to tell you more about Isobel Elstob’s recent trip to Montpelier, to speak at a conference on Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World. I hope many of you have got to meet Isobel since she joined us in October, covering for Suzannah Biernoff who is currently on research leave.

Isobel Elstob, Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World

“Last week I attended the interdisciplinary conference Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World at Montpellier University. A wonderful city, woven through medieval cobbled passageways and neat nineteenth-century boulevards, Montpellier offered an ideal setting for our discussions on the situation of the past in the present.  Scholars from France, Gabon, the United States, Haiti and Britain, working across literature, history, the visual arts, anthropology, ethnography and linguistics, asked the question of how we go about the task of memorialising events as traumatic as the Atlantic Slave Trade and, indeed, what might the effects of such memorialisation be? My own paper examined well-known visual artworks by contemporary artists Carrie Mae Weems, Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson that represent (or re-present) slavery histories ‒ and enslaved people themselves ‒ through the application of an African American linguistic model, known as signifyin’. Across the course of my research into these works what has become most apparent is how these artists construct a visual encounter between the past and the present ‒ forcing the viewer to confront the relevancies of history to our own, contemporary, attitudes towards ‘race’. And this ‘inter-temporality’ also emerged as the most crucial common theme across many of the conference presentations. In the end, then, the question being asked was not so much about how we memorialise an extinguished historical past in the present but, as the conference title so aptly describes, how do we acknowledge the traces of historical events that continue to reverberate through the cultures and experiences of people across the world today.”

Another prime example of how our discipline, the history of art, can provide a way into some of the most pressing issues of our times – and how visual culture is a key medium for unpicking those complex, all-important interrelationships between the present and the past.

It just remains for me to wish you all a wonderful festive season, and a very happy new year – see you all in January!Image result for christmas


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A roll call of success!

The Autumn term is nearly at an end, and I know many of you are working hard on coursework to be submitted next Friday. In fact, term will be coming to a more dramatic end than usual, as the School of Arts building will be completely closed from Saturday 17th December until after Christmas, when the College as a whole re-opens. This is because a major film company will be using our premises as a film set! It’s all most exciting. I have been sworn to secrecy on further details, much as I am itching to pass them on – but I can’t resist sneaking in that, during the course of said filming, an actor will be dramatically thrown out of Gabriel Koureas’s window! (Gabriel’s room will definitely have to feature in the next Open House London weekend, on the back of this).

Image result for man being thrown from window

On a prosaic note, though, this does raise certain practical issues for us all, as not even post will be able to enter the building, let alone staff and students. My administrative colleagues will be in touch next week with further details – particularly about how to submit any required hard copies of coursework.

An important feature of the second half of the Autumn term every year is the MA exam boards, which meet in late November. Colleagues from across the department, and external examiners from other universities, meet to discuss our Masters students’ work, our programmes and processes, and to ratify marks. We were delighted to be looking at the grades of a particularly strong cohort of finalists this time round, and some stellar dissertation results. In fact, one of the dissertation prizes we were able to offer – the London Art History Society prize for the best MA dissertation on a modern topic – had to be split between two students, who scored equally highly in this final piece of work on the programme. We divided the award between Anna Jamieson, for her dissertation on ‘Dark Tourists at Bedlam: Madness and Spectacle in Eighteenth-Century London’, and Wil Roberts, for ‘“Life Itself”: Victoria and Albert as Living Statues’. Another new prize available for the first time this year was the Murray prize for the best dissertation on an early period topic, and this was given to Sarah McBryde for her dissertation entitled ‘More than meets the eye?: Reassessing the Representation of Dwarfs in Renaissance Italy’. We’re very grateful indeed to both the London Art History Society and the Murray Bequest for funding these new awards. And many congratulations indeed to Anna, Wil, Sarah – and to all our MA finalists!

In fact, this blog posting is a roll call of achievement. In other news this week, Melissa Buron, one of our postgraduate research students, working on James Tissot’s spiritualist and biblical images, and an assistant curator at the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, has received not just one, but two awards. Having secured a Research Support Grant from the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, she was then awarded the 2017 Amy P. Goldman Fellowship in Pre-Raphaelite Studies from the Delaware Art Museum/University of Delaware. Congratulations Melissa!

[Image: Tissot, The Mediumistic Apparition]

I’ve also been in touch recently with Vicky Hau, who finished our BA History of Art in 2012, and is currently studying on our MA Museum Cultures programme. Vicky has been very busy organising a symposium, connected to an exhibition she’s working on: Silk Roots: Travels in Chinese & Arabic Calligraphy. This will be at the P21 Gallery, a few blocks away from Birkbeck, on Chalton Street, from 18th May to 1st July next year. The exhibition will explore the interaction between China and the Middle East through the fascinating medium of calligraphy; a highly revered art form for both these cultures. One part of the exhibition will look at the historical context, particularly of the Silk Road itself, and how calligraphy has traditionally been represented along its route. The other will look at contemporary interaction between Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, exemplified by the works of Haji Noor Deen. At the end of the exhibition, there will be an opportunity for visitors to practice their own calligraphy, encouraged to write/draw the symbols for “Peace” in both Chinese and Arabic! More details anon. The one-day symposium is scheduled for 25th May 2017, and is being organised in association with the London Confucius Institute at SOAS University of London, and supported by the department here at Birkbeck, and the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts. Vicky has just put out a call for papers for this event, which – like the exhibition – will explore how the Silk Road was not only a trade route for goods such as silk, herbs and paper, but also the major route by which concepts and culture travelled both westwards and eastwards, and think about the role played by calligraphy in that cultural exchange. The deadline for the call for papers is 15th January, so if anyone reading this would like to present at this event, then please email Vicky at for further details.

History of Art staff have also been very busy! Laura Jacobus’s conference on ‘Medieval Textiles: Meaning and Materiality’, which took place the other week, was – I have on excellent authority – a triumph. I had a particularly nice email from our colleague, Zoe Opacic, telling me how much she had enjoyed this exciting, high-profile – and exceptionally well-attended – event (standing room only)! Meanwhile, Isobel Elstob, who we’re currently lucky to have with us whilst Suzannah Biernoff is on leave, was off to Montpellier for a few days, to speak at a conference dealing with ‘Traces and Memories of Slavery in the Atlantic World’. I have been promised more details anon, so keep reading this blog… Meanwhile, it was announced this week that Lynda Nead has just been made a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a wonderful, highly prestigious appointment, and one of many testaments to Lynn’s standing as an internationally renown scholar. We’re also very pleased in the department that it will strengthen further the already good relationship that we have with the V&A: from Tag Gronberg’s work as part of the curatorial team on the exhibition Modernism: Designing a New World in 2006, through to Carlo Rizzo’s current work as a V&A/Birkbeck collaborative doctoral student, working on ‘Collecting and displaying contemporary Middle Eastern Art and Design at the V&A: a comparative analysis of museum practices’.

Look out for one last blog of the term next week, to wish you all a very merry Christmas before we make way for the film crews…!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

after Unknown artist, stipple engraving, 1824 or after

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Congratulations to our graduates!

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


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


Ioanna Makri and Clara Neta, celebrating their BA Hons degrees


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

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

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

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

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Some dates for your diaries…

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


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

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

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

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

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

courtesy-of-sparrows-nest1 anon

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


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

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Art History in the News

I normally keep this blog to internal matters in the History of Art department – to the activities of, and news stories about staff and students. However, I want to take this opportunity to comment on the sad news, which broke on 12th October, that the final A-level in History of Art, being run by AQA, is being cut.

What made this particularly depressing news is that a lot of work had taken place to renovate the curriculum of this A-level, to be launched next year. With input from leading figures in the field, A-level students were going to be offered a more global reach in their studies, and to explore how pressing social and political issues have been, and are always being played out through visual and material culture. The hope was that this could be the basis of a campaign to encourage more schools to offer the subject – and, crucially, a greater number of state schools. However, reportedly for solely practical reasons, AQA have made the decision instead to axe the A-level. This follows the sad loss of the teaching of other subjects at this level, including Archaeology.

The story has generated much press, some of it promoting a number of frustrating stereotypes about History of Art which have become too familiar over the last few years: primarily the idea is that this is an elitist, and ‘soft’ subject. This was precisely the kind of misunderstanding, and unfair profile which the new curriculum was supposed to tackle, and I feel confident that I am writing here for an audience much better informed than that. As a student currently on one of our programmes in the History of Art department here at Birkbeck, you’ll fully appreciate what a wide-ranging, exciting, topical, and challenging discipline History of Art actually is. Furthermore, we have always enjoyed welcoming a diverse range of students from all kinds of backgrounds onto all our courses. One silver lining of the news story has been that it has led to a number of very fine pieces in defence of the subject – I’d particularly recommend Griselda Pollock’s article on The Conversation.

A number of us in the field signed a letter addressed to the Chief Executive of AQA, pointing out how critical this subject is in an age in which it is imperative that our understanding of visual culture is sophisticated and informed, and expressing concern for the potential impact of this decision on the studying of History of Art at University level, and the various professions for which it is so important – especially those based in museums, galleries and the heritage sector. You can read this via the BBC News website. But I particularly want to draw your attention here to a live petition to save the subject at A-level: The number of signatories has reached an impressive 17,648 at the time of writing, but it needs to grow still further. I would encourage anyone reading this, who would like to support and defend the subject, to sign.

Birkbeck MA Museum Culture students at the V&A last year

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I want to give the second half of this blog to Mark Liebenrood, and a more cheering tale! Mark completed his Masters with us in September – and has just co-authored his first publication as an art historian for the Tate’s ‘In Focus’ projects. I’m proud to say that this came out of a work placement which Mark had at Tate last year, as part of his MA History of Art degree. For those not currently on one of the MA programmes in the History of Art department, this is an opportunity we make available to students at this level, to give them valuable practical experience of working in a museum, gallery or archive as part of their programme of study. Following the placements, students are then required to produce a record of the work, a long essay, and a portfolio of practical work for assessment. To find out more about the module, please see here – and to read more about recent placements, follow this link. Over to Mark…

Mark Liebenrood on Louise Nevelson’s Black Wall

“After two terms of my History of Art MA, I was offered the chance to do a work placement, and was fortunate to secure a position in Tate’s research department.

I spent part of my time assisting one of the research fellows, Alex Taylor, with research for a series of in-depth online articles on works of American art in Tate’s collection. One of the most interesting tasks was to transcribe a section of an interview between David Sylvester and the American sculptor Louise Nevelson. This had been broadcast on the BBC in 1964 and a segment was to be included in an article on Nevelson’s sculpture Black Wall. I had been provided with a much older typed transcript, but, as I transcribed afresh, I realised that the transcript and the audio did not match. This was not just a matter of small errors. Although some words had been missed out or mistranscribed, elsewhere whole sentences had been edited out, in some cases changing Nevelson’s descriptions of her working process. Intrigued, I made a more thorough comparison that confirmed that Sylvester had substantially edited sections of the original interview recording for broadcast, and changed the transcript even more when it was published later on in a book of his interviews. Alex invited me to write up my findings and generously offered to include them in the final article, now online: Black Wall is on view in the Boiler House at Tate Modern.”

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Open House at Birkbeck

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

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

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

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


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

Michael Clegg, Open House 2016 in Gordon Square

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

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

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

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

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




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Welcome to the new academic year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Edwards

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


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Wishing you all a great summer vacation!

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

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

Tejas Verdes: I was not there

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

Jane Quinn, The ArtLess Bursary and Images of Conflict

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Retford, Head of History of Art




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Glad tidings as the end of term approaches

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

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

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

46 Gordon Square, Londres, Royaume-Uni

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

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


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

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

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