Arts Week! And more…

Hope you can find time amidst exams, dissertation research, etc, to come along to the rich offerings of this year’s Arts Week, beginning Monday. Arts Week was inaugurated in 2012 and has become a real institution, bringing Gordon Square alive with talks, walks, screenings and much more. As usual there are very rich offerings in art history, with architecture, museums and contemporary art as particular strengths this year. Take a look at these events in particular on the webpages:

Monday: Destruction of Memory; Cook’s Camden

Tuesday: Curating Sound for Difficult Histories; Paper Peepshow; Modernism in Bloomsbury; Visual Protest

Wednesday: The Archive Project; Renaissance Life of Things; Robin Hood Gardens

Thursday: Lubetkin’s Finsbury; Author and Illustrator; Raymond Williams; Art & Empathy

Friday: On Reflection; Floating Islands; Chris Dorley-Brown

A special mention for ‘Floating Islands in Contemporary Art‘ (Friday 6pm in the cinema) which promises to be an intriguing and exciting talk by Professor Gill Perry on her current research. We’re delighted to welcome Gill to the department as Visiting Professor for the next three years. Gill, who is Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Open University is a leading scholar of both 18th-century and contemporary British Art. You can read more about her here.

Some further dates for your diary:

The Murray seminars in Medieval and Renaissance Art have been announced for this term. They take place at 5pm in the Keynes Library – all welcome:

5 June, Michelle O’Malley, the Warburg Institute, ‘Botticelli: A conundrum of production’

Two versions of Botticelli’s Virgin and Child with an Adoring Angel suggest raise fundamental questions about the specifics of authorship in the workshop and how we, as art historians, understand Renaissance artistic practice and construct attribution. This paper looks again at the technical evidence and the value of connoisseurship in tracking the development of the use of reproductive technique in late fifteenth-century Florence.

27 June, Alison Wright, UCL ‘Gold against the Body:  gold surfaces and their limits, medieval to early modern’

The myth, famously invoked in Goldfinger, of the human body suffocated by being coated in gold exemplifies the fascination and danger attached to the idea of an ‘excess’ of gold, especially in respect to human skin. This paper explores the slippery boundaries of when, where and for whom gold surfaces might be deemed excessive in relation to European art, especially Italian, of the fourteenth to early sixteenth centuries.

And a lecture organised by colleagues in Applied Linguistics that will be of interest to fans of American (Post)Modernism: Professor Adam Jaworski (The University of Hong Kong) will be giving this year’s Michel Blanc Lecture in Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck. The talk will be followed by a drinks reception. The event is free and open to all, but for catering purposes, please book your ticket on Eventbrite: 

Title: EAT/DIE and other stories: Remediation and creativity in Robert Indiana’s word art

Date and Time: Thursday, 7 June 2018, 18:00 – 19:30

Location: B01, Clore Management Centre

 ‘Several decades ago, Robert Indiana (b. 1928) described himself as ‘an American painter of signs’. In this presentation, I make a case for considering Indiana as a painter of stories. Drawing on the ‘small stories’ model for narrative analysis (Georgakopoulou), I argue that his word pieces in the EAT, EAT/DIE and LOVE cycles constitute episodic narratives adding up to his own life story (or artist mythology). Indiana’s creative remediation (Bolter and Grusin) of his multimodal writing in different materials and formats, its emplacement as public art and widespread imitation allow members of the public to appropriate his artworks in episodic encounters and make them part of their own biographies.’



I mentioned in my last post the very successful (and sunny) Berlin field trip that happened over Easter. BA History of Art student Kathryn Hallam-Howard has written a ‘Birkbeck Blog’ post to tell you all about it – and with some great pics. Do have a read.


I’ll round off this week with a plug for an excellent small exhibition at the amazing Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, curated by and featuring the work of photographer, curator and MA History of Art graduate Sunil Shah. ‘Uganda Stories’ delves into poignant and troubling questions of exile, displacement and resettlement through Sunil’s family’s story of being expelled from Uganda in the early 1970s under Idi Amin. It’s on until 27 August, so do visit if you’re in Oxford over the summer.


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Summer (term) is here

Hope you all had good breaks – not too dominated by essays, dissertations, revision, etc. It’s good to be back and there’s a lot to report on and look forward to (in addition to the air warming up – we live in hope).

First, there’s an imminent deadline of this Monday 30 April for 2 things:

  1. the National Student Survey for final year undergraduate students – please complete it if you haven’t already – we want to hear your views!
  2. applications for MA bursaries and studentships for students with places on MA programmes starting in September 2018. These include two Wallace studentships for programmes in our department, as well as School of Arts funding you can apply for – check out the link.

Another thing to do soon is to go to the Cultural Sniping exhibition in the Peltz Gallery before it closes. The official closing date is Saturday but a little birdy tells me there might be another chance to see it during the day on Monday. It’s been a great success, arousing lots of interest in the fascinating life and work of the photographer-activist Jo Spence and our archive here at Birkbeck – including from major London art institutions.

I’m delighted to let you know that Professor Lynda Nead has been short-listed for the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize for her book The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press). The prize is awarded annually by English PEN for a non-fiction book of specifically historical content. More here, including a great statement from the PEN judges – here’s a taste: ‘The Tiger in the Smoke rejects the self-congratulatory narrative of Britain after the Second World War, focussing instead on shades of grey smog, bomb-sites, virulent racism, art and film, and the dreams of ordinary people.’

Congratulations and good luck as well to our students Danilo Marques dos Reis (BA History of Art with Curating) and Uli Gamper (MA Museum Cultures) who are the successful of prestigious Venice Fellowships from the British Council and Birkbeck. They’ll be off to the Venice Architecture Biennale soon and we’ll look forward to hearing from them about their experience (and the glorious weather.)

Welcome back from Berlin, those of you who went on the department field trip led by Kasia Murawska-Muthesius and Stefan Muthesius. Word is it went extremely well – a packed and fascinating itinerary and more glorious weather (ho hum). There’ll be more on that in this blog soon.

The Architecture Space and Society Centre has a really rich and varied programme of events coming up this term:

Ferdinand Opll: The Battle of Maps: Ottoman-Habsburg antagonism as mirrored in their cartography (15th – 16th century) 27 April, 5pm, Keynes Library (for more information and to book your place please visit here)

Mark Wilson Jones as part of our “Thinker in Architecture” Series, speaking on “The Origins of the Architectural Orders Revisited” 4th May, 6pm at Keynes Library

Finola O’Kane Crimmin (University College Dublin): Designed in Parallel or in Translation? Plantation Landscapes from Ireland, Jamaica and Georgia 1730-1830 25 May, 6pm, Keynes Library, School of Arts, Birkbeck (for more information and to book your place please visit here)

Mabel Wilson (Columbia University): Provisional Demos: The Spatial Agency and Tent Cities 21 June, 7pm, ICA Cinema (NB: not at Birkbeck!)

Also check out the programme for Arts Week, the School of Arts annual festival of public talks, walks, workshops, screenings, etc etc – it’s always a lot of fun, not to mention stimulating and enlightening (and an excellent excuse to take a break from revising for exams). This year it’s 14-18 May, and you’ll see several History of Art events in the programme, including a talk on ‘Floating Islands in Contemporary Art’ by our new visiting professor, Gill Perry, professor emerita at the Open University. More on her in a future blog…



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Oh Canada

Term break is here! And what an eventful term it’s been.

I hope lots of you have had a chance to see the super-stimulating and beautifully installed ‘Cultural Sniping’ exhibition on the collaborative work of the photographer Jo Spence in the Peltz Gallery, which was curated by Patrizia Di Bello with Frances Hatherley and a group of MA students in the department. The opening party was a good one, with people who worked with and knew Jo Spence in attendance.

You can learn more about the show and the work of Jo Spence and her colleagues and ask your own questions at two upcoming roundtable events in the gallery (all welcome – no booking needed):

Thursday 19 April, 6-7:30

Cinderella: Women, Class and Fairy Tales in Jo Spence’s work, with Marina Warner and Frances Hatherley, chaired by Lynda Nead.

Thursday 26 April, 6-7:30

Collaborative Projects: Pleasures and Pains, with Rosy Martin, Carla Mitchell, Ego Ahaiwe Sowinski, and Jacob Bard-Rosenberg, chaired by Patrizia Di Bello

These are both organised by the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, as is this soon to be held talk, in which my homeland gets some (rare it must be said) attention:

4 April 2018, 6:00-7:30

Keynes Library (room 114) Martha Langford (Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, Concordia University in Montreal), Who Can Tell? Histories and Counter-Histories of Photography in Canada.

And now for kudos received by colleagues and students.

Our colleague Peter Fane-Saunders has been awarded the Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Prize by the Renaissance Society of America. This prize – one of the most coveted in the entire field of Renaissance art, literature, history, etc, etc –  is awarded annually for the best book in Renaissance studies. Peter’s book is entitled Pliny the Elder and the Emergence of Renaissance Architecture (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Katherine Turley (MA Medieval Literature and Culture), submitted her essay  ‘The face of the one who is making for Jerusalem’:  the Angel Choir of Lincoln Cathedral and Joy, written for her Gothic in England MA Option (tutor Zoe Opacic) for the Reginald Taylor and Lord Fletcher Essay Prize and was chosen as the winner. The Reginald Taylor Essay Prize, awarded by the British Archaeological Association since 1934, is given for the best unpublished essay submitted on any subject of art-historical, archaeological or antiquarian interest within the period from the Roman era to 1830. As the winner Katherine has received £500 and a medal and will deliver her paper to the British Archaeological Association at the hallowed premises of the Society of Antiquaries at a future date. The paper will also be published this year in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. This was not only a great achievement for Katherine but also a double win for Birkbeck:  the runner up was Netta Clavner, PhD student at our department only  in the first year of her study. Her essay Arma AngliaeThe Heraldic Glass in the Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral received high praise by the RTLF committee and was also deemed worthy of publication.

Congratulations to all three of them!

I myself am writing to you from Canada, where I’m spending a week as a visiting scholar in the Faculty of Arts at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. I have a long-standing interest in the architecture of carceral institutions, so Kingston is a fascinating place for me as the home of an early nineteenth-century model penitentiary and a ‘lunatic asylum’ (as they were called) from the late 1850s. I’ll be visiting these sites and their archives with colleagues from Queen’s, touring with some medical students around the main university hospital (while thinking about power and space), and giving a public lecture entitled ‘When Room Becomes Cell: Solitude and Isolation in Nineteenth-Century Asylum Spaces’.

Hope everyone has a good break, and we’ll see you next term!

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Cultural Sniping

What a term – strikes and snowstorms! Time for all of us to reflect perhaps on forces bigger even than the Department of History of Art. (As you’ll know, today – Friday 9 March – is not a strike day, but the strike continues next week Monday- Friday 12-16 March. More on the strike here, and please watch your email inboxes for updates.)

Meanwhile, in the interstices, our 50th anniversary events continue – fittingly celebrating a vision of the university as a place open to the world and engaged in its struggles. THIS EVENING, our Anniversary Exhibition opens in the Peltz Gallery with a reception at 6pm. ‘Cultural Sniping: Photographic Collaborations in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive‘ showcases important materials from the archive (housed in the School of Arts) of the late Jo Spence, British photographer, writer, and self-described ‘cultural sniper’. It traces links and collaborations in activist art, radical publications, community photography and phototherapy from the 1970s and 1980s. Consistent with Spence’s ethos of radical pedagogy, the exhibition focuses on her collaborative working methods. It opens up the archive, displaying books, magazines, journals, collages, photographs, posters, pamphlets, notes, letters and props, to provide insights into Spence’s practices and the culture, politics and activism informing them. This has all come about as a unique collaboration between staff and students, involving Birkbeck History of Art lecturer, Patrizia Di Bello, Associate Research Fellow Frances Hatherly, and a group of History of Art and History of Art with Photography students. It’s on until 28 April so please take a look. (In case you’ve yet to discover it, the Peltz Gallery is in Gordon Square next to the reception area.)

I just snuck in to see how the installation was going, and it looks amazing… Here are the curators in action, eyeballing posters to see if they’re straight.

On Saturday 24 February two of the ‘Forward Looking’ anniversary workshops took place in the cinema, each focused on a distinct aspect of museums and museology. In the morning we heard various positions on ‘Making a Difference: Do Museums Matter in a Changing World?’, organised by Annie Coombes and Gabriel Koureas, while the afternoon, organised by Fiona Candlin, was devoted to ‘Museums Futures in a Time of Austerity’. Both workshops were a compelling mix of academic research and voices from professional practice, and concluded in lively discussions involving the speakers and audience. The day also marked an exciting new development for us: the launch of the department’s newest research centre, the Centre for Museum Cultures  – more on that soon…


The beginning of the UCU strike on 22-23 February meant that the anniversary lecture by V&A director Tristram Hunt and the ‘Future of Studying Old Art’ and the ‘Futures for Publishing in Art History’ workshops were postponed – readers of this blog will be the first to know the rescheduled dates.

Next month own Lynda Nead is giving a major public lecture, ‘Greyscale and Colour: The Hues of Nation and Empire in Post-War Britain’ at the V&A on Monday 9 April 2018 at 7pm – special rates for students.

And here’s a message from the Birkbeck History of Art Society about a great opportunity coming up next week:

Birkbeck History of Art Society has an opportunity to take you to a FREE tour to the Painted Hall ceiling in Old Royal Naval College (Greenwich) next Tuesday (13th of March) at 1 pm.The usual cost of the tickets is 11 pounds, so don’t miss out!

This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see James Thornhill’s  masterpiece up close, thanks to the conservation project currently in place.

Please note that that the ceiling is 18 high and you will be using steps, so comfortable shoes are a must. Additionally, let us know if you require wheelchair access.

Due to the specifics of the structure we only take a group of 20 people to see the ceiling. Book your place by writing to us at Places are on first come, first serve basis. See you there!

Don’t forget to follow us on Facebook!

You can find more about the Painted Hall project here:

Kind regards,

Mary, Carina, Ernestina and Tammy

Bye for now!


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Surveys, surveys – oh just go away!

Could you possibly spend a few short minutes giving us some useful feedback? If you’re like me, that question has only one answer: sorry, life is too short. So it’s a bit rich and no doubt very annoying for me to be pestering you students to fill out surveys about your Birkbeck experience. But, but, but, it’s actually really important that you do this. This is your education, your degree, something you’ve given huge amounts of time, effort and emotion, and, we hope, something that’s changed your life. You have to admit it’s not car insurance. And we really want to know what you think and what your reflections are on your time with us.  We regularly act on this feedback to tweak and improve what we offer.

The National Student Survey is the big one. It’s a UK-wide survey of all final year BA students, an opportunity to think back over your whole degree and experience here.You’ll all have been contacted individually about it – or if you can’t find the email(s) you can just go in via the link: A big thank you and pat on the back for those who’ve already done it. If you haven’t, please do it soon, and the pestering will stop I promise!

There’s also:


  • the Birkbeck Student Survey (opens 8 February 2018) – for all undergrad students, no matter what year you’re in
  • the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey (PTES – opens 8 February 2018)
  • the Postgraduate Research Experience Survey (PRES – opens 8 February 2018).

Again, you’ll get emails about these, but you’ll be able to get to them via this link:


So everyone has a chance to experience the satisfaction of saying their bit. OK, pestering over.

Other than that, term is well underway, marks and essay feedback are coming in (hope that was a pleasant and/or instructive experience!) and we have reading week next week. More next time I post on all our upcoming events!

Enjoy your reading week.


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Can you believe the break only ended 2 weeks ago? I’m always amazed at how all-absorbing term-time is – I hope it’s all-absorbing for you in a good way!

I’ll begin with a request: we are eager to hear from those of you who are in your final year of your BA studies about how things have gone, and how we can support you as you complete your degree. You’ll have had an invitation to a feedback gathering (if you’re a BA final year student and haven’t had an invitation, please email me: You will soon be asked, by Ipsos-Mori no less, to complete the National Student Survey, which opens this Thursday 25 January and closes on 30 April. You may find me mentioning it quite a bit between now and then…

In a month’s time we’ll be absorbed again in the department’s 50th anniversary events – a 3-day bonanza this time on 22-24 February, kicking off with Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A (and erstwhile member of the Labour shadow cabinet) giving the Anniversary Lecture on ‘Design for a Nation: The Victoria and Albert Museum in the 21st Century’ on the 22nd at 6pm. On the 23rd and 24th we’ll have four fascinating workshops with our own academics joined by experts from the worlds of museums, media and publishing to put our collective finger on the pulse of the discipline and of the museum world we all engage with. Bookings (made via the link above) are very strong – if you can’t get a place for your chosen event, do add your name to the waiting list, since a place may well come up.

And a couple of good things sooner than that:

Birkbeck History of Art PhD Nicola McCartney is now Lecturer in Cultural Studies at Central Saint Martins, and is coming back to Birkbeck to give a talk on ‘Trans and Art’ on Thursday 1 Feb 6.30pm – more details here.

And then on 6 February, 6-7.30 in Keynes we have the next event organised by the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre: Elizabeth Johnson (Associate Research Fellow, Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology) speaking on
The Touch of Light: Bruce Nauman’s Holograms

Meanwhile our colleague Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will be exploring Europe: She will deliver one of the key-note lectures in the Alterity and the Research Imagination conference, organised by graduate students of the School of Human Sciences, at Universidade Católica Portuguesa in Lisbon, 25 -26 January 2018. Her talk, entitled ‘Welcome to Slaka, or, the battle of dust-jackets’, (click through to image below) draws from her research on imaging Eastern Europe, and will focus on the use of postcolonial discourse analysis to East European studies. The following week, she will be travelling to Vilnius, invited by the Vilnius National Gallery and the curators of the Oskar Hansen exhibition, to deliver a lecture ‘In the circle of the Open Form: Vilnius, Hoglands & Hansen’s counter-memorial in Auschwitz’, which takes her back to her past research on the encounters between Henry Moore and a visionary Polish architect and urban planner Oskar Hansen.

Slide from Kasia’s lecture

Our best museums are clearly absorbed in getting you students into their exhibitions – the lastest offer comes from the National Gallery:

The National Gallery would like to extend an invitation to your students for complimentary entry to our latest exhibition, Monochrome: Painting in Black and White, which explores why have artists chosen to paint in black and white over the last 700 years, from van Eyck, Rembrandt, Dürer, and Ingres to Picasso, Malevich, Richter, and Riley.
In order to take up this offer, students will need to show a valid student card to obtain a complimentary ticket from the exhibition ticketing desk in the Sainsbury Wing. The show closes on 18 February.

Another of the big beasts of the London museum scene, Tate, has had the benefit of one of our students, Julija Svetlova, who has recently completed the MA History of Art. Here she is with a guest post on her experience there as a volunteer guide, with a photo of her in action with an absorbed audience (photographer Vickie Flores) and of one of the objects she mentions below.

‘In February of 2016, I applied for a role as Guide at Tate Modern. My application was successful, and I went for an interview for which I had to prepare a five-minute presentation on Man Ray’s surrealist sculpture, Cadeau. I then went through twelve weeks of training, alongside the other prospective guides, and then successfully passed all the tour reviews.

My first experience of addressing the general public was during the Tate Modern extension’s opening week. I did a series of ten-minute talks about the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher. In the months that followed I considerably expanded my repertoire and now I run eight 30 and 45 minutes tours. At the Tate, there are no pre-assigned scripts, and the guides are free to choose any artworks they want to for their own research and deliver their own texts. My tours cover a wide variety of art from the 20th and 21st centuries, including photography, painting, sculpture and performance art.

Working as a Guide at Tate has provided me with a unique opportunity to apply the knowledge I accumulated while studying History of Art with Photography at Masters level, from visual analysis and critical thinking, to understanding the collection of one of the most visited art galleries in the world. I see myself as a mediator of meanings between the works of art, curatorial vision and gallery’s visitors. My role is to help Tate’s visitors to understand modern and contemporary art in all its shapes and forms, and I enjoy doing it immensely. The feedback I get from both Tate visitors, and the gallery’s management is very positive and encouraging.

After two years of guiding tours at Tate Modern, as well as occasional tours for private clients, I decided to launch my own guided tour company, which will focus on different art collections around London. I am currently developing a tour, which will focus on art of the Low Countries in the seventeenth-century. A couple of years ago I took Chris Mook’s module Seventeenth-Century Painting in the Netherlands and since then developed a deep passion for the subject.’

Julija Svetlova tour at The Tate Gallery on 10th May 2017

Cadeau 1921, editioned replica 1972 Man Ray 1890-1976 Presented by the Tate Collectors Forum 2002





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extra extra – deadlines approaching for Venice Fellowships and PhD applications

A short extra post from me to highlight two upcoming deadlines:

TOMORROW – 12 January, 5pm – British Council Venice Fellowships

The School of Arts at Birkbeck is delighted to announce an exciting opportunity to all current students. We are inviting applications for two Steward-Research Fellowships at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2018, running between 26 May and 25 November 2018. A background in architecture or architectural history is not a pre-requisite. These are part funded by the British Council, and by the School of Arts. The successful candidates will be responsible for making their own travel, accommodation and insurance arrangements, but will be given a grant of £1600 for the month towards these and other expenses.

The successful candidates will work four days per week as an invigilator in the British Pavilion. Their remaining time will be used for study and research around the biennale theme, Freespace, which describes a generosity of spirit and a sense of humanity at the core of architecture’s agenda, focusing on the quality of space itself. Students may wish to use this opportunity to contribute to an existing project or a dissertation – but there is no obligation to do so. 

Application form and further details below. Applications should be sent to Clare Thomas ( by 5pm 12 January.

Application Form_Venice Fellowships 2018 Application Guidelines_Venice Fellowships 2018 Venice_Fellowships_Introduction

MONDAY – 15 January – PhD places and funding

If you’re planning to do a PhD and would like to apply for one of 12 fully funded Birkbeck Postgraduate Research Scholarships, the time is now. You need to have applied for a place on the MPhil/PhD programme by 15 January, and then there’s a subsequent deadline of 14 February for the scholarships themselves. More information on eligibility and how to apply here:

You can read more about the wide range of areas in which we supervise PhDs in History of Art here:

If you’d like to make an informal enquiry about these scholarships or about anything to do with studying for a PhD in the department, please contact Professor Lynn Nead:



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Welcome to 2018

Welcome to a new year and a new term – I hope you all had restful breaks with some fun in there somewhere too. Those who came along to the Birkbeck History of Art Society Christmas party on the last day of term began the holidays with a bang – huge thanks to the organisers and to Laura Jacobus for this photo:

This is also a time to welcome colleagues back from research leave – so a warm welcome back to Gabriel Koureas, and a fond (temporary) farewell to Laura Jacobus as she goes on leave for the Spring term. Very happy to be saying hello again to Peter Fane-Saunders, who taught in the department in 2016-17 and is rejoining us for the Spring term 2018.

A couple of events coming up to draw your attention to:

Carol Richardson will be giving the first of the term’s Murray Seminars in Medieval and Renaissance Art on the topic of Britons and Anglo-Saxons in Sixteenth-Century Rome: the 1580s fresco cycle at the English College. 17 January 5pm, Keynes Library – no need to book! Click here for the poster with the term’s seminars: Murray seminar Spring 2018

And our History and Theory of Photography Research Centre presents:

6 February 2018, 6:00-7:30pm, Keynes Library: The Touch of Light: Bruce Nauman’s Holograms – Elizabeth Johnson (Associate Research Fellow, Vasari Research Centre for Art and Technology)

Finally, a guest post from Sarah McBryde, a graduate of our Graduate Certificate and our MA History of Art currently doing a PhD under Dorigen Caldwell’s supervision. She recounts the thrilling/nerve-wracking experience of giving her first conference paper – and make sure to click through to her fascinating poster…

In December I was lucky enough to be selected to present my first academic paper titled ‘“A Gifted Dwarf” in the Court of Cosimo I de’Medici’, as part of a Graduate Student Session at the international conference, ‘Representing Infirmity: Diseased Bodies in Renaissance and Early Modern Italy’ at the Monash University Prato Centre in Italy. The conference organised by Jonathan K. Nelson, Fredrika Jacobs, Peter Howard and my PhD co-supervisor, John Henderson, was held in the grand ballroom of the 18th century Palazzo Vai, in the heart of Prato. Formerly a family home, then a gambling and social club for local businessmen, the palazzo became Monash’s Italian base in 2001 and still retains its ornate décor, sparkling with ‘coconut ice’ coloured glass and gilt chandeliers. As well as taking part in the conference I had also been invited to present my paper at the annual Monash Postgraduate Symposium the previous day. This gave me a chance to overcome a few nerves in the rather overwhelming setting, check my Powerpoint slides were actually going to work(!) and discuss a range of interesting research projects with a group of international MA and PhD students who were also participating.

The conference’s aim was to provide a platform for research into all aspects of Renaissance medicine and contemporary attitudes towards infirmities, diseases and disabilities. It brought together leading academics from the USA, Australia, Italy, Germany, Finland and the UK, and was opened by John Henderson whose keynote Bill Kent Memorial Lecture discussed religious and secular strategies to combat the 1630-33 plague outbreak in Florence. Other papers covered a broad array of subjects, from the depiction of goitres in Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Andrew (Danielle Carrabino), to external treatments such as cupping and scarification (Evelyn Welch), modes of portraying diseases without visible external symptoms (Sheila Barker) and the Franciscans’ treatment of leprosy in the 15th century (Diana Bullen Presciutti).

Preparing the paper itself was a useful learning curve, including how to write an abstract to fit a conference theme and design an academic poster. I also took part in a BISR Presentation Skills Training Day and was able to test my paper in the supportive environment of a ‘Writing the Object’ seminar with Lynda Nead, in front of my fellow History of Art research students (thank you all for your brilliant comments!). My experience in Prato was both memorable and rewarding. Although initially daunted by the thought of presenting my first paper, particularly at such an early stage in my project, the feedback and encouragement I received from other speakers, students and members of the audience was invaluable and has given me many ideas to follow up as I establish the parameters of my research.




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Happy Holidays

As promised, one last post before the end of 2017.

Among the many events of the last two weeks of term were the Staff-Student exchange meetings my colleagues and I have with the student representatives of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. These are always really interesting and constructive sessions – opportunities for all of you, via your reps, to feedback any issues to us, and for us to respond, and sometimes take away issues for further discussion with the whole department. An example of the rapid working of this mechanism was the discussion about the longer-than-usual Christmas closure of the library and the deadline for MA essays. The reps at the post-grad meeting made an eloquent case for the extension of the deadline, which normally falls on the first day of the Spring term, for an additional week, to 15 January, and we agreed. Democracy in action!

There was also a useful meeting about the British Council Venice Fellowships, in which potential applicants heard from the British Council rep and the two fellows who went to Venice last month. (The deadline for applications is 5pm on 12 January – further information from Clare or Sarah One of this year’s Venice fellows, Ruth Houlsby, MA History of Art with Photography, has written a thoughtful piece for the British Council’s UK at the Venice Biennale blog. Here’s one of her images, showing Yelena Vorobyeva & Viktor Vorobyev’s The Artist is Asleep (1996) – I thought it might resonate with a few of you at the end of term:

Meanwhile here in London, the MA Museum Cultures students were wide awake and out in the field, visiting two highly contrasting archives. Student Richard Godfrey reports:

On the 14th November, we visited both the Bishopsgate institute archive and the British museums archive. Being a totally new experience I didn’t know what to expect. The archive at the Bishopsgate institute was a surprising and humorous visit all thanks to the archive manager Stefan Dickers, who was full off anecdotes regarding his collection. He explained that the archive collects items that are viewed as history from below. The archive does this by collecting from areas like the working class, LGBT community, radical and social history. The reason they collect these items is because often it is this history that is forgotten and the archive acts to preserve them. If you get the chance to visit the archive, then go, even just to listen to Stefan talk about the archives collection or to see their collection of leatherman posters or old take away pizza menus. The British museum’s archive on the other hand was something else altogether, over 200 years of the museum’s history is stored within but in no apparent order. As the Museum is a publicly funded institute its archives are considered to be public records and are available for public access. However the British museum archive is typical of a large institute that is very old – the archive materials have been poorly classified, because in the past the museums interest was mainly focused on its collection. It was interesting to me to see how two archives could be so very different from each other.

An opportunity for the budding young art critics among you (and I say ‘young’ advisedly): the Burlington Magazine has announced this year’s Contemporay Art Writing Prize, with a deadline of 26 February. It’s specifically for aspiring, rather than established, writers, which is good, but it has a maximum age limit of 35, which is bad, and very un-Birkbeck! More here.

Missed Gabriele Finaldi’s Murray lecture on the National Gallery and the Prado, or want to catch it again? Now you can listen here.

I’ll leave you with a seasonal art historical scene, Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (Winter) from 1565 (thanks to Vienna’s Kunsthistorische Museum and the Google Art Project). You never know, we may get more of the white stuff!

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Beginnings at the end of term

Last Thursday November 30th was an exciting moment for us – the launch of Opening up Art History: 50 years at Birkbeck, our programme celebrating the anniversary of the department’s founding in 1967. Our kick-off was, appropriately, the Peter Murray Memorial Lecture, named for the founder of the department. We welcomed National Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi with a full house and a warm reception for his fascinating, wide-ranging talk about the divergent histories of the two institutions he knows best, London’s NG and Madrid’s Prado, where he was deputy director until recently. Francesca Castelli, a BA History of Art grad and currently a MA Museum Cultures student, has written an excellent blogpost about the lecture, and there’ll be a podcast available soon. One thing that struck me about the evening was how alive our history is and how connected we are to it: Gabriele talked about how important Peter Murray’s catalogue of the Dulwich Picture Gallery was to him when he first encountered history of art in Dulwich, and sitting in the front row were Peter Draper and Francis Ames-Lewis, the two first colleagues hired by Prof Murray to help teach the first Birkbeck art history students, one of whom, Clare Ford-Wille (one of our Associate Lecturers) was also there. Turned out Gabriele’s own father had done a degree at Birkbeck in the mid-1960s – in Italian and French rather than in History of Art, but we’ll forgive him for that. And a tip if you want to find out more about Gabriele Finaldi, his vision for the NG, his own background and his musical tastes: check out the podcast of this Private Passions episode on Radio 3.

The Murray Bequest funds the Peter Murray lecture, and is contributing generously to our anniversary programme of events, for which we’re very grateful indeed. This is in addition to their support for all sorts of other activities within the department, including the Murray seminar, which features leading scholars of medieval and early modern art in free research talks between 5 and 6pm, several times per term, in the Keynes. The last one for this term is on Wednesday 6 December: Cecily Hennessy will speak on ‘Mary Magdalene in Byzantium’.

Another ‘beginning at the end of term’ is the fabulous news of the revival of the History of Art Student Society, a society for all current students in the department. Please take this society to your heart and make it your own! Their first event is an end of term Christmas party on Friday 15 December and here’s the very art historical flyer.

Fancy an opportunity to travel expenses paid to Venice for a month and be part of the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale? Two School of Arts students will get that opportunity in 2018, thanks to the British Council Venice Fellowships. The first thing to do to find out more about it is to come along to a briefing on Tuesday 12 December at 5 in room 106, where a rep from the British Council and the two Birkbeck 2017 fellows will tell you all about it. Note that all History of Art (and School of Arts) students are welcome to apply – no need to a particular background in architecture. For further info please see the email circulated, or contact Sarah Thomas:

Some research news: Kasia Murawska-Muthesius will be giving a paper with the intriguingly pithy title ‘The Satirical Object’ on Wednesday 6 December at University of East Anglia. Kasia’s talk, coinciding with the Sainsbury Centre’s recently opened exhibition of the work of Roger Law, of the Spitting Image fame, will address the relationship between caricature and puppetry. Does the affinity between them extend beyond the formal terms, i.e. the principle of deformation, and subversiveness, which informs both of them? Among other shared features to discuss are anthropomorphism, performativity, ephemerality, and reflexivity.

The RA has recently announced a new free exhibition ticket scheme, as it prepares for its 250th anniversary year in 2018 (anniversaries are clearly all the rage at the moment). It is available to any student studying History of Art at a Higher Education Institution. To be eligible, students need to register their details with the Royal Academy using the form on their website: Once you’ve registered the RA will email you to let you know when tickets have become available, and to invite you to book. There will be a limited number per show, which you can reserve online, up to two tickets per person. I’d really encourage you to jump on this one – the RA exhibitions are some of the best, and most expensive, in London.

Have a good final two weeks of term – good luck with your essays, those who have them due on the 15th, and I’ll be back for one last blogpost before the end of 2017.;


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Mortarboard tossing

If you’re in the midst of your studies, graduation can seem a long hard way off. So take a look at these happy faces and take inspiration! We had BA and Cert HE students graduating last week in a celebratory and moving ceremony at Senate House – warm congrats to all of them. The monumental stairs in the foyer were the perfect setting for some impressive mortarboard tossing.



A great way of staying in touch with Birkbeck post-graduation (but also during your studies) and satisfying your need for art history is to join the London Art History Society, which is afffiliated with the department and organises a rich programme of lectures, courses and visits. They also have a snazzy new website.

The first of our major events in the Opening Up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck anniversary programme is coming up on Thursday 30 November 6pm in the Clore Lecture Theatre. There are still a few places for what promises to be a fascinating lecture by Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, on How to form a national collection. The Prado Museum and the National Gallery, London. Book here! Come along to the fun reception afterwards too – all warmly welcome.

You can also now book for the second of our big anniversary lectures, by Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, who will be giving us insights into where the V&A is headed in the future.

Our own Suzannah Biernoff has been in Houston, Texas, where she was an invited speaker at Rice University Art History department’s inaugural interdisciplinary graduate conference, Vital Constitutions: The Appearance of ‘Health’ in History. The conference explored representations and realities of health, illness, care and condemnation and included presentations by artists and emerging scholars in art history, anthropology, architecture and performance studies.

You can hear Suzannah talking about her research on Radio 4’s World War One: The Cultural Front, available on BBC iPlayer. The series examines artistic responses to the war year by year. In 1917 sculptor Francis Derwent Wood set up a studio for portrait masks in Wandsworth after witnessing the profound psychological impact on patients with facial injuries. Wood and his team at the 3rd London General Hospital sculpted masks that would make the patient look as close as possible to how he had been before he was wounded. A century later, we’re left puzzling about what these masks really are: a well intentioned but flawed medical tool, or a kind of anti-portraiture that shows the realities of war in a way that still feels visceral even today.

It’s a big year for new books by Birkbeck art historians. Kate Retford (whom you’ll remember as former head of department and blogger) launched her new book published by Yale University Press and the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, The Conversation Piece: Making Modern Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, in the atmospheric spaces of the Art Workers Guild. It was a sparkling evening and a celebration of an amazing achievement.

I’m off now to moderate a seminar at the Paul Mellon Centre entitled ‘Policy into Practice: Implementing Fair Dealing for image copyright at British Art Studies’. There are still places if you decide at the last minute you’d like to come along. It’s part of a series of events at Birkbeck on Fair Dealing and the uses of images in academic research. The final event, the Fair Dealing Conference, takes place this Friday 25th, 10-6, and features our own Steve Edwards as well as experts in copyright law, moving images, and artists’ rights. Meaty and important stuff, both practically and conceptually.


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Reading week – but are you getting any reading done?

I hope you’re having a restful and reflective reading week. The trick is always finding the time to read, amid all the catching up with life.

I’ll kick off this post with a report from colleague Patrizia Di Bello on a fascinating-sounding talk she’s giving in Rome later this month:

In November, Patrizia Di Bello is giving a keynote lecture titled ‘L’album fotografico: guardare, toccare, raccontare’ (her title in English was ‘The Photographs Album: Histories of Looking and Touching’, but she realised it sounded too much like an Elena Ferrante story, especially when translated in Italian!), at the International conference L’Album Fotografico: Oggetto e Narrazione, Rome, 23-24 November 2017. This is organised by the Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione, which is the organization in the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali (Ministry for Heritage and Cultural Activities) that manages the catalogue of Italian cultural heritage or assets (in Italian, the more familial but also patriarchal ‘patrimonio’) – archaeological, architectonic, historical, artistic and ethno-anthropological. They have a vast collection of photographs, including albums, and one of their activities is researching and conceptualising the processes of archiving, cataloguing, and exhibiting such materials. Photographs albums, often very mixed and heterogeneous objects, can be hard to handle systematically. In the past, they were often split to turn them into single items, easier to catalogue, store and exhibit. Recent scholarship, including Patrizia’s book, Women’s Albums and Photography in Victorian England (Routledge, 2007), has questioned this practice by arguing for the importance of the narratives embedded in the materiality of albums.

Meanwhile, here at Birkbeck, we celebrated the publication of Professor Lynda Nead’s new book, The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Postwar Britain, published by Yale University Press in association with the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, with a buzzing party in the Keynes library. You can hear Lynn talking about her book on a recent edition of the Radio 3 programme Free Thinking.


And as always there are lots of events coming up for you to attend. The next Murray Seminar is given by our own Zoe Opacic on Monday 13 November at 5pm in the Keynes Library. Her topic is ‘From Sacroscape to Cityscape: Images of Central European Towns in Late Medieval Sources’.

Next time you read an article or book for one of your classes, take a look at the way the images are labelled and especially for the part of the caption which reads ‘reproduced with kind permission of’ or similar. Those image credits, as they’re called, are the result of often protracted negotiation with rights holders (museums, archives, libraries, artists’ estates, etc.) and significant expenditure – all of which is almost always done by the author, not the publisher. This has always been a difficult aspect of publishing our research as art historians, and it’s only getting more difficult as so much academic publishing goes online. A couple of excellent events organised by Birkbeck turn the spotlight on this problem:

Art History and Fair Dealing, 22 November 2017, 3-4.30, at the Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, 16 Bedford Square


Fair Dealing Conference, 24 November 2017, 10-6, Birkbeck Cinema

Both are free, but you need to book.

A few more places have been made available for the upcoming Murray Lecture, given by Dr Gabriele Finaldi, director of the National Gallery, on ‘How to form a national collection. The Prado Museum and the National Gallery, London’, 30 November 6pm in the Clore lecture theatre. Grab your place before they run out!

And speaking of grabbing opportunities before they run out…a message from the Art Fund.

Enjoy a year of endless inspiration at world-class museums across the UK with a Student Art Pass.

From the V&A and Tate Modern to Kensington Palace and Jupiter Artland, you’ll get free access to over 240 museums, galleries and historic houses, and 50% off major exhibitions. Plus, grab tasty treats or mementos at a bargain price with loads of café and shop discounts too.

A limited number are available for £5 until 10 December. Get yours before they go:



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A funny thing happened on the way to the V&A

Can you believe we are in week 4 already? The Autumn term pace is nothing if not hectic.

I know my colleague Steve Edwards has been busy, not to mention globally present. He recently posted the final blogpost in a series for the Fotomuseum Winterthur (Switzerland) on ‘The Fire Last Time: Radical Documentary in Britain During the 1970s’; he was an invited participant in the seminar ‘Between fiction and reality’, University of Sao Paulo, July; he gave the paper ‘Suspended Time: Antoine Claudet’s studio at Regent Street and the Shock of 1848’, at the University of Michigan, USA, in September, and next month he delivers a keynote (with Gail Day) in Lisbon to the Bloco Esquerda (the left bloc of the governing coalition).

As usual there’s no shortage of events to attend here at Birkbeck:

You may not have known that Birkbeck has an artist in residence, and you can get involved in her work: Join Birkbeck’s artist-in-residence Lily Hunter Green to hear about her project ‘Bee Composed Live’ and opportunities to get involved in her workshops leading to her final exhibition in May, 2018. In this first meeting (Friday, 27 October, 6-7.30pm) Lily will introduce her work and her new project exploring the connection between the worlds of bees and humans in relation to the timely question of climate change. It is crucial that you attend this first meeting if you are interested in participating the four workshops she will run throughout the year and the exhibition concluding her residency alongside a symposium (Tuesday, 8 May) Dr Seda Ilter will organise. The workshop series is open to all undergraduate and postgraduate students interested in participating.

Please do book your space asap as numbers are limited.

The Architecture Space and Society Centre has a rich afternoon coming up of new research on the topic of ‘Architecture of Energy’ on Friday 3 November, 1-5pm in the Keynes Library, with speakers from Edinburgh, Liverpool, Leicester, Birkbeck and Goldsmiths. The symposium explores whether there are radical historical and interpretative possibilities in approaches that place energy at the centre of our understanding of architecture and the built environment. It’s organised by my colleague Mark Crinson.

On Monday 6 November at 6pm (Keynes library) the Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies hosts Tate curator Martin Myrone discussing his plans for an exhibition of the art of William Blake (1757-1827) in 2019, in the context of the history of exhibiting Blake from the late 18th century onwards.

I’m now handing over to Francesca Snelling, a student on the MA History of Art with Photography, reporting on an experience shadowing Birkbeck alumna Anaïs Aguerre at the V&A on a momentous day in June. It began with a chance encounter with a prominent personage (who’ll be making an appearance at Birkbeck in February…)


Finding myself walking from South Kensington tube to the V&A alongside its director, Tristram Hunt, the day of the UK’s General Election, was just too good an opportunity to resist. Overwhelmingly curious to know how the former shadow education secretary, who had resigned his seat in January, had voted that morning, I boldly introduced myself. He artfully deflected the political question, deferring to the impartiality rules of his new role as civil servant. Party politics for the ‘remainer’, left flying almost solo in what was the 70% Brexit land of his former constituency of Stoke on Trent, was now truly put aside.

As a Birkbeck MA History of Art with Photography student, the day ahead was my first opportunity to get behind the scenes of one of my most loved museums, on a work shadow placement with alumna Anaïs Aguerre in the museum’s International Department. For Hunt, as the country rallied to the polls, it was business as usual. Founded in 1852 by Henry Cole as an offspring of the first International Exhibition, the V & A has from its inception prided itself on being an organisation with global relevance, collections, audiences, exhibitions, and relationships. This poll-morning encounter with the custodian of some of our country’s most prized treasures to me exemplified the “sense of freedom” the museum embodies; pride, accessibility and a sense of ownership for Jo Public over its many treasures. Fresh off Dr Gabriel Koureas’ module Museums and National Identity, this all felt somehow right and good.

Knowing that disillusionment with the Brexit vote was cited as the reason for the resignation of Hunt’s predecessor, the late Martin Roth, a sharp sense of the ongoing negotiation of the institution’s obligations and global positioning added to my interest in the workings of the International Department. With a collection and education program of such global significance and international content, what did and didn’t fall within its remit? With the recent & slightly controversial acquisition of the Royal Photographic Society archive from the National Media Museum in Bradford in mind specifically, I wondered how these obligations aligned with the V&A constituency across Britain itself, beyond its South Kensington site.

Responsibilities to engage with an open face to the world in a Brexit age, it turned out, is an issue as close to Anaïs’s heart, as it is to Hunt’s and Roth before him The day, which comprised of several in-house and Skype meetings to brainstorm the reworking of Henry Cole’s 1867 ‘Convention for Promoting Universally Reproductions of Works of Art for the Benefit of Museums of All Countries’, gave me fascinating insight into the devising of new international guidelines on Reproducing Heritage. As a photographer currently obsessed with the digitisation of archives and the expansion of their visual economy, I had struck gold. Anais also spoke to me at length about the Training Program for museum professionals from overseas as well as the department’s touring exhibitions, like the Bowie exhibition then currently in Barcelona.

In retrospect, it couldn’t have been a more significant day to be there; a day in which the Brexit vote was probably felt by the country most keenly. How this decision will affect and resonate through Britain’s art institutions is still yet to be seen, but knowing that our cultural heritage and its scholarship lies open to the world on principal, at least for now, is some comfort.


Francesca Snelling, MA History of Art with Photography




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