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.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , ,

Arts Week 2018: the architectural beauty of Cook’s Camden

Kayleigh Woods Harley, project support coordinator at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, a talk delivered by Mark Swenarton. 

On a beautiful Monday evening in the sunlit Keynes Library, Mark Swenarton addressed a crowd of architecture-lovers about his recent book, Cook’s Camden: the making of modern housing. The London borough of Camden in the 1960s and 70s was awash with high rise social housing. But that began to change under borough architect Sydney Cook. While adhering to the need for high-density accommodation, the new designs under Cook were all about simplicity, efficiency and quality.

In 1968 Cook commissioned young up-and-coming architect Neave Brown with his first major housing development at Alexandra Road, just off the famous Abbey Road. Brown was disorganised in appearance when he presented his plans for the site to a large audience wearing the ‘office tie’ which Cook had conscientiously supplied for such occasions. Nevertheless, they were greeted with applause.

The Alexandra Road estate is a seminal example of this new architectural style. Parallel rows of houses are accessed from a central, pedestrianized street. All the houses face one another, to accord with Brown’s belief that children playing in the communal space would be better behaved if all the neighbours could watch them from the window. (Brown designed his own house this way too; he installed a first-floor balcony overlooking the garden, allowing the adults to supervise the children in comfort.) Shirking tradition, Brown’s interiors lack any space-wasting hallways or corridors and he instead created light-filled open-plan spaces with the flexibility of Japanese-style sliding partition walls. The quality of the build and materials was such that these homes – many of which were bought by their tenants under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme – are still highly desirable today.

Brown’s designs became popular with planners because of their economy of space, filling out the development area right up to its perimeter –like laying a carpet wall-to-wall – and other young architects were quick to pick up the gauntlet. Arguably the most beautiful council housing in the world is the Branch Hill estate. Cook handed the strict brief to Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth to build homes on newly acquired land belonging to the estate of the grand Edwardian Branch Hill Lodge. To fulfil the requirement not to build above two storeys, they designed an ingenious interlocking system of maisonettes, each with a large roof terrace overlooking the verdant grounds of the old estate. The development was a not-so-subtle statement about the repurposing of previously aristocratic-owned land for the wider public’s use, giving a snapshot into the political mindset of Cook’s department.

Sadly, when Sydney Cook retired, his grand, pioneering ideas went with him and his young talented architects lost out to their less innovative peers. The political landscape shifted to adopt less progressive notions about social housing, and the architectural style of Cook’s era waned.

Mark Swenarton’s beautiful book is a labour of love which has been ten years in the making. It is published to a high standard with gorgeous original photographs of both the exteriors and interiors of the Cook era developments and new cross-sections have been drawn to modern standards. The book has proved so popular that it is already sold out, but further copies are available to purchase directly from its publisher, Lund Humphries, with more coming back in stock over the coming months.

Kayleigh Woods Harley is a project support coordinator at Birkbeck College. She has held professional service roles at other universities such as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of St Andrews. She holds a PGCE in secondary English teaching and a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Alongside her full-time job, she reads classic literature, art history, architectural history and natural history, writes literary fiction and has an active interest in sustainability issues.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,

Arts Week 2017: Landscape and Power

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Memory Wound by Jonas Dahlberg

Those of us who signed up to the Landscape and Power lecture during Birkbeck Arts Week 2017 would have seen an arresting image posted on the event flyer. In the talk in Room BO3 of 43 Gordon Square we learn that this image is computer generated. It is of a proposed memorial, entitled ‘Memory Wound’, to the victims of the mass murder by Anders Breivik on the island of Utoya, Norway which formed part of a discussion by Joel McKim (Birbeck) on memorials and landscape. Swati Chattopadhyay (University of California Santa Barbara) also spoke on the cultural landscape of British Colonialism in Bengal, India. David Haney (University of Kent) discussed architecture and German landscape history.

We see how humans have shaped their cultural and political identity by way of landscape in a journey that  took us around the globe and through time. Chattopadhyay’s presentation focused on architecture in Lucknow in the 1850s, in particular Dilkusha Palace. Dilkusha was built in the 1800s as a hunting lodge in an English Baroque style. In 1857 it was the scene of an Indian uprising against the British, a battle which is now considered a precursor in the campaign for Indian independence. The building was damaged in the siege and later abandoned by the British and left to decay. Later on though, the gardens were replanted and nurtured, and visited by British residents and tourists. Lucknow is known as the city of gardens. It’s well documented by Victorian novelist Edith Cuthell in her book ‘My garden in the City of Gardens’.

David Haney’s presentation looked at the Nazi cultural landscape, strengthening territory through earth–rooted monuments. Haney discussed Hitler’s decentralization of Nazi power away from Nuremberg by building Order Castles, such as Ordensburg Vogelsang built in 1936 in Eifel (North Rhine-Westphalia). Ordensburg Vogelsang was primarily a training ground for Hitler youth but was also visited by working people at the weekend for moral edification. This masculine composition, based on a medieval fortress, appeared to meld into the landscape, as if it was hewn from a rock face, emerging from the soil. In truth, a great deal of state of the art Nazi technology was used during its construction. The building has since been erased and is referred to as a Third Reich ruin.

Birbeck’s Joel McKim observed that, overall, contemporary memorial design has shifted from objects to memory spaces in the landscape. This shift has come with a secularisation of memorials, away from monuments stretching towards the heavens with celestial themes. He cited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, designed by architect Maya Lin which has an edge to the earth, an open side.

Fresh Kills (kills is the Dutch word for stream) on Staten Island, formerly a landfill site visible from outerspace, is being restored as a public park in memory of 9/11.  The attack on the World Trade Centre on 9/11 represented a direct attack on home soil, a violation of the national body. In this case this memorial must have a direct relationship to the landscape. The memorial at Fresh Kills is underway, but it’s expected to take at least 30 years before completion. Matters have been further complicated because Fresh Kills is where forensic teams are sorting through remains, including human debris, from 9/11.

In 2014, Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s artwork ‘Memory Wound’ was selected as the  memorial to the Utoya massacre, whereby a 3.5 metre slit is cleaved into the Sørbråten Peninsula, pointing towards Utoya . Memory Wound signifies a wound in the landscape, within nature itself in memory of the 77 people that were killed.  The memorial is sanctioned by the Norwegian government but has given rise to serious objections from the local artistic community and residents of Utoya because of its extreme nature. Survivors of the massacre and family members have mixed views towards the memorial.

The panel members were questioned about the growth of ‘trauma tourism’ and the ethics behind it during the Q and A that followed. They agreed these memorials should invoke a sense of respect for the deceased and for their suffering. At the end of this informative discussion it was highlighted that taking selfies around these memorials is entirely inappropriate.

Sonali Jayetileke is an alumna of Birkbeck’s Certificate of  Journalism, 2012 (www.fifthplinthwriters.co.uk)

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , , ,

From the Abercrombie Plan to Abercrombie & Fitch: A cultural history of East London in an evening of films

This post was contributed by Andrew Whittaker, a local Forest Gate resident.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest in a series of workshops called “East London In Flux” organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, University of London. This was an evening of films, ranging from the postwar Abercrombie Plan to young people’ views on the Olympics, Westfield (hence the title) and their local area. The films from the 1940s were fascinating and I was surprised at how industrial London was, with rows of cranes at Tower Bridge to unload cargo ships into the warehouses lining the Thames. This was particular true in East London and the second film about West Ham described how washing hung out to dry was often made dirty again by the smoke coming either from the large factories in Stratford or the ships coming into harbour in the docks.

It was also interesting to see the changing culture of architecture over the last seventy years, from the centralised, technical-rational certainties of the 1940s through to the more fluid realities of the current day. In the first film, it was ironic to hear Abercrombie talk of his plans clearing away the ‘bad and ugly things’ of the past, when the modernist architecture of the 1960s is often regarded in a similar way. This was brought home in the Fundamental film ‘Watts the point’, which featured the demolition of a tower block in 2003 and the reactions of former tenants and local people. While such events are often viewed as a triumphant clearing away of the bad and ugly reminders of the sixties, the film captured the most complex feelings evoked in the ex-residents who had spent a significant proportion of their lives there.

One of the recurring themes of the evening was the changing nature of architecture and public involvement. We heard that there were extensive surveys done to gauge public reactions to the Abercrombie Plan in the 1940s, which was quite well-meaning and probably quite genuine. But this was public involvement done on the planners’ terms – they decided what questions to ask the public, which probably followed their own dilemmas and concerns, not those of the public.

This contrasted with the later films about young peoples’ views, which were more interesting and engaging. My two favourites were films about the ‘architecture crew’, a group of local young (13-19 years) who were interested in architecture and it’s contribution to their everyday environment. In the first film, they travelled to St Paul’s to learn more about London’s architectural past and in the second, they discussed how they had researched the history of Newham as a port and industrial area in the lead up to the Olympics. In both films, the passion, enthusiasm and curiosity of the young people came over as they learnt about the history of their city and developed a sense of ownership of the area where they lived. The films documented how they had found a voice and had been influential in major changes such as the Olympics and had obviously had a lot of fun on the way!

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,