Centre for Museum Cultures

Birkbeck, University of London

Category: Events

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