Venice, Bedlam, prizes and studentships!

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

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

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

A few upcoming events to mention:

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

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

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

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

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

Armstrong Mitchell Crane, Venice, photo Michael Harding

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

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



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New term, new programmes, new…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One last blog for 2018

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

First some exciting recent events to take note of:

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

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

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

Credit: Wellcome Trust

And now for some upcoming events and opportunities:

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

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

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

Happy holidays! See you in 2019.





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Ah Venice (part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From Graduates to Gainsborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book early to avoid disappointment.

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

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Ah Venice (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

Nick Knight for i-D magazine

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

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

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


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We Want You!

51 may be a boring kind of age, but it helps if you can look back on a 50th year full of celebrations, especially of the forward-looking kind. The department’s celebrations of Opening up Art History: 50 Years at Birkbeck culminated in a really stimulating, truly future-oriented day last Friday 19 October. The morning workshop on ‘The Future of Studying Old Art’ featured speakers from the BBC, the V&A, the charity Art History Link-up and Birkbeck, and made us all feel excited and optimistic about ‘old art’s continuing relevance and ability to fascinate new audiences. PhD student Sarah McBryde has written up a great blogpost about the event.

More to come in future blogs about the afternoon workshop – a *very* lively discussion of the fraught/opportunity-filled future of publishing in art history – and about the evening’s inspiring lecture by Tristram Hunt on the integration of past and future at the V&A, which also marked the launch of the new Centre for Museum Cultures. Check out their excellent new website (the handiwork of PhD student and Centre publicity officer Mark Liebenrood) where you’ll find photos of the event and much more about the Centre, which has been established to provide a hub for exchange and debate on all aspects of museology, curation and heritage. The director is our own Sarah Thomas, working in close collaboration with Annie Coombes, Gabriel Koureas and Fiona Candlin, as well as colleagues across Birkbeck.

So we bid a fond farewell to our 18th-century evening-studying young woman who’s been benignly accompanying us throughout our anniverary year, thanks to the British Museum’s generous open access image policy:

Étude nocturne, mezzotint by Philip Dawe, after John Foldsone, 1772 © Trustees of the British Museum

And now to the ‘we want you’ bit. We want you – we and your fellow students NEED you – to come forward to be representatives for your programmes. It’s an excellent way to meet your fellow students, keep abreast of issues and changes and work with staff to improve the student experience. Being a student rep means that your fellow students contact you with any issues and feedback, which you then bring to termly meetings (timed to fit in just before your classes) with me and programme directors. There are still places, especially for MA Museum Cultures and MA History of Art as well as BA History of Art year 1 and BA History of Art with Curating. Please contact if you’re interested.

And now to the fun stuff and a date for your diary. The History of Art Societyyour student society – is holding its first social event of the year. Do come along and hear about what’s going on. The society is organised by a really lovely and creative group of people, and word is they’ve got hold of some funds for events too!

The brilliant charity Art Fund has announced its 2018-19 Student Art Pass offer, which is a good one, especially if you’re looking to defray the sometimes breathtaking expense of special exhibitions (you call that a concession!) Here’s the info, and note the upcoming deadline:

You’ll get free or discounted entry to over 240 museums and galleries across the UK, 50% off major exhibitions, and café and shop discounts too. Plus, buy a pass today and you’ll be entered into the #WeAreArtful Prize Draw to win one of five VIP museum experiences and a polaroid camera to capture the fun.
Student Art Pass is available for a limited time – get yours today to avoid missing out:
If there are any issues with the tracked link above, please just use:


Our new Lecturer in Contemporary Global Art, Mara Polgovsky, has organised this very exciting event over in the main Birkbeck building this coming Thursday:

Yoshua Okón: Future Shock | The Talk
1st Nov, 6pm MALB35
This talk features artist Yoshua Okón reflecting on his film installations. It is conceived as an open discussion that will provide an opportunity for the public to ask questions about Okón’s treatment of the movie image and about his first solo show in London Future Shock, presented at Chalton Gallery and curated by Giulia Colletti (3rd October-10th November 2018).  Yoshua Okón is an artist based in Mexico City. His work focuses on seemingly absurd political and social aspects of the North American region, exploring disproportionate consumption, rampant dispossession, and blind nationalism. He challenges the boundaries between the real and the artificial, using re-enactment as narrative technique in order to exacerbate social dysfunctions. His art lies at the crossroads of collective performance and simulation, continuously playing with uncertainty in relation to what is seen and unseen. Please register here:

Finally, the next ASSC event is coming up. Sophia Psarra from the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL will be speaking about a fascinating late project by Le Corbusier in Venice: ‘Le Corbusier’s Venice Hospital: a genealogy of individual and collective intelligence in his architecture’. 9 November, 6pm, Keynes Library. More here.

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Singing and Music-Making Angels

Term is well and truly underway, with inductions behind us, lecturers and seminars ongoing in many diverse locations around the place (bet you never thought studying art history would take you to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), LOTS of marking (MA dissertations and projects on topics from 14th-century frescos to sports photography), and a whole range of research events planned and ready to be put in your diaries.

You can already go and see the visually striking and thought-provoking exhibition in the Peltz Gallery, Day for Night: Landscapes of Walter Benjamin on until 28 October. In a multi-media display, the various landscapes inhabited by the hugely influential early 20th-century German intellectual Walter Benjamin – from Berlin to Capri and Naples, and ending in Catalunya, Spain, where Benjamin died while fleeing the Nazis in 1940.

The next Murray Seminar, on 16 October, will be on the subject ‘Vestments and Textiles in Hans Memling’s God with Singing and Music-making Angels‘. Lisa Monnas looks at the costumes and textiles in paintings by the fifteenth-century Flemish painter Hans Memling.  How can vestments and other textiles help us understand a painting in new ways, and what can they tell us about broader questions of ‘realism’?

The Murray Seminars are an opportunity to hear and contribute to cutting-edge research, often at the very early stages of work in progress. All are welcome, and they are particularly suited to post-graduates and students considering post-graduate study. All this term’s seminars take place in The Keynes Library (43 Gordon Sq room 114) at 5pm. Talks finish by 5.50pm, allowing those going to classes to leave, and are then followed by discussion and refreshments. Do go along – it’s a fascinating programme.  You can see the poster with all this term’s dates here.

There are still a few (just a few!) places for the two workshops and the big anniversary lecture on 19 October: see my last blogpost for details. Hope to see many of you there.

Really pleased to announce an exciting new series of workshops and advice sessions for those interested in careers in the arts. The School of Arts and the Careers & Employability department have designed a programme of employability events for 2018-2019 tailored to Arts students at both Undergraduate and Postgraduate taught levels, and including events to suit each department in the School. Here you can download a general information about dates and types of events. The first of these events, Arts: My Unique Ability, will take place on Thursday October 18, 6-7:30, MAL 633. All events are free and open to all students in Arts. Booking here is indispensable.

Two of our students have been doing exciting things out and about, and blogging about it.

Danilo Reis, a final year student in BA History of Art with Curating, was one of the recipients of the 2018 Venice Fellowship, a scheme co-sponsored by the British Council and Birkbeck that allows two Birkbeck students to spend a month in Venice working at the British pavilion in the renowned Venice Biennale and developing an independent research project. Danilo’s written a fascinating account of his time in Venice and his project ‘subverting’ the classic tourist guidebook to the city here.

Adam Coleman, who completed the Graduate Certificate in History of Art and Architecture in 2017-18 and is now on the MA History of Art, had a busy weekend at Open House London, the big architecture festival last month. Not only did he do a bespoke tour of our own 43 Gordon Square, but he initiated and co-led a tour of a very interesting but little-known housing estate in Tottenham, which he had researched for his extended essay on the Grad Cert. He writes about the experience bringing architectural history to a broad audience here.

Staff members have been busy too.

Kasia Murawska-Muthesius was invited to contribute to a conference on the bodily deformation and emotions, Mis-Shapings: The Art of Deformation and the History of Emotions organised by Paolo Gervasi at the Queen Mary University of London, on 13 September. Her paper, ‘Perfetta deformità: Caricature and Embodiment‘, focused on the Seicento art treatises and on the ways of theorising multiple paradoxes of this subversive art form, which strives for perfect deformity instead of perfect beauty, which is capable of achieving likeness through deformation, and which serves as a catalyst in bringing communities together by poking fun on the bodily defects of their members instead of hiding them.

And finally, a new volume of essays has come out entitled Design Dialogue: Jews, Culture and Viennese Modernism, edited by Elana Shapira. It contains two Birkbeck contributions: ‘Myths of the Viennese Cafe: Ephemerality, Performativity and Loss’ by Tag Gronberg, and ‘Modern Architecture and Antisemitism in Early Twentieth-Century Vienna’ by Leslie Topp (me.)


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Another academic year begins!

A warm welcome to all our new students, and welcome back to those of you who are continuing with us. Inductions happen this week and next, and classes begin next week – I hope that on balance you’re feeling more excited than overwhelmed!

If you’re new to Birkbeck and this blog, I should tell you that I usually post every other week during term, filling you in on events and developments in the department, reporting on staff activities as well as on achievements of students past and present (please do feel free to contact me with news you’d like me to include) and lots more.

We are very excited to welcome a new member of staff to the department this term: Dr Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra joins us as Lecturer in Contemporary Art. She’s recently completed a Junior Research Fellowship at Cambridge University and is a specialist in contemporary Latin American art. This year she will be teaching mostly on first year BA modules, and is also available for dissertation supervision. You can read more about her here.

We kicked off our year of public events last weekend by opening the doors of the School of Arts for Open House London 2018. Over Saturday and Sunday, and despite the less than ideal weather, we welcomed 315 visitors on 37 tours, organised and led by a brilliant and dedicated group of student volunteers.

Take a look at this short film if you want to learn more about the fascinating School of Arts building.

Friday 19th October is a big day for us – a day of workshops and a public lecture by Tristram Hunt, rounding off the Department of History of Art’s 50th anniversary celebrations and launching the new Centre for Museum Cultures.

In two public workshops in Gordon Sq B04, on ‘The Future of Studying Old Art’ and ‘Futures for Publishing in Art History’, Birkbeck’s academics are joined by experts from the worlds of museums, media and publishing to put our collective finger on the pulse of the discipline. Each workshop focuses on an area of crisis and transformation, asking where we are now, what’s next, and why. The workshops are kindly supported by the Murray Bequest.

Then at 6pm in Beveridge Hall, Senate House we welcome Dr Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A to give the Birkbeck History of Art Anniversary Lecture,’Design for a Nation: The Victoria and Albert Museum in the 21st Century’ Dr Hunt will discuss how the museum’s founding commitment to design, education and industry continues to define it today. Tracing the museum’s genesis, from its Victorian roots in the Design School Movement of the 1830s, through the Great Exhibition of 1851, to its establishment in 1852 as the Museum of Manufactures, he considers how the V&A’s British, Germanic, Indian and Oriental origins engendered a world-class collection. In our contemporary age of Brexit, Netflix and digital technology, Dr Hunt uses this cultural lens to consider the museum’s place in the world today. Dr Hunt’s lecture will be followed by a drinks reception and the launch of Birkbeck’s new Centre for Museum Cultures.

See here for more information and links for booking. Book soon! Places are limited.

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History of Art Department 50th Anniversary Party 29 June – photos!

On 29 June we had the department party to end all parties, with over 200 people out in Gordon Square to celebrate fifty years of History of Art at Birkbeck, preceded by reunion parties for students from all five decades of the department’s existence. We were so chuffed to see many of our former and current students there, and to be able to catch up with much missed former staff as well. Emeritus colleagues Francis Ames-Lewis, Peter Draper and Will Vaughan all spoke, reviewing the history of the department and sharing funny and poignant personal reminiscences of teaching and working at Birkbeck. Department administrators Susan El Ghoraiby and Clare Thomas led a crack team of helpers who made it a really celebratory event. Thanks to all, including to College photographer Dominic Mifsud for these lovely photos:

This group includes everyone who was at the party who has worked, is working or will soon work for the department

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Term may be over…

Term may be over and the summer break here, but there’s still a lot to tell you about. My colleagues, our research students and our alumni have all been busy and have fascinating things to report and watch.

First from Mark Crinson, Professor of History of Architecture, about an interesting meeting of an interesting organisation in an interesting place:

‘I got back last week from a beautifully organised and intellectually stimulating three-day conference in Tallinn, Estonia. It’s a fascinating city, with its medieval walls and towers, its many neoclassical edifices, its Soviet housing blocks, and its more recent public museums. Estonia is a tiny country (only 1.3 million people) located on a hinge between the European landmass and Russia, with Finland and the Baltic Sea to the north, and this meant that for much of the twentieth century it was dominated either by the Soviet Union or by Germany. To visit any part of Tallinn is to see the residue of these influences – for me the most memorable visit was to the port, with its seaplane hangars, its dry docks, its eighteenth-century fort (still a prison until the early 2000s), and its tiny wooden Crimean War-era submarine (never apparently used).

In many ways Tallinn was the ideal location for the biennial conference of the European Architectural History Network. EAHN is a relatively new organisation and is more of a project than a professional body. It promotes the study of architectural history across Europe (though of course what its members study is not limited to Europe), and as part of this it tries to vary the location of its large biennial conferences, its smaller thematic conferences, and even its business meetings. Since 2010 the EAHN has held its biennial conferences in Guimãraes, Brussels, Turin, Dublin, and now Tallinn. It runs an academic journal – Architectural Histories – and several special interest groups. Check out its website – – and become a member (it’s free!). Full disclosure – for the last two years I have been Vice-President and in Tallinn I became President (it’s only a two-year term).’

Meanwhile, Patrizia Di Bello, Senior Lecturer in the department, is featured in a really watchable and informative ‘HENI talk‘ about the photographer and cultural sniper Jo Spence, who was the subject of the exhibition recently in the Peltz Gallery. HENI talks were new to me and you should check them out, they’re great: short, beautifully-made films on a whole range of art topics with key experts – Patrizia’s being one of the best of course.

Professor Lynda Nead tells us about a grant she and Anthony Bale have received for a magical new project:

‘Professor Lynn Nead and Professor Anthony Bale (Dean of the School of Arts , English and Humanities) have been awarded a grant by the Birkbeck / Wellcome Trust Institutional Strategic Support Fund (ISSF) to organise an international two-day workshop to bring together cultural historians, art historians and historians of chemistry and science to initiate a new discussion of the spaces, objects and aesthetics of alchemy.

Alchemy, an art as much as a science, was a heady mixture of philosophy, art, medicine, folklore, and chemistry, the precursor of modern chemistry and the stuff of the creative imagination. An ancient, global technology, alchemy offers a supple set of imagery that is found in Chinese medicine, Persian folklore, Chaucer’s poetry, Jungian psychology, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and contemporary manga. This project focuses on the spaces and objects of alchemy and on visual and cultural representations of the alchemist’s laboratory and the paraphernalia with which it is filled. This space, it will be suggested, becomes a precursor of and metaphor for other spaces of creativity and imagination, such as the artist’s studio, the junk shop, the scientific lab, and the clinic or surgery; places of hidden treasures in which things and substances are not what they seem and where everyday stuff can be turned into priceless objects and medicines.’

Anthony Bale (who is Professor of Medieval Studies in the Department of English and Humanities as well as being Dean of the School of Arts) has curated an exquisite new exhibition in the Peltz Gallery (which is air-conditioned, by the way) entitled Capsule: Inside the Medieval Book. He’s worked with the animation artist Shay Hamias and has drawn on the insights of a range of Birkbeck medievalists, including our own Laura Jacobus.

MA History of Art graduate Michael Clegg tells us about the impressive published afterlives of two projects he worked on as part of the MA:

‘I’ve been immensely pleased to have two peer-reviewed articles published in the last month, both based on work I did during my Birkbeck MA. I completed my Masters in Art History in 2016, with the intention of starting a PhD, but as I knew that wouldn’t be for at least another 12 months it seemed a good opportunity to pitch my Birkbeck research for publication. I thought hard about where to try and place articles: my dissertation had been about exhibiting British art at Tate in the 1950s, so Tate Papers was a natural choice, while my Research Project linked to a number of archive television films making it a good fit with British Art Studies (published by the Paul Mellon Centre) which is keen to exploit the possibilities of digital publishing. I reworked both pieces, including some additional research, to get the right length and to reframe my arguments for a new audience. Submission was followed by a long wait, then more research and re-writing after peer review. With publication dates scheduled, the beginning of this year brought lots of copyediting and work with picture editors; it took some effort to re-read work I’d originally put to bed two or three years ago.

The result was worth it, however, and I feel I can now claim some contribution to scholarship. The articles can be found at and I’m now completing my first year of a PhD at Birmingham University, looking at post-war printmaking in Britain; you can follow me @michaeljclegg1.’

Two of our research students have had exceptional success in being awarded competitive grants for research trips and placements in the US over the next academic year. Warm congratulations and bon voyage to Anna Jamieson and Hannah Lyons!

Do check out the blogpost on the Haha: The Weirdness of Walls symposium last month, if you missed it, or even if you didn’t.

I won’t say goodbye for the summer yet, because there’ll be one more blogpost with photos of our marvellous anniversary party on 29 June.

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Going out with a bang

I don’t think I’ve ever known the last two weeks of the Summer term to be quite so packed with talks, screenings, discussions and parties. So hold onto your seats:

THIS AFTERNOON (Fri 22 June), Keynes Library: Contested, Uncomfortable, Embarrassing: Encountering Difficult (Art) Histories – the Postgraduate Summer Conference, Keynes Library, 1-6.30pm, with a keynote lecture by Dr Sean Willcock, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, on ‘Colonial Violence and the Ethics of Photography’ (4.45pm)

Wednesday 27 June 5pm, Keynes Library: Murray Seminar (a special departmental ‘golden’ anniversary event): Alison Wright, UCL, ‘Gold against the Body:  gold surfaces and their limits, medieval to early modern’

Wednesday 27 June, 6pm, Cinema: Anna Konik, In the Same City, under the Same Sky…: A Screening and Artist’s Talk for Refugee Week. Internationally recognised video installation artist screens and speaks about her work with forced migrants across Europe.

Thursday 28 June, 2-6pm, Birkbeck (room TBC): Radical Visions: the cultural politics of Camerawork, 1972-1985. A Collaborative Symposium (co-hosted by the History and Theory of Photography Centre and Four Corners) will consider the radical journal Camerawork‘s engagement, role and influence with community-practice, feminism and representation, and ask how its broader legacy can be understood within the context of today’s cultural politics.

Friday 29 June, 6-8pm, HISTORY OF ART DEPARTMENT 50TH ANNIVERSARY GARDEN PARTY, Gordon Square (yes, actually in Gordon Square – marquee provided in case of rain). A chance to meet students and staff, past and present, and friends of the department. A party like this happens only once every half-century – don’t miss it! (If you haven’t had your e-invitation, please email me on

Thursday 5 July, 6pm 43 Gordon Square B04, Architecture Space and Society Centre presents: New Book Talk: Istanbul Open City: Exhibiting Anxieties of Urban Modernity Ipek Tureli (McGill University, Montreal) will present her new book, followed by a discussion with Gabriel Koureas and Günes Tavmen.

Friday 6 July, 6pm, 43 Gordon Square, G04, Staff and Student End of Year Party. Food, drink, and end of year release – a chance to say goodbye until September…

Now you’ll know from speaking to your classmates that there is no such thing as the typical Birkbeck student, and that so many of you have had interesting and unpredictable paths into study in our department. Carla Valentine, who’s got a new book out, tells us about her fascinating journey from the mortuary to the MA Museum Cultures and now to a top museum post:

I’d wanted a career in a mortuary from when I was a young child and, as odd as this seemed at a time before CSI and Silent Witness, I do write about the different issues which came together to send me along that unusual path. Over the years I gained experience of embalming, forensics, post-mortems of adults and the young, decomposed and freshly deceased, radioactive decedents and those with highly infectious diseases, as well as victims of the July 7th Bombings in 2005. After nearly a decade of working alongside pathologists at the same time as the Human Tissue Authority was being created I became more aware of the variety of ways in which we may encounter the deceased today: in the post-mortem sector, at medical schools for teaching students, and public display (all areas which the HTA now regulate). For more information see my essay on the topic.

Fascinated by the concept of our interaction with the dead in the public arena, I sidestepped from dealing with the recently deceased in mortuaries to becoming the curator of Barts Pathology Museum, part of Queen Mary University London. Although my work now involves human remains around a century old, the basic method is very similar: it’s my job to ‘read’ these human remains in order to find out about how they lived and how they died, then decide why and how this is relevant for a public audience. I was therefore thrilled when I discovered the MA in Museum Cultures at Birkbeck, which gave me the option to study Exhibiting the Body as a module with Dr Suzannah Biernoff and then carry out an Independent Research Project and a dissertation of my own choosing. Now I work with human remains and research their display at Masters Level, with my day-to-day work supplementing my studies and vice-versa – it’s ideal! However, my previous career as an autopsy technician was a rollercoaster-ride and I’m thrilled I was able to tell the story in my new book Past Mortems.

Carla Valentine (

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The Weirdness of Walls…

… is the name of a really interesting symposium happening *tomorrow* (Friday 8 June) in the Keynes Library, 9.30-17.30, sponsored by the Architecture Space and Society Centre and the Lorraine Lim fund and organised by two Arts PhD students, Milos Kosec and Christina Parte. If you come along (free and open to all, but please use the booking link) you’ll hear speakers on all sorts of walls, including Berlin’s and Trump’s, as well as our own Mark Crinson and Leslie Topp (yours truly) holding forth.

June is packed with History of Art events, so recover from exams, take a break from research projects, work placements and dissertations, and check these out:

Contested, Uncomfortable, Embarrassing: Encountering Difficult (Art) Histories is the compelling theme chosen by our MPhil/PhD students for their annual summer conference, Friday 22 June, 2-5pm, Keynes Library. This gives me the opportunity to introduce Dr Sean Willcock, who has just joined the department for three years as Leverhulme Early Career Fellow. He’ll be giving the keynote address at the conference, so come and hear about his fascinating research on the visual culture of violence in Victorian Britain. More about Sean here. He will be teaching a BA option in 2018-19.

Murray Seminars in Medieval and Renaissance Art: 27 June 5pm, Keynes Library, Alison Wright (UCL) ‘Gold against the Body: gold surfaces and their limits, medieval to early modern’

Directly after that you can zip down to the cinema for:

Anna Konik, In the Same City, under the Same Sky…: A Screening and Artist’s Talk for Refugee Week Wednesday 27 June 2018, 6-7.30pm, Cinema, followed by a reception – no booking necesary. Internationally-recognised video artist Anna Konik is visiting Birkbeck from her bases in Berlin and Warsaw to speak to us about her work involving migrant and refugee stories and to develop a new project with students on Birkbeck’s award-winning Compass Project. Konik has exhibited in numerous European galleries and museums over the past two decades. In the Winter Semester of 2017-18 she was Rudolf Arnheim Associate Professor at the Department of Art and Visual History, Humboldt University, Berlin; she is currently a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. She will introduce and screen extracts from her project In the Same City, under the Same Sky…, which has been exhibited in Germany, Poland, Sweden and Romania. For more information:

Open House London, the city-wide architecture festival on the weekend of 22-23 September, will again this year include the School of Arts building (Gordon Square), a historic Georgian terrace, former home of Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and other members of the Bloomsbury Group, and site of the award-winning ground floor and basement intervention (the cinema and surroundings) by Surface Architects from 2008. You can learn more about our building by watching this film. There’s a meeting on Tuesday 19 June, 6pm, in 43 Gordon Square room B03 for those interested in volunteering at Open House in a variety of roles. If you are interested in volunteering, please come along to the information meeting on 19 June and/or e-mail Eva Höög at with your name and programme of study.

Finally, announcements of two publications by our eighteenth-century-ists:

Prasannajit de Silva has a new book out with Cambridge Scholars Press: Colonial Self-Fashioning in British India, 1785-1845: Visualising Identity and Difference In this book, Prasannajit considers the ways in which British colonists in India depicted their own lives.  Drawing on examples from various genres – portraiture, depictions of customs and manners, comic narrative, and landscape – this analysis exposes some of the complexities underlying colonial identity during a critical period in the history of British involvement in the subcontinent, and calls into question some of the standard stereotypes of colonial life. Many congratulations to him!

Kate Retford is meanwhile featured in an innovative open access online publication just launched by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art: The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition: A Chronicle, 1769-2018. It is now live, and it’ll be a great resource for students – short pieces about the RA summer exhibition every year from 1769 to 2018, lots of stats on exhibitors and visitors, and digitised versions of all the catalogues. You can find Kate as author of 1775 and 1798!


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