7th-8th May 2014, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
This seems in many ways my ideal first contribution to reports and reviews for the ‘Bilderfahrzeuge’ blog. The conference took place a couple of weeks into the new project here but also took me back to the familiar haunts the University of Birmingham, where I did my MA and PhD studies. The conference was kindly hosted by the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, an art and numismatic collection which maintains close links with academic research and teaching. It was also where for a short period in 2013 I worked as curator of the numismatic exhibition, ‘Faith and Fortune: visualizing the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage’, alongside my friend and colleague, Daniel Reynolds. The exhibition is open until January 2015 so if you are in the Midlands, take a look!
We were invited to speak at the ‘Curating Art History’ conference as a result of this exhibition, which in addition to taking place at the Barber Institute, has attracted attention in the world of numismatics for its approach to displaying and interpreting coins (and here). Dan and I presented together on ‘Exhibiting coins as economic artefacts’. Both of us come from backgrounds in history and archaeology, rather than art history (though we have both come to use art historical approaches and visual evidence heavily). ‘Faith and Fortune’ was also our first curatorial experience so we were delighted to discover that many of the themes of our paper (such as how much and what context to provide for objects) were at the forefront of many other papers and debates.
The programme included a diverse range of papers from ‘Post-humanist desire’ and the problems of curating impermanent art to discussions of new projects presenting, curating and engaging with art. The ‘Art Detective’ project, for example, has currently made freely available online digitized copies of over 200,000 paintings from collections across Britain. It also hosts discussions of paintings involving academics, professionals and members of the public. It was developed in response to the shrinking number of professional art historians available to work with public and museum collections. In this respect it echoed the interests of a project with which I have become involved through ‘Faith and Fortune’, the Money and Medals Network, which seeks to address the similar shortfall of professional expertise in numismatics.
Experiments with format included a panel discussion on the topic of the AHRC Iconoclasms Network and associated exhibition, ‘Art Under Attack: histories of British Iconoclasm’ at Tate Britain from 2nd October 2013 to 5th January 2014. Despite the range of subjects, clear organization into themed panels gave the conference coherence and resulted in lively discussions throughout. Perhaps the most challenging issue discussed was that of the keynote address and first panel, on ‘Ethnography and curating native art’, which could have benefitted from more explicit definitions or discussions of the terms involved. Nevertheless, it raised important debates and presented the work of University of Birmingham students who had the wonderful opportunity to work with the National Portrait Gallery on the exhibition ‘George Catlin: American Indian Portraits’ (7th March-23rd June 2013) to provide interpretation for visitors and research the paintings and historical context of the artist.
For me the conference provided an opportunity to see friends and colleagues at Birmingham and to share news about the start of this project and to reflect on the things I carry into it from my experiences at Birmingham. Curating ‘Faith and Fortune’ in particular, has deeply impacted upon my response to visual sources and my thoughts about the role of academic research and public engagement in ways which I look forward to developing here in London. It also generated links to projects I was not previously aware of and there is a possibility that some of the papers will end up in print. If they do I hope that, like this conference, they will constitute a fascinating contribution to ongoing discussions about display as part of the research process and the relationship between academic and public space.