Birkbeck, University of London

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Curating Mental Health

On Monday 13 June, Anna Jamieson chaired an event titled “Curating Mental Health” for the Centre for Museum Cultures, featuring curator Clare Barlow (Science Museum) and research lead Michaela Ross (Bethlem Gallery). Key topics of discussion included the ethical and practical dilemmas that curators working in the field of the medical humanities and “mental health” face, and what other issues are at stake within these types of displays.

Clare Barlow talked about her work on the Wellcome Collection’s Being Human exhibition, which opened in 2019. First considering the various contested definitions of “mental health”, Barlow described the intensive consultation process with stakeholders, and the tensions between the medical gaze and the social model of disability, the latter proving an important curatorial framework. Also important to Barlow’s curatorial practice was creating an “emotional arc” for the visitor, providing quiet and reflective moments where visitors could feel held and secure.  Michaela Ross discussed her work as research lead at Bethlem Gallery. She drew upon her close personal ties with several artists and service-users, building upon Barlow’s discussion of the importance of trust when working with artists in exhibitions of this nature. She raised issues of care within the curatorial process, for artist, visitor and staff member alike.

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:

Watch Spit Spreads Death – The Parade:

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