The Development of Research/Curate – Curating Art History: dialogues between museum professionals and academics

The annual History of Art colloquium held at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham in May 2014 played a key part in shaping the Research Curate network as it currently stands. Below is an overview of the colloquium and its key contributions.

On 7th – 8th May 2014, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, hosted the annual History of Art colloquium that was organised by postgraduate students Erin Shakespeare, Faith Trend, Jamie Edwards and Lauren Dudley, with the kind support of Dr Camilla Smith and the Journal of Art Historiography. The organisers selected a range of papers from speakers with varied backgrounds and invited respondents to each panel in order to help bring the papers together. The day was organised into the following panels: Ethnography and Curating Native Art, Knowledge Exchange and Development, and Exhibitions that Challenge Curatorial Practice and Art History. The final session included two case studies, the Barber’s exhibition, Faith and Fortune, Visualising the Divine on Byzantine and Early Islamic Coinage, and a round table discussion with members of an AHRC-funded research network.

Ethnography and Curating Native Art

Professor Catherine de Lorenzo from the University of New South Wales, Australia, delivered the key-note speech. She explored the ways in which Aboriginal art exhibitions at the National Gallery and regional museums have shaped Australian art history and also touched upon the Australia exhibition at London’s Royal Academy in 2013. Her co-authored article ‘1968-2008: Curated exhibitions and Australian art history’ explored some of the ideas discussed in the paper.

Helen Shaw (University of York) followed with a discussion of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Native American art. She proposed that the museum space should be considered as a contact zone or site of dialogue for the re-appropriation of ethnographic discourse. Dr Sadiah Quereshi (University of Birmingham) and her student Shamima Aktar talked about their project work with the National Portrait Gallery as a means of exploring the artist George Catlin’s role in Native American art history.

In response to the papers, Nicola Kalinsky, Director of the Barber Institute, considered the impact of exhibitions within museum culture and the relationship between the institution and its audience, invoking delegates to think about the function of museums, as well as visitor expectations.

Knowledge Exchange and Development

Andrew Ellis, Director of the Public Catalogue Foundation (PCF), presented on Art Detective – a project which aims to increase knowledge of oil paintings in public collections through a network of experts and in collaboration with the general public. Unlike an individual collection, the PCF is concerned with all works in public ownership which offers new avenues for research.

Karen Raney, editor of engage Journal (2000-2015), highlighted the fluidity of discussions made possible outside of traditional curator- or academic-led research within their respective institutions. Taking the example of a recent article published in engage, Karen considered the museum as a tool for artists. Grayson Perry curated an exhibition which included objects from the British Museum’s collection and he installed his own work alongside them in order to challenge visitor expectations about the museum as an institution of knowledge and truth.

Director of Culture and Engagement and Research and Cultural Collections Clare Mullett’s response highlighted the importance of networks, as exemplified by the Art Detective project and engage Journal, noting that each benefited from cross-sector and interdisciplinary exchanges of knowledge in order to shape research and education in museums.

Exhibitions that Challenge Curatorial Practice and Art History

Dr Ming Turner (formerly of National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan and now Lecturer in Demontfort University, Leicester) explored the question of bringing new subject matter to a museum audience, discussing the academic rigour involved in curating the exhibition Post-Humanist Desire – a show that challenged traditional museum practice while also furthering scholarly debate.

Vera Carmo (University of Coimbra, Portugal) considered examples of works or exhibits destroyed by the artist as expressions of their rejection of the museum, while also suggesting that re-display was part of the creative process. Elin Morgan (University of Birmingham) presented a paper on her role as curator of the centenary exhibition commemorating Sir Jacob Epstein’s destruction, rather than the creation, of his iconic Rock Drill sculpture provided an apt case study for the questions posed by Vera’s paper. Her paper demonstrated the importance of site in relation to interpretation of the work. The exhibition will be hosted by The New Art Gallery Walsall, home to the Garman Ryan Collection that was donated by Epstein’s wife and is made up of a large body of Epstein’s work. By exploring the destruction of the sculpture within the context of the Garman Ryan collection, a different kind of authenticity to that normally promulgated by museums is considered.

Professor Richard Woodfield (editor of the Journal of Art Historiography) responded by suggesting that a history of artists, rather than art, might resolve some of the questions regarding ethics. Indeed, art historical research often provides various levels of interpretation relating to the individual work of art and, indeed, the wider context in which it was produced. However, the museum re-signifies individual works into a wider collection and, as suggested by Vera, its re-exhibition is part of the creative process.

Dr Rebecca Darley (formerly Warburg Institute, now Birkbeck, University of London) and Dr Daniel Reynolds (University of Birmingham) discussed the challenges of curating a numismatic display within a gallery predominantly dedicated to fine art. The lack of space assigned to coin exhibitions in museums is perhaps indicative of the precedence of aesthetic over historical subject matter. As a university collection, the numismatic display at the Barber Institute has a clear pedagogical purpose with a level of interpretation provided that is rarely given to fine art displays. This format begs questions regarding how to display fine art. For instance, is a chronological representation with minimal textual interpretation the most useful method of display for visitors and university students?

Finally, members of an AHRC Iconoclasms network, Professor Richard Clay (Newcastle University), Professor Leslie Brubaker (University of Birmingham), Dr Stacy Boldrick (Leicester University), Simon Cane (Executive Director, University College London Culture), Dr Henry Chapman (University of Birmingham) and Lauren Dudley (University of Birmingham) talked about their project work and collaboration with Tate Britain in the planning of the exhibition Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm. Like Andrew Ellis and Karen Raney, the panel demonstrated the success of cross-disciplinary dialogues in producing new scholarship. Art Under Attack challenged visitors by offering an original perspective on Tate Britain’s own collection. The exhibition aimed to show that iconoclasm is integral to the history of art and contemporary art practice.

Dr Jutta Vinzent (University of Birmingham) closed the discussion by referring to Bruno Latour’s concept of closed and open connections, suggesting, I think, that each paper had its individual merits, but that, within the forum of the colloquium new questions could be raised, and in this way, we hope that both speakers and delegates enjoyed the event.

These fascinating discussions led to the creation of Research/Curate, and through our online platform and Recur magazine we hope to continue some of the debates which the colloquium had raised.