Graduation 2018: walking talking art

Kathryn Hallam Howard, graduating today with a BA History of Art, discusses why she decided to start studying in her fifties, and why Birkbeck was the perfect place to develop both her love of art history and her new venture, creating specialised walking art tours for fellow enthusiasts.  

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Hills around the Bay of Moulin Huet, oil on canvas, 1883, The Metropolitan Museum, New York (Open Access)

The summer of 2014 found me in a tiny hamlet on Guernsey. The path down to the local beach, Moulin Huet, is steep and rocky and used only by locals and visitors, who are lucky enough to know its well-kept secret. Visitors like Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who often painted the dramatic landscape with its imposing cliffs, ice cold seawater and crystal-clear light. So why, am I recalling my trek down a Channel Island path used by Renoir? Well, that was where I first decided to apply to Birkbeck to do a BA History of Art and Architecture.

I had always been interested in art and had visited many art galleries. However, I often found myself first to arrive at the gift shop, wondering where my friends and family were. Then in 2013, I trained to be a Blue Badge tourist guide and found myself taking groups around London’s amazing galleries and museums. Yet, I felt a fraud! I could easily take someone around the National Gallery and discuss twenty-odd paintings. However, were they to ask me about something I hadn’t researched, then my superficial grasp of art history would have been exposed. I decided to rectify that and an undergraduate degree at Birkbeck suited me perfectly. Term dates complemented the guiding season and the modular composition meant I could study different subjects without being restricted to one time period. The annual field trip was an added incentive and I enjoyed two trips to Paris and Berlin.

Another unexpected pleasure was the sheer diversity of the students in terms of age, background and nationality. I met many interesting people and made some good friends.  All my tutors and lecturers were experts in their field but also offered first class support to help us maximise our learning experience. I found the environment rewarding, stimulating and challenging. Preliminary surveys of European Art (pre-1800) and Modern Art, gave a good introduction to the discipline and the sheer variety of modules offered in the subsequent years was excellent. I studied topics as wide-ranging as art and architecture from 1250-1550, satire and caricature, the relationship of the body to modern architecture and the relationship between public and private space and modernity. One module, The Impact of immigration on Modern British Art inspired my dissertation topic – the art produced by those fleeing Nazi persecution, whilst interned as ‘enemy aliens’ on the Isle of Man 1940-1941.

I’m currently working with the family of an interned art historian, Klaus Hinrichsen, to explore recently discovered papers and correspondence. Some interesting lines of enquiry have already emerged. I am also creating specialised art tours for those who would like an affordable and interesting day out with a small group of like-minded enthusiasts, to be launched in 2019. If you are interested in learning more or can suggest an interesting theme for a tour then please get in touch at

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Futures for publishing in Art History

Maria Alambritis, PhD candidate in History of Art, discusses a panel examining the current state and future of publishing art historical scholarship – one of a series of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art.

Woman in Robes Reading a Book, 1870, Albumen silver print from glass negative, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (69.607.11)

On Friday 19 October, Birkbeck’s History of Art department hosted ‘Forward Looking: Workshops on the Future of Art History’, part of a series of events held this year to mark the 50th anniversary of the department’s founding. The second workshop of the day – ‘Futures for Publishing in Art History’ – examined the state of publishing art historical scholarship as it now stands and addressed current areas of concern and innovation.

Chaired by Dr Leslie Topp, Head of Birkbeck’s History of Art department, the session was structured as a series of ‘in-conversations’ between Leslie and each of the invited participants, who each brought to bear their individual experience and expertise in relation to art historical publication. The panel included Natalie Foster, Senior Publisher for Media and Cultural Studies at Routledge; Baillie Card, Editor at the Paul Mellon Centre; Bernard Horrocks, Intellectual Property Manager at Tate; and Steve Edwards, professor of History and Theory of Photography at Birkbeck and Editorial Board Member at the Oxford Art Journal.

Four key interlocking themes arose across the individual discussions: the ongoing relevance of print publication in the wake of new digital formats; the nature and impact of open access scholarship; the influence of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) and the complexity of copyright law and issue of image reproduction fees.

Print vs. digital publishing

Natalie Foster illuminated the ways Routledge, which has emerged in recent years as a leading publisher in art historical scholarship, approaches the publication of scholarly monographs, discussing aspects of format, style and topic. Together with an existing focus on areas such as media, film and visual studies, historiography, museology and collecting, Routledge is looking to include design history, photography theory and ‘cutting-edge’ titles in areas such as gender, non-Western art and the Anthropocene. One of the principal areas of uncertainty for both academics and publishers today is the continuing role of print publications in the wake of new digital formats and online open-access models. It was interesting to hear that despite this ‘digital turn’ in publishing, Routledge did not consider print and digital formats as mutually exclusive, acknowledging the on-going relevance of the printed monograph format particularly for academics at the start of their careers.

In her role overseeing the publication of the Paul Mellon Centre’s ground-breaking open access journal British Art Studies, Baillie Card spoke about the differences in approach and challenges encountered in publishing and editing online as opposed to print. The advantages of online publication, especially in offering new possibilities for the kind of scholarship produced and innovative means of presenting research such as utilising video, audio and infographics were demonstrated with examples such as Inga Fraser’s video essay on the work of Paul Nash.

Card described the exciting potential inherent in online presentation as a more ‘curatorial way of arguing’ in contrast to that seen in traditional print journals. Juxtaposing multiple images and offering interpretation in a range of formats, the ‘author-curator’ employs enhanced digital features to enable a greater freedom in the style of argument and inviting simultaneous response, interpretation and discussion.

Open access

However, the exciting potential offered by open access is not without its drawbacks. In the example of British Art Studies, the Paul Mellon Centre has a measure of financial freedom allowing it to take risks and experiment with scholarship in this way. Card cited several ‘open-access ways’ available to others interested in exploring the possibility of setting up their own online journal spaces, such as the Getty’s ‘Quire’– a freely accessible multiformat publishing tool to create lasting, discoverable scholarly publications online.

Steve Edwards acknowledged that open-access has many advantages in terms of widening access to research and presenting scholarship in innovative ways, but pertinently noted that the model nevertheless entails the shuffling of public money to the private sector, an on-going and debilitating part of a wider problem across the public education sector.


The Research Excellence Framework (REF) is a process of assessment which reviews the research outputs of the UK’s publicly-funded research institutions. It judges the quality of the outputs, their impact beyond academia and the environment (facilities and resources) that supports research in each university faculty department.

It was encouraging to hear that despite the REF’s hierarchisation of individually-authored monographs over edited collections, Routledge did not follow suit, acknowledging the importance of such collections for bringing together new voices, particularly from a global angle. Publishing in open access journals such British Art Studies poses concerns for scholars where the framework of the REF or, in a similar case, the American tenure-track system does not currently accommodate such formats as ‘legitimate’ forms of published scholarship. As highlighted by Steve Edwards, rather than a passive monitoring system, the REF is actively shaping the future of art history publishing, as future funding is allocated according to REF score. This has wide-ranging implications, as universities shape their research to target REF requirements, rather than producing research for its own inherent scholarly merit and usefulness to the field. The pressure to produce ‘REF-able’ publications works against the establishment of new, interdisciplinary journals for which the REF’s rigid criteria has no means of assessing, thereby entrenching disciplinary boundaries.

Copyright law, image reproduction fees and ‘fair dealing’

A discussion of online art history publishing cannot avoid the complex issue of image rights. The use of fair dealing and its potential to aid scholars was explored in depth. Baillie affirmed that British Art Studies tries wherever possible to use images under the principle of fair dealing. As detailed here (scroll down for the section on ‘Art History and Fair Dealing’), fair dealing allows the reproduction of copyrighted works without the requirement to pay a fee, so long as the cited work is being used in a ‘fair’, non-commercial way, such as illustrating a passage of criticism or review.

Bernard Horrocks expanded on this discussion looking at the intersection of law, museums, publishing and copyright. The current issue of whether public arts institutions should make images of their collections freely accessible was the subject of lively debate. Tate offers low-resolution images of out-of-copyright works for free, while high-quality images must be paid for. Horrocks stated that Tate makes on average £200,000 a year from image rights fees, acknowledging that while not a huge amount in the overall scheme of the museum’s annual profits it is nonetheless indispensable in today’s increasingly difficult climate arts funding cuts. As raised in the later roundtable discussion, however, it is not clear how much of this sum actually comes from non-commercial scholarly requests.

While the ranks of foreign museums releasing their collection images for free continues to grow – examples include the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – Horrocks argued that these institutions operate on different governance and funding models, the prime example being the charging of entrance fees. However, an interesting alternative UK precedent has been set by Birmingham Museums Trust, which recently made high-quality images of out-of-copyright works in its collection freely accessible.

As with the REF, image copyright itself is shaping research often in very direct ways. Citing the example of his own publications, Edwards has turned to using images freely available from US collections, over examples from UK institutions. Furthermore, the lack of uniformity across UK institutions as to what constitutes a ‘non-commercial’ and ‘scholarly’ publication combined with the fact that liability still rests in the majority of cases with the individual author, rather than the publisher, continues to make image reproduction an increasingly murky and difficult area for scholarship and one that is particularly egregious for art historians.

Following these ‘in-conversations’ a roundtable was held with all the participants and joined by Stacey McGillicuddy, Publisher for Taylor & Francis art journals. It became clear that greater communication between academics and image rights departments would enable a far more efficient and scholarship-friendly means of determining non-commercial use, which as it is currently defined by many picture library departments is out of date and inconsistent with the existing nature of scholarly publication. Finally, in the move towards publishing online, the issue of longevity was raised and the development of digital preservation policies as we move from physical material to digital publications.

The workshop was one of transparent and open debate, which highlighted the advantages that such an interdisciplinary and collaborative debate brings, particularly at a moment of rapid change in art historical publishing.

Both workshops were kindly supported by the Murray Bequest.

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Experimenting in the galleries with Vernon Lee

Dr Carolyn Burdett, Senior Lecturer in English and Victorian Studies discusses the life and stories of Vernon Lee, ahead of a ‘scratch’ performance and panel discussion, which will take place at 6pm, Friday 2 November 2018 at Birkbeck’s Keynes Library, to which all are welcome to attend. 

Ghosts haunt her brain, Vernon Lee admitted, publishing a collection of her elegant and mysterious ghost stories in 1890. Violet Paget was born in 1856 and named herself Vernon Lee to inaugurate a career as a writer. But stories were only a part of what appeared from the pen of this woman of quite staggering energy and intellectual range. Lee published studies of art and music, evocative travel writings, essays on gardens, dialogues about art and life, contentious novels, dense essays on aesthetic theories, and polemic interventions on vivisection, feminism and pacifism. She revived the form of the medieval morality play to protest the depredations of war and aggressive nationalism, and she devised her own questionnaires to test theories of art and music. She was an intellectual force of the Victorian fin de siècle, a true cosmopolitan, an outside-the-box queer thinker and, invariably, a very wise woman.

Still in her mid-twenties, and already author of a significant study of eighteenth-century Italy, Lee declared herself a ‘student of aesthetics’. For much of the rest of her life she researched and thought about why we find some things beautiful, how beauty affects us, and ‘what art does with us’. She was captivated by the prospect that the tools and techniques of the emerging discipline of experimental psychology could provide new and definitive answers to age-old questions about art and beauty.

In the 1880s, she met and fell in love with a Scottish artist called Clementina (‘Kit’) Anstruther-Thomson and the two women began to ‘experiment’ together in looking at art. Kit was sensitive to how her body reacted when she looked at objects. Looking attentively, Kit felt her muscles contract and her breath change. The object made her stretch up or sink down; it made her breath shallow and uneven or else deep and filled out on both sides: her body seemed a kind of barometer for the form she viewed.

Lee, avidly reading new research in ‘psycho-physiology’ – how the mind and body are imbricated – began to wonder whether they might have stumbled across the key to beauty. She took her cue from work associated with the psychologist William James who, in a famous essay on ‘What is an Emotion’ (1884), argued that our common sense understanding of, say, the fear we feel on seeing a bear – ‘I see a bear, I feel fear, my body responds to this feeling and I run’ – is in fact the wrong order. What’s really happening is that my body ‘sees’ the bear and responds (muscles tense, hair raises, breath shortens), and the fear I feel is a consequence of these instant, automatic bodily changes. Lee began to investigate the possibility that aesthetic response works on the same model: Kit sees a form, her body responds (her breath changes, her muscles tense or relax, her balance shifts) and these bodily changes make her feel calm or agitated, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the object that precipitates these subtle changes and the feeling accordingly attaches to it, as if it’s a quality of the object. ‘How beautiful’ translates as ‘how good this object has made my body feel’.

The two women experimented together for ten years, in galleries in Florence and Rome, in Paris and London. Their work was part of the pattern of their complicated love affair and, when the love stumbled, the theories and the thinking shifted and changed. But Lee never stopped trying to understand the power of art, why it affects us as it does, and what art can tell us about the mysteries of our minds and our bodies. This event, a collaboration between Dr Carolyn Burdett (English), Professor Rob Swain (Theatre), and Professor Matthew Longo (Psychological Sciences), working with playwright Nicola Baldwin and actors Penny Layden and Anna Tierney, explores Vernon Lee’s experiments in and with love and art and human psychology.

Find out more about the event. 

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The future of studying old art

Sarah McBryde, PhD student in History of Art, discusses a recent workshop considering the value of Art History as a discipline and why the study of ‘old’ art will continue to be important into the future.

‘The Future of Studying Old Art’ workshop, chaired by Dr Dorigen Caldwell (Senior Lecturer in History of Art, Birkbeck) kicked off another day of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the History of Art Department at Birkbeck, by considering the current state of the discipline and the ways in which ideas about old art are taught and communicated to a wider audience via digital media and cultural institutions. The various speakers outlined their own experiences and perspectives, creating a lively debate on the reasons why the study and display of ‘old’ art continues to have relevance today.

Robert Maniura (Reader in History of Art, Birkbeck) asked why we still study historical objects, both artworks and architecture. Why should we care about something which has survived into the modern era, but was created hundreds of years ago in a society with different values and beliefs from our own? He began by posing some key questions for art historians: What is it? Why is it here? Why does it look like that? And importantly, why is it still here when other things have disappeared?  Maniura argued that in answering these questions art historical analysis can reveal the underlying functions of art in society; be that to impress, inspire, persuade, provoke, control or mislead. He challenged the view in the mass media that art history is somehow ephemeral, frequently framed as a ‘leisure activity’ unless vast sums of money are involved, and questioned why man-made objects should be any less deserving of rigorous study than objects from the natural world undergoing scientific investigation. He also addressed the shifting cultural meanings of artworks through history, citing as an example the Medieval Dečani Monastery located in modern day Kosovo. Prior to the 1990s conflict, this Orthodox Christian church was venerated across different local faiths, but now finds itself a symbol of Serbian nationalism in the Kosovo region, surrounded by armed guards and tank traps still under the control of NATO KFOR peacekeepers.

As Chief Curator of the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance collections, Peta Motture discussed how the galleries were redesigned to incorporate new approaches to the display of objects and the views of museum visitors. The stated aims of the project were to ‘inspire, engage, preserve, connect and transform’ by reformatting the way objects were displayed to provide informative contexts for their production and use, while still maintaining a chronological sequence to the rooms, which the public preferred. Defying some criticisms that particular iconic items would lose their status when embedded in a wider context, the redesign has been highly successful since it opened to the public in 2009. Motture noted that art historical research formed a vital part of the project, which along with gallery design, enabled displays to reflect the historical reality of individual objects and bring them to life. For example, cassoni marriage chests are displayed at shoulder height, as they would have been seen carried in Renaissance bridal processions, and costumes are displayed on mannequins without plinths, so the viewer is directly confronted ‘face-to-face’ with a figure from the past.  She also commented on the continuing commitment of the V&A to engage new audiences, finding ways to display contentious objects, such as those with colonial origins, in contexts which reflect our modern and diverse culture and continue to give relevance to old art for future generations.

Peter Maniura (Head of Digital Development, BBC Arts) reflected on visual images as vehicles for storytelling, vital to broadcasters like the BBC. He discussed the recent reboot of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), reformatted as Civilisations (2018) with Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. Maniura observed that the new series demonstrated the changing attitudes towards art history. Whereas Clark’s version conformed to rigid parameters of what belonged inside and outside the (western) ‘canon of great art’, the new BBC series brought together the distinct perspectives of three separate academic presenters and encompassed a diverse range of source material previously excluded, to both represent and engage a modern, multicultural audience. He also discussed the associated Civilisations Festival, launched by the BBC in tandem with the series to connect local communities with their museums via 280 free public events. He outlined BBC Digital’s continuing projects to develop technology to bring the arts to a wider audience, such as the release of an augmented reality app through which users can manipulate 3D images of museum objects to access information, and #OperaPassionDay, which made live streamed performances and events from opera houses across the UK available via an interactive website. Maniura made the important point that shaping the future for old art is an urgent task to ensure that in a blizzard of visual information, the next generation will choose to engage with our respected cultural institutions.

This concern was addressed by the final speaker, Rose Aidin, whose project Art History Link-up, provides ample proof of the appetite of young people for Art History. The charitable organisation, set up in 2016/17, offers a fast-track AS Level/ Extended Project Qualification in History of Art to students aged 16-18 from state schools where Art History is not available on the curriculum. This qualification is free and requires the student to attend Saturday courses held in various partner organisations including the Wallace Collection, National Gallery and Courtauld Institute. Advertised via social media, Aidin noted that the uptake has been phenomenal, to the extent that they do not currently have enough places to support all the applicants. This fantastic programme engages a wide range of students who would otherwise have little or no access to art history education, and takes young people into museums and galleries to experience art directly. She commented on the hugely positive feedback she has had from former students about the impact of the course in developing a wide range of skills, from visual analysis to critical thinking, while also providing an accredited qualification towards their future university applications. As well as benefiting the students, Aidin noted that the courses provide valuable teaching experience for art history graduates further down the line. Currently, the project is London-based, but one might hope that our national cultural institutions may support similar regional initiatives in future.

The workshop provided a highly positive view of the future for studying old art. It illustrated the continuing importance of Art History, as well as demonstrating the variety of ways in which the discipline is developing to welcome new and diverse audiences to all aspects of visual culture. As all the speakers demonstrated, in these times of fake news and social media manipulation, the role of Arts and Humanities is ever more important as a gateway to understanding the world around us and also to provoke us to think about and question the ‘facts’ we are presented with.

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