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Professor Annie E. Coombes

  • Overview




    Annie E. Coombes is Professor of Material and Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art and Founding Director of the Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck, University of London. Previous roles at Birkbeck have included, Director of Postgraduate Studies (2002 to 2005) and Head of the School of History of Art, Film and Screen Media (2005 to 2008), appointing six new members of academic staff, and overseeing the development of the Birkbeck Cinema and the transformation of the School during a period of major restructuring.

    Coombes has been awarded numerous Visiting Professorships internationally including Carleton University, Ottawa (2013); the Advanced Cultural Studies Institute of Sweden (ACSIS), Norrkoping University (2009); Distinguished Mary Jane Crowe Professor at Northwestern University (2002); Australian National University, Humanities Research Centre (1999).

    Prior to her appointment to Birkbeck, Coombes taught history of art and critical theory to Fine Art and History of art students at Goldsmiths College (Fine Art Department); Portsmouth Polytechnic (Fine Art Department); Middlesex University (Critical Cultural Theory) and University College London (History of Art Department).

    Her long-standing engagement with critical art practice and theory led to her founding the Peltz Gallery at 43 Gordon Square in 2013 with the aim of fostering collaborative interdisciplinary research between artists and academics. She directed the Gallery for 8 years (from 2013 to 2021) and oversaw the installation and curation of over 47 exhibitions and an associated programme of public events. During her tenure the Peltz developed a reputation for exhibitions which engaged critically with challenging political and human rights issues for example exile, migration, asylum and genocide.

    Consequently, alongside her research on colonial histories and its legacies, Coombes has always written on the work of contemporary artists whose practice expands our understanding of the epistemic violence of colonialism and its affect for example, Carrie Mae Weems (2010); Joy Gregory (1998); Sonia Boyce (1994); Tony Phillips (2015); Syowia Kyambi (2014); Berni Searle (2003, 2001); Senzeni Marasela (2003); Penny Siopis (2003, 1996) Lisa Reihana and Brook Andrew (2006).

    Coombes was the recipient of the first Lisa and Robert Sainsbury PhD Studentship at the University of East Anglia, in what is now the Department of World Art Studies and she was lucky enough to be able to audit an early iteration of Professor John Picton’s MA in African Art at SOAS.  This early training encouraged her to seek work opportunities on the African continent and in 1981 she took up a post as teacher in government secondary schools in the Democratic Republic of the Sudan on the eve of the 1983 civil war. That experience, the lessons she learnt from her Sudanese pupils and their families and the tensions and contradictions she was forced to confront over this period, were formative in refining her research interests on the legacies of cultures of colonialism in the present. It became the basis of her long-standing research engagement with history, heritage and art practice relating to the African Continent (South Africa, Kenya, South Sudan, Nigeria) beginning with the publication of Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and Popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Yale UP, 1994) - the first book to engage critically with the violent histories of the looting of the Benin ‘bronzes’ in 1897 and the responses to these actions both in Britain and on the African continent. Subsequent research involved years of archival and field research in the wake of the first democratic election in South Africa, working towards History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (Duke UP, 2003) which won the 2004 Book Award from the National Council on Public History. In 2009 Coombes began work in Kenya (with Lotte Hughes and Karega-Munene) researching how grassroots local Community Peace Museums (CPMs) were mobilising material culture and heritage as tools for conflict resolution in the wake of post-election violence, sometimes at odds with other regional and national museums within Kenya during a critical period when the dominant narratives of a new national history were being hotly debated in public culture.   The generosity of many veterans both Mau Mau (Kenyan resistance fighters in the war against British occupation) and Home Guard (those Kenyans who had fought with the British colonial forces) who agreed to work with us on in-depth interviews and life story work, helped us to better understand the relationship between the post-election violence and the legacy of the violent colonial histories under British rule prior to independence in 1963. The results of our research, funded by a major AHRC Collaborative Research grant, became Managing Heritage, Making Peace: History, Identity and Memory in Contemporary Kenya (I.B. Tauris, 2014).
    Recent Honours, Awards and Keynotes:
    In June 2019 Professor Coombes’ research on monuments, museums and memorialisation was honoured by being the focus (jointly with the work of Professor Kasri Jain, Univ. of Toronto) of a two-day international conference at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies at the University of Heidelberg jointly convened with the Department of History at Duke University.
    In October 2019 Coombes’ contribution to decolonizing art history was celebrated in the lecture series ‘Decolonizing Arts Histories’ at the University of Plymouth with a Public Lecture: ‘Decolonizing the Monument: Rethinking the Memorial’.
    In June and July 2018 Coombes was part of an International Expert Delegation speaking in a series of public panels in Australia as part of the ‘Remembrance and Resistance Memorialisation Forum’ convened by Professor Marcia Langton (University of Melbourne) and Brook Andrew (Monash University) to set up protocols for a new monument to Indigenous Australians to commemorate those massacred in the Frontier Wars and subsequently.
    June 2018 Keynote Address: ‘Making Memorials Matter: Remembering Atrocity’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, at the conference ‘Confronting the Frontier War: International Perspectives’ on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Colony: Australia 1770-1861/ Colony: Frontier Wars’.
    November 2017 Keynote Address: ‘Exhibiting the Post-Colony: Africa in the World and the World in Africa’ at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, conference ‘Decolonizing Sites of Culture in Africa and Beyond’.

    March 2017 Independent Academic Expert participant in the Benin Dialogue Group meeting at University of Cambridge, Trinity College to promote discussion on the future of works of art looted by British colonial forces in 1897 from Benin City, Nigeria, with members of the Royal Court of Benin and the Nigerian Council of Monuments and Museums together with European Museum Director members of the Benin Dialogue Group.
    In 2014 & 2013 'Expert Advisor' to the African Union Human Rights Memorial Project (AUHRMP) in conjunction with the African Union, the NGO Justice Africa and the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience together with international human rights experts and peace museum curators from throughout the African Continent.


    Administrative responsibilities

    • Programme Director MA Museum Cultures

    Professional activities

    Editorial Advisory Board, De Arte, University of South Africa (UNISA) Press, Pretoria, South Africa. (2011 to date)

    Editorial Board, Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research, Linköping University, Sweden (2008 to date).

    Executive Advisory Board, Critical Interventions: Journal of African Art History and Visual Culture, UCLA Santa Barbara, USA. (2007 to date)

    Editorial Board, Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture, (2000 to 2013).

    Editorial Collective, Feminist Review (1996 to 2005).

    Editorial Collective, The Oxford Art Journal (1989 to 2002).

    Editorial Board (Founding Member), Journal of Design History (1989-1991).

    Professional memberships

    • Member Arts Council of the African Studies Association (USA)

    • International Council of Museums, UK

    Honours and awards

    • Winner of honourable mention in the 1995 Arnold Rubin Outstanding Publication Awards for books on African Art published between 1992 and 1994 for Reinventing Africa: Museums, Material Culture and popular Imagination in Late Victorian and Edwardian England (Yale University Press, 1994), Arts Council of African Studies Association , April 1995
    • Inaugural Book Prize for the National Council on Public History (USA) for History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (Duke University Press, 2003 & Wits University Press, 2004)., National Council on Public History (USA), April 2004
  • Research


    Research overview

    Professor Coombes is an art and cultural historian specializing in the history of the material and visual culture of British colonialism and the impact of its legacy in public culture in the present (for example in ethnographic and world art museums; memorials and monuments). She focusses particularly on the African continent (Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) and in former so-called 'settler' societies (see Coombes ed., Rethinking 'Settler' Colonialism: History and Memory in Australia, Canada, Aotearoa New Zealand and South Africa, Studies in Imperialism series, Manchester University Press, 2006) 

    Because of her writing and research on the limitations and possibilities of how museum narratives represent colonial histories and indigenous experience (for a more recent example see Coombes and Phillips eds., Museum Transformations: Decolonisation and Democratisation, Wiley 2015) Coombes has been invited to participate in a number of advisory roles in connection with the redesign of international museums and specialist exhibitions including at the British Museum in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust; at the Centre Georges Pompidou during debates concerning the mission of the Quai Branly and in relation to a number of international exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery, Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Currently she is a participant in advisory workshops on the 'Heritage collection' for the new Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria, led by the Legacy Restoration Trust (April 2021).

    Her current research is concerned with the development of a number of new museums on the African continent including Musee des Civilizations Noires (Senegal); National Museum of Togo, Palais de Lome (Togo); EMOWAA (Nigeria). Of particular interest to her is the extent to which these new museums might offer insights for European museums, into ways of engaging a range of local and international publics with radically differing agendas and needs.

    In recognition of her research into different methods for memorialising violent and traumatic histories, her advocacy interests in relation to gender and development and her concern with issues of transitional justice and human rights she is often invited to contribute in an expert advisory capacity to public memorialisation projects. In 2013 Coombes was the ‘Invited Expert’ for the African Union Human Rights Memorial Project at the African Union Headquarters at Addis Ababa and again in 2014 at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg in conjunction with the NGO Justice Africa and international human rights experts from the African continent, to decide on a memorial in the aftermath of genocide and other contemporary and historical atrocities on the African Continent. 

    In 2018 she was invited as part of a small international delegation to participate in discussions for establishing protocols for a new monument to Indigenous Australians to commemorate the victims and survivors of massacres during the colonial period and subsequently (the Remembrance and Resistance Memorialisation Forum organised by historian Professor Marcia Langton and artist Brook Andrew).

    Between 2016 to 2018 she was an Advisory Board member to the AHRC network grant: 'South Sudan Museums Network: Connecting the Arts and Heritage of South Sudan in European Museums'.

    Another strand of Coombes' research falls within Medical Humanities: in South Africa she has been researching contributions made by women’s collaborative initiatives, in a variety of contexts from fine art to community and therapeutic health projects. Of special interest is the interface between the critical engagement of artists and cultural workers on the one hand, and local community-based initiatives world-wide on the other, in the struggle to produce meaningful and effective tools in the fight against HIV/AIDS pandemic. Coombes was a member of Friends of Treatment Action Campaign (London) supporting one of South Africa's leading HIV/AIDS advocacy organisations in the fight for the public distribution of antiretrovirals. (See Coombes, 'Positive Living: Visual Activism and Art inn HIV/AIDS Rights Campaigns', Journal of Southern African Studies Special Issue: HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa: Gender, Art and Activism, Vol. 45(1), 2019).

    Selected Grants:

    2016 Wellcome Trust/ Birkbeck Institutional Strategic Fund (Public Engagement).

    2015-2016 Wellcome Trust Small Grant in Medical Humanities.

    From 2008 to 2011 Coombes was sole Co-Investigator on a large Arts and Humanities Research Council Collaborative Research Grant (for 'Managing Heritage, Building Peace: Museums, Memorialisation and the Uses of Memory in Kenya').

    She has previously been the recipient of a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship and an Arts and Humanities Research Fellowship.

    Research Centres and Institutes

  • Supervision and teaching

    Supervision and teaching


    Areas of research supervision include:

    • colonial, post-colonial and diaspora visual culture in Britain, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Australia
    • monuments and memorialisation in the aftermath of atrocity
    • international and colonial exhibitions
    • museum and heritage studies
    • contemporary art practice

    Currently supervising:

    Three students working on a range of research topics from a history of contemporary art in Martinique; the practice of South African photographer George Hallett and problems arising from commemorating sites of atrocity in the US and UK.

    Previously supervised and successfully completed PhD students giving date of award and subsequent posts:

    • January 2015: Dr. Naomi Roux - South African, fully-funded Oppenheimer Studentship and ORS, Re-making the Urban: Memory and Spatial Transformation in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Mellon Research Fellowship on LSE ‘Cities and the Humanities’ Research Programme (awarded November 2014 for 9 mths). University of Cape Town Post-Doctoral Fellowship (awarded September 2015 for 12 months ).
    • October 2013: Dr. Doreen Weppler-Grogan, Cuban Visual Arts: Cultural Policy, Politics and Cubanía. On graduating went on to become Co-Ordinator, Voices for the Five, in support of the Case of the Cuban Five. International Commission of Inquiry into the Case of the Cuban Five.
    • June 2013: Dr. Yvette Tshamay Mutumba, (Re)-Presentations, Receptions, Expectations: Contemporary Art by Artists from Africa and the Diaspora in a German Context 1960 to 2011. On graduating went on to become Research Curator for Africa, Weltkulturen Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
    • June 2012 (with Dr. Hilary Sapire, Dept. of History, Birkbeck): Dr. Sarah Longair, ‘A Gracious Temple of Learning’: The Museum and Colonial Culture in Zanzibar, 1900-1945. On graduating went on to become British Museum, Faculty Member, Learning and Audiences Department.
    • February 2009: Dr. Yair Wallach, Readings in Conflict: Public Texts in Modern Jerusalem 1858-1948. On graduating went on to become Pears Lecturer in Israeli Studies, Department of the languages and Cultures of the near and Middle East, SOAS, University of London; Chair of the Centre for Jewish Studies and Member of the Centre for Palestinian Studies at SOAS.
    • October 2004: Dr. Deborah Challis, Collecting Classics: The Reception of Classical Antiquities in Public Museums in England from 1830 – 1890. On graduating went on to become Audience Development Officer, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College, London.
    • February 2003: Dr. Gabriel Koureas, ‘Unconquerable Manhood’: Memory, Masculinity and the Commemoration of the First World War in British Visual Culture 1914-1930. On graduating went on to become Lecturer in Contemporary Visual Culture, Department of History of Art, Birkbeck, University of London (currently Senior Lecturer).

    Find out more about doing a research degree in the department.

    Current doctoral researchers


    Doctoral alumni



    Specialist option module on the MA History of Art and the MA Museum Cultures: 'Curating Difficult Histories: Museums, Exhibitions and Art Activism' focussing on South Africa.

    Core lectures on MA Museum Cultures core course, 'Approaches, Issues, Skills'.

    MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures Dissertation and Research Project supervision.

    Module Director and lecturer, '"Race", Ethnicity and Nation' which focuses on the representation of 'race' in 1950s film culture in British cinema and Black and Asian British cinema  in the 1980s for BA 'Art and Society in the Twentieth Century.

    Teaching modules

    • Curating Difficult Histories: Museums, Exhibitions, Art Activism (AHVM064S7)
  • Publications




    Book Section



  • Business and community

    Business and community


    September/October 2017: Curator of the exhibition, 'Sunil Gupta: In Pursuit of Love', Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck, University of London.

    Podcast. July 2015: Commemorating 7/7
    On the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, John Timberlake (artist) and Dr. Gabriel Koureas, Senior Lecturer, Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture, Birkbeck, were joined by Philip Nelson, Chair of the Tavistock Square Memorial Trust and others to discuss how art and architecture help us remember and memorialise such tragic events. The discussion was chaired by Professor Annie E Coombes, Director of the Peltz Gallery. Watch the discussion.

    Podcast. May 2015: World Museums: Geographies and Genealogies. Professor Annie E. Coombes and Professor Anthony Shelton in Dailogue
    This HARC Dialogues event focussed on the idea of the world museum, as expressed originally in the concept of the universal or encyclopaedic museum, and reinvented for the twenty-first century in museums of world cultures: the world, its peoples and their objects, brought under one roof. What does it mean to define the remit and audiences of museums as global? Does it matter where museums are located? What obligations do world museums have to local, national, diasporic or displaced populations? How should world museums deal with difficult and dissonant heritage? What is the relationship between the world museum and world heritage?
    Listen to all talks

    November 2015/ January 2016: Curator of the exhibition, 'Positive Living: Art and AIDS in South Africa', Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck, University of London.

    October 2014: Curator of the exhibition, 'Biography of an Archive: The June Givanni Pan-African Archive', Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck, University of London.

    PodcastJuly 2013: Keynote Lecture: Making a Difference: Ethnographic Interventions from the Post Colony - part of The Future of Ethnographic Museums conference hosted by the Pitt Rivers Museum and Keble College, University of Oxford. Listen to the talk.

    March 2012, Consultant curator tasked with purchase of major South African historic and contemporary print collection for the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge. Purchase funded by the Art Fund ('Renew' programme)

    1992:Writer, researcher and presenter of 'The Colonial Encounter' Television Programme for BBC TV Open University third level course: A316 Modern Art: Practices and Debates, 1992 (re-issued in 2003 and subsequently) (transmitted on French, German, South African, US, Finnish, Greek, Spanish television among others).