Centre for Museum Cultures

Birkbeck, University of London

Blast Theory

In June 2020 we were delighted to host the artists Blast Theory for a presentation and discussion of their work on pandemics and contagion. An edited recording of the event is now available to watch online.

During the event two videos by Blast Theory were shown separately. Each video is introduced during the recording, so we recommend pausing the recording at the relevant points to watch the videos.

Watch the interview with Dr Mike Ryan: https://www.blasttheory.co.uk/pandemics-and-public-health

Watch Spit Spreads Death – The Parade: https://www.blasttheory.co.uk/projects/spit-spreads-death/

New Film of the Bakelite Museum

A new film by Fiona Candlin and the Derek Jarman Lab, ‘The Plastic Phoenix’, documents the Bakelite Museum in Somerset, which closed in 2018.

Read more about the film here.

Presented as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Weeks 2020.

Mapping Museums

Mapping Museums is a four year research project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. It is based in the Department of History of Art and the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems at Birkbeck.

The research team:

  • collected and validated data on over 4,000 museums
  • devised a new system for museum subject classification
  • designed a database that allows that information to be browsed, searched, and visualised in nuanced ways
  • analysed the data and identified patterns in the emergence, distribution, and closure of museums, produced a findings report
  • investigated trends in the data through historical and interview-based research

The project website including the database and research findings is at http://mappingmuseums.org/

Camp Coffee at Mr Straw’s House

A bottle of Camp Coffee on a shelf in Mr Straw’s House, a National Trust property in Worksop, is the starting point for this short talk by Silke Arnold-de Simine that covers colonialism, sexuality, and propaganda.

Part of Birkbeck’s Arts Weeks 2020

Jews, Money, Myth wins award

The Jewish Museum London has won the 2019 Museums Change Lives Award for Jews, Money, Myth, an exhibition developed in partnership with the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism at Birkbeck.

In May 2019 Centre for Museum Cultures hosted a discussion about the exhibition with Anthony Bale, Joanne Rosenthal, and Marc Volovici. Anthony Bale, Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck, David Feldman, Professor of History and Director of the Pears Institute, and Dr Volovici, Pears Institute Early Career Fellow, acted as academic advisors for the exhibition.

Read more about the award on Birkbeck News.

Museums and Islamic Art: Whose Culture? Whose Colony?

On 1 March the Centre for Museum Cultures hosted what proved to be an engaging and animated lecture by Wendy Shaw, Professor of the Art History of Islamic Cultures at the Free University of Berlin.

Shaw opened her talk with images of birds with multi-hued plumes preserved in their thousands at a natural history museum in Berlin, describing the systematic collection of thousands of creatures culled from various parts of the world and now housed in a form of feathered purgatory. She described the cabinet storage and display strategies designed for the delectation of the western gaze as the entombment of dead objects in the museum.

The speaker drew parallels between the collection, categorisation, curation and display of these artefacts and the processes that now define Islamic art in the museum space. She observed the lingering presence of Hegelian approaches to the production of history, and specifically art history, in modern curatorial practices. Hegel’s Philosophy of History in particular, a lecture series given in alternating years starting in 1823 delineated, she explained, a vision of history that naturalises empire, emphasising the racial and geographical superiority of the West over the East, and of Protestant Christianity over everything else.

Highlighting the colonial legacies of museums, Shaw noted that the acquisition and categorisation of objects had been carried out without an understanding of the cultures concerned. Pointing to the mismatch between the original purposes of collections of material artefacts and the manner of their display today, she underlined the necessity of acknowledging and critiquing Hegel’s legacy within the museum context. No number of contemporary exhibitions or the rewriting of museum narratives can change these structures of empire that remain embedded within the episteme she contended, arguing that the decolonisation of minds can only be achieved by the rewriting of institutional structures, not merely words.

Shaw noted that while the category of Islamic Art emerged largely in Germanic art historical discourse, with the emigration of several of its proponents to the United States the essentialist biases of several writers, curators and critics began to shape the ways in which Islamic art has been understood in the ‘West’. She argued that through these practices, and the processes of modernity, such material objects – now absorbed within notions of a ‘universal’ language of art – were effectively rendered silent. Raising the question of how to recover the voices of such worlds, Shaw problematised the development of contemporary exhibition strategies. A lively exchange of views and questions followed the lecture.

Dr Vazken Davidian

Dr Davidian recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck on the subject of The Figure of the Bantoukhd Hamal of Constantinople: Late Nineteenth-Century Representations of Migrant Workers from Ottoman Armenia.

A curator’s tour of Gainsborough’s Family Album

The Museum Cultures group at Gainsborough's Family Album with Dr. Lucy Peltz

The Museum Cultures group with Dr. Lucy Peltz (right)

On a grey Monday evening in December, a small group was treated to a private tour of the warmth and colour of Gainsborough’s Family Album, the latest show at the National Portrait Gallery. Including paintings never seen in public before, the exhibition includes almost all of Gainsborough’s paintings of members of his family.

Dr Lucy Peltz, an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck and curator of the show alongside David Solkin, guided us through the different rooms of the exhibition with an illuminating commentary on the paintings and their sitters. Lucy also discussed the work involved behind the scenes, with considerations ranging from the different possibilities for arranging the paintings to the selection of wall colours, and the considerable work involved in arranging loans. Despite six years of planning, last-minute adjustments still had to be made when a painting of Gainsborough’s wife Margaret – first sought years earlier – surfaced just weeks before the show opened.

This ‘Meet the Curator’ event was organised by the research centre. Find out about forthcoming events and to be notified in advance, sign up for the mailing list.


Mark Liebenrood

Design for a Nation – Tristram Hunt’s lecture at Senate House

Tristram Hunt lectures at Senate House on Design for a Nation

Tristram Hunt lectures at Senate House. Photo by Mark Liebenrood

As part of the fiftieth anniversary of Birkbeck’s History of Art department, we welcomed Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, for a lecture at Senate House. He began by outlining the museum’s origins in the nineteenth-century design school movement, such as the Government School of Design once based at Somerset House, and the Museum of Manufacture. The spur to the creation of the South Kensington museum, the forerunner of the V&A, was the Great Exhibition of 1851, which aimed to celebrate ingenuity and imagination. That purpose continues today, with around 38% of the V&A’s visitors coming from the creative industries.

The aims of the South Kensington Museum were in part to perpetuate the 1851 Exhibition. Its first show was a display of bad taste, with the purpose of educating the public to make better aesthetic choices. Dr. Hunt wondered whether such an exhibition would get the green light today. He went on to discuss the V&A’s role in education more generally. It has its roots in such radical educators as Gottfried Semper, an associate of Henry Cole and once a lecturer at the Government School of Design. It also has links with Birkbeck’s foundations as a place of education for technical workers. The V&A holds works by Richard Burchett, a student at the Birkbeck Mechanics’ Institute who went on to become a tutor at the Design School. The V&A’s collections were also themselves used as teaching aids. After the Queen loaned the Raphael cartoons to the museum, every student at the Royal College of Art would go there to draw from them.

The collections are growing continually. Some of the most recent acquisitions are a 3D-printed gun, a Burqini, and a Jeremy Corbyn T-shirt. Some acquisitions attract considerable criticism, and Hunt defended the museum’s decision to collect part of the Robin Hood Gardens housing estate. The acquisition was widely criticised, both on the grounds that Brutalism was not worth collecting, and also that the V&A was effectively condoning the destruction of social housing. Hunt pointed out that the V&A has always collected domestic interiors, and the museum would be neglecting its duties as a museum of design were it not to have collected a signature example of Brutalist architecture.

The V&A is expanding to new locations, and the lecture was given just over a month after the opening of V&A Dundee, already attracting large numbers of visitors. Dr. Hunt looked to the future, with V&A East in London’s Olympic Park planned in collaboration with the Smithsonian, and Here East, a project to relocate the museum’s storage facilities to East London with plans for provision to allow some degree of public access to those collections not normally on view.

As Hunt ruefully acknowledged, Brexit presents a big challenge. The rural/urban divide that the Brexit vote highlighted is an encouragement to the V&A to lend more widely across the UK, and that lending is also a response to the collapse in funding for local authority museums. He also pointed to the drastic fall in take-up of arts and technology subjects at GCSE, and highlighted an initiative to lend to regional museums specifically to support GCSE teaching of art and design subjects. The Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green is also due for a revamp, and the project is being planned in collaboration with local schoolchildren.

In conclusion, Tristram Hunt summed up the role of the museum in challenging times: championing cosmopolitanism, maintaining a trusted factual basis of knowledge in the public sphere when ‘post-truth’ is a growing phenomenon, continuing its role of museum as educator, and not least celebrating wonder and beauty in art and design.


Mark Liebenrood

Amazonia in Berlin: Reanimating the Museum

Symposium on co-curating ethnographic collections in the new Amazonian gallery at the Humboldt Forum


Luciana Martins

From 11 to 13 October 2018, indigenous and non-indigenous researchers and curators gathered at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin to discuss the opportunities and challenges of co-curating ethnographic collections in the new Amazonian gallery at the Humboldt Forum, due to open in 2019. During three days of unexpectedly hot and sunny weather, participants remained indoors debating intensely key questions: How can museum collections be more openly available to indigenous researchers? How can collections from Amazonia be appropriately preserved? What are the potentialities and drawbacks of digital knowledge bases? What is the value of historic collections to contemporary indigenous peoples? How can educational experiences based on objects in Amazonia be connected to public engagement activities in Berlin? What are the advantages and risks of using audio-visual resources to enable the visualization and circulation of ways of making, using and understanding artefacts? What is the role of mediating institutions (universities, NGOs, etc) in establishing collaborative research projects with museums and source communities, and what are their pitfalls? What is the role of community museums and how can the Berlin Museum work collaboratively with them?

Sharing their experiences, ideas and reflections (in Spanish, Portuguese and German), participants discussed collaborative projects involving indigenous communities in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico, with museums and universities in Germany, the UK and US. What became evident was the dynamism of the indigenous initiatives and their willingness to reconnect with the collections in European and North American museums. These initiatives aimed to reanimate museum artefacts through a revalorization of their respective ways of knowing and inhabiting the world. For indigenous communities, such artefacts are relevant to the extent that, through them, and their associated documentation, the languages, chants, and ancestral knowledge are reactivated, becoming a catalyst for strengthening their social, environmental and cultural heritage. Recognition of their rights to auto-representation is key to a successful cross-cultural exchange. While the asymmetries of power reflected in the making of the collections are clearly still present in varying degrees, the symposium showed that building bridges is still possible, and much desired. Concluding with the “dance of the moths,” a performance which celebrated the transformational possibilities of transatlantic crossings, the main message of this event was that cross-cultural dialogue is central to the process of displaying historic ethnographic collections. Dr Andrea Scholz, the Humboldt Forum curator who organised this symposium, is to be commended for her openness and determination to enable other voices to be heard. While the City Palace that will house the Humboldt Forum has generated considerable controversy, let us hope that its displays reflect the novel curatorial practices discussed at this symposium.

Participants at conference on Amazonia in Berlin. Photo @ Natalia Paiva

Workshop participants. Photo © Natalia Paiva