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Dr Sarah Thomas

  • Overview



    Sarah Thomas has lectured widely in the UK and Australia. In 2001 her professional standing was recognised by the award of an Australian Government Centenary Medal for service to Australian society and art. She has taught in the History of Art department at Birkbeck since 2013. She is the inaugural Director of Birkbeck's Centre for Museum Cultures.

    Office hours

    By appointment


    • PhD, University of Sydney, 2013
    • Fellow, Higher Education Academy, 2018

    Professional activities

    Regular peer reviewer for academic journals including Art History, Journal of Historial Geography, and Atlantic Studies.

    PhD External Examiner - topics have included the colonial representation of Australian Aborigines, Australian colonial landscape painting, and aspects of curatorial practice.

    Co-convenor (with Emily Senior and Carol Jacobi) of Artist and Empire: New Directions conference, 2015.

    Honours and awards

    • Visiting Scholarship, Yale Center for British Art, November 2019
    • Postgraduate Fellowship, Paul Mellon Centre , November 2015
    • Cultural Engagement Fellowship, AHRC, November 2013
    • Research Support Grant, Paul Mellon Centre, November 2009
    • Scholarship for the Study of Prints at the British Museum, Sarah & William Holmes Foundation, University of Melbourne, November 1997
    • Centenary Medal for Services to Australian Art and Society, Australian Government, November 2001
  • Research


    Research interests

    • Art and empire
    • Slavery and visual culture
    • Art and travel
    • Museology and empire
    • Slave-ownership - cultural legacies
    • Decolonisation and museums

    Research overview

    My recent research focuses on the art history and museology of the British empire, the role and particularities of the itinerant artist, the visual representation of slavery and the cultural legacies of British slave-ownership. My monograph, 'Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in the Age of Abolition' was published by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art for Yale University Press in September 2019.

    Other publications include 'The Encounter, 1802: Art of the Flinders and Baudin Voyages' (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2002); book chapters include ‘Slaves and the spectacle of torture: British artists in the New World, 1800-1834’ and ‘Allegorizing Extinction: Humboldt, Darwin and the Valedictory Image’; journal articles such as ‘Envisaging a Future for Slavery: Agostino Brunias and the Imperial Politics of Labor and Reproduction’ (Eighteenth-Century Studies) and ‘The Spectre of Empire in the British Art Museum’ (Museum History Journal). 

    My next project is 'Slave-ownership and the Rise of the British Art Museum. It highlights the impact of slave-owners (and their families, trustees and executors) on some of Britain's key art galleries in the nineteenth century. It investigates slave-owners who were passionate connoisseurs, collectors, patrons and founders of art museums across Britain. In probing the personal and professional networks and rivalries of Britain's slave-owners in relation to British visual culture, aesthetics and taste, it explores the politics of cultural refinement. Ultimately it reveals for the first time the powerful and enduring legacies of slave-ownership on Britain's art galleries today.

    With Dr Emily Senior (English and Humanities, Birkbeck), I am guest editing a special issue of the journal Atlantic Studies: Global Currents on the subject of colonial Caribbean visual cultures (due 2021).

    Research Centres and Institutes

  • Supervision and teaching

    Supervision and teaching


    I welcome enquiries from prospective PhD students who are interested in undertaking research in any of my areas of research interest.

    Current doctoral researchers



    I currently teach on the MA Museum Cultures programme. I also lead an intensive module called 'Curating', and an MA option called 'Slavery and its Cultural Legacies'. I am the work placement tutor in the department of History of Art.

    Teaching modules

    • Museum Cultures Work Placement (ARVC054S7)
    • Museum Cultures - Approaches, Issues, Skills (ARVC059S7)
    • Slavery and its Cultural Legacies (ARVC257S7)
    • Collections Management (ARVC272S7)
    • Curating (ARVC273S7)
    • Museums in Practice (ARVC283S7)
  • Publications




    Book Section