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Thursday, 24 May 2018

News from New Orleans

News from New Orleans: The Renaissance Society of America Conference 2018

The Renaissance Society of America organises the largest annual international conference in the field of Renaissance studies, bringing together historians working across disciplines on the period 1300-1700. Held in New Orleans this year, the conference offered a stimulating blend of new research in the field, networking events, book fairs and museum visits. I hold an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA) with Oxford Brookes and the National Gallery, where I study the relationship between painting and other media in the work of the Venetian artist, Carlo Crivelli (c.1430-c.1494). With generous support from Brookes, I was able to attend the conference and present some ideas I had been exploring recently in my research.

 My panel, organised by Ashley Elston and Madeline Rislow, was entitled ‘Hybridity in Late Medieval and Early Modern Art’. In my paper, I discussed various ways in which Crivelli asks the viewer to compare painting to other media, such as metalwork, sculpture and textiles, as a way of challenging our expectations of what a painting is. He does this, for example, by borrowing the materials and techniques of metalwork, painting sculptural creations that would be impossible in stone, or drawing on the aesthetic qualities of tapestries. Painting’s ability to encompass many arts, and indeed to surpass them, was a way not only of championing this materially-humble medium, but also of suggesting an analogy with divine creation, an idea that was posed by the philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa in a sermon delivered in 1440. By showing the same painted detail in paint, and then in raised gesso, rope, wood or glass, Crivelli encourages the viewer to meditate upon matter transformed at the hand of the painter, and by extension, at the hand of God, who made Christ incarnate. The question asked by a member of the audience – how does Crivelli’s play on materials differ from Andrea Mantegna’s? – has reminded me of how useful it is to juxtapose Crivelli’s practice with that of his Paduan colleague. For although both are interested in the possibilities of painting and the paragone,or comparison, with sculpture, Crivelli takes his analogies in new directions by incorporating elements in relief.

It was interesting to situate my own work alongside that of other speakers, especially Ashley Elston, who discussed the interaction between painting and sculpture in early modern Italian art. Ashley presented many examples in which painting and sculpture are interdependent, raising questions about the sacred dimension of media, as well as the validity of our modern categories for works of art. The range of papers in my panel demonstrated that hybridity in art can be not only medial, but also temporal, stylistic and even experiential, brought about by circumstances such as the restoration of objects through time, the wide-ranging sources of itinerant artists, and the multivalent roles of single objects.  

Other panels I attended led me to conclude that current research trends in the field of Italian Renaissance art are characterised by a focus on the agency of the object and the viewer, as well as materials and their meanings. This was especially evident in the sessions entitled ‘New Approaches to Italian Quattrocento Sculpture’, in which issues such as framing devices, theories of relief and the slippery boundaries between creating idols and representations, were addressed. It was interesting that many of the questions raised in these sessions could be applied just as easily to sculpture as they could to painting. It also suggested that there might be an interested audience for my own research on Carlo Crivelli, which applies a range of methodologies, including technical, theoretical and contextual, which are traditionally treated separately. This approach opens new possibilities for research into objects and artists that do not fit neatly within the confines of our current art-historical categories, or for which little documentary evidence exists. 

The three-day conference also offered many chances to meet others active in the field. I met Tim McCall from Villanova University, who works on the representation of clothing in Italian Renaissance painting, and who discussed Crivelli’s attentiveness to the materials and logics of contemporary fashion in a previous paper at RSA. McCall’s consideration of how Crivelli gives a sense of the contingent, changeable nature of fabric, its texture and colour, as it is experience in actuality, has informed my own work on the relationship between reality and fiction in Crivelli’s paintings. I also met scholars from the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) in Washington, where I will be moving from September for 8 months to work at the National Gallery of Art. It was great to catch up with friends and colleagues from the National Gallery and the Courtauld Institute, as well as my Brookes supervisor, Marika Leino, and to support one another by attending each others’ panels. 

As well as a chance to build professional contacts, and the experience of presenting my research at a large, international conference, my attendance at RSA has led to an invitation from the organisers of my panel to contribute a chapter to the volume they are editing on the subject of hybridity. This publication, which I will write in the Autumn, will allow me to develop some of the themes I touched upon in my paper, including the comparison with Mantegna’s practice. Over the Summer I will be focusing on writing up my PhD, starting with the artistic and devotional context of Crivelli’s multi-media polyptych for the church of San Domenico in Ascoli Piceno, now in the National Gallery. The research leads and ideas that RSA gave me will undoubtedly enrich my PhD in new ways.

Amanda Hilliam
PhD student in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

Monday, 14 May 2018

Forensic medicine: where history and science collide

Scene of the murder at 37 Henry Street, Church Coppenhall, drawn in April 1887. The National Archives, ASSI 65/15, Regina v. Thomas Henry Bevan, Cheshire, 1887

I research the history of crime and forensic medicine in Britain, especially England and Wales, since about 1700, with a particular focus on the period up to the First World War. I’m especially interested in the role played by doctors in solving crimes and how that changed over time, given the increasing presence of lawyers and police in the criminal justice system. Because these links are most visible in cases of violent crime, I tend to spend a lot of time reading first-person accounts of murder and other grisly goings-on. This might sound rather grim, but really it’s not!

Choosing the history of forensic medicine was a lucky accident, really. My original intention was to become a chemist, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that although the scientific information I’d gained from my undergraduate degree might be interesting, it wouldn’t make for a rewarding research career. But it led me to the history of chemistry and from there I began to explore the history of toxicology – a science that has always been closely associated with poisoning crimes. From there it became obvious that doctors, rather than chemists, were always there or thereabouts when there’d been a murder – somebody had to examine the victim and provide a report for the courts, and usually it was a local practitioner. This led me to explore notions of expertise, a subject of broad interest to historians, criminologists and lawyers. And the forensic focus of my research means that my training as a scientist remains useful.

I’m a little unusual in having scientific training and in that my interest in forensic medicine has led me to combine several different aspects of social and legal history: the workings of the criminal justice system, laws and how they’re applied, the development of policing, the expertise of the medical profession, and the motives and methods of accused criminals. This connects to broader social problems like domestic violence and poverty, in many cases. Most or all of these issues are instantly related and brought vividly to light the moment a violent crime is committed, and it is important to realise that this was no less the case in the eighteenth century than today. Of course it wasn’t quite the same then, but it was more similar than most people assume. My research aims to show how we got to where we are now when it comes to crime investigation – students always find that fascinating.

There are lots of highlights of doing my research! The sense of stepping in to the shoes of a person who lived decades or centuries ago brings the past alive for me, particularly when I can see on the page in front of me their signature, or an ink blotch, or a prosecuting barrister’s trial notes (usually involving lots of underlining and a few shorthand comments using blue pencil), or the occasional doodle. I’m particularly drawn to a weird fanged dog that a Welsh judge drew in his trial notebook in 1814; I hope he did it between trials, which were conducted pretty speedily by modern standards. The point here is about evidence in court: who presented it, what they said and what the jury and judge made of it! The insights that people’s comments, questions, decisions and actions provide to attitudes and beliefs about family, medicine, law, the police, criminality, violence and justice are windows into the past but still speak to today’s concerns.

Nowadays when a crime occurs our first thought is to call the police, and they immediately call in a forensic team: a pathologist to examine the victim and a separate forensic scientific expert (often more than one) to photograph and examine the crime scene. My research shows how and when these patterns became established during the course of the nineteenth century. The development of forensic practices that we now take for granted was closely linked to the expansion of policing and an increasingly lawyer-dominated courtroom practice, and I see this beginning in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Dr Katherine Watson is Reader in History at Oxford Brookes University

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Celebrating the role of trees in British Art

Silent Witnesses:
Trees in British Art, 1760-1870
, Christiana Payne

This month Professor Christiana Payne is hosting a conference at Oxford Brookes University on Trees and Wellbeing (registration closes on 4 May!) She recently published a book on trees in British art and in this blog she writes about how she first became interested in these topics.

I’ve been interested in landscape painting for a long time. I very much enjoy walking in the country, visiting mountains or coastal areas, looking at clouds, sunsets and sunrises, and seeing how the seasons change. So it seems natural to me to take an interest in those artists from the past (and present) who have recorded their impressions of these places and effects.

My most recent project has been on trees in British art from 1760 to 1870. The idea came to me from a combination of looking and reading. I saw an exhibition (in Edinburgh) of watercolours by the eighteenth-century artist Paul Sandby, including some amazing pictures of beech trees, and at about the same time (on a holiday in Suffolk) I read a book by the nature writer, Roger Deakin, entitled Wildwood: A Journey through Trees. I realized that here was a new topic, which, surprisingly, had never been treated systematically before. Moreover, it had definite popular appeal.

I knew that some of my favourite artists had devoted a lot of attention to drawing and painting trees – Samuel Palmer, John Constable and Edward Lear. What I didn’t realize when I started was there were some beautiful illustrated books on trees published in my chosen period – and lots of drawing manuals. Evidently, amateurs and artists were drawing trees like mad at this time, getting to know the attributes of the different species and trying to express their ‘character’ as if they were human subjects.

John Constable, Elm Trees in Old Hall Park, East Bergholt (1817).  © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The research has given me a new view of British landscape painting – one in which drawing is as important as painting. It has taken me to see watercolours and drawings in public collections, especially the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I’ve enjoyed looking at old books in the Bodleian Library. And I’ve also travelled to see actual trees – the very ancient ones, that were depicted in the eighteenth century and still survive today, such as the Tortworth Chestnut in Gloucestershire, the Ankerwycke Yew, near the spot where Magna Carta was signed, and the Bowthorpe Oak in Lincolnshire. In some cases they look exactly like the ‘portraits’ that were made of them in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.

There is something mystical about these huge old trees, and in the eighteenth century people wrote openly of ‘worshipping’ them. They believed that their forefathers – the Druids - had worshipped God in groves, before the building of cathedrals whose architecture mimicked the forms of the forest. They recorded the many popular superstitions that gave magical power to trees.
Neil Gow's oak, Dunkeld

I find that my work gets favourable reactions, because so many people love trees. I had my own favourite trees as a child – an old horse chestnut on which I had a rope swing, and a group of beeches whose roots were intertwined. I once found some money amongst the roots of these beech trees – which then became know in my family as the ‘leprechaun trees’. Now that I live in Oxford I very much enjoy getting to know individual trees in the street, in the local park, and even on the Brookes campus – there is a magnificent oak between the Tonge and Gibbs buildings that I visit regularly. 

Attitudes to trees have been affected by social and political change. Eighteenth-century paintings show humble cottages nestling in the shelter of ancient oaks; by the mid-nineteenth century they depict middle-class visitors picnicking in the woods. Views of landed estates make way for pictures that celebrate public woodland, open to all. Different species rose and fell in popular estimation: oaks acquired special status because they provided the main material for wooden ships, but in the mid-nineteenth century the beech woods were especially loved as places to escape the summer heat of the cities.

Samuel Palmer, In a Shoreham Garden (c. 1830) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Trees purify the air, they hold on to soil to prevent flooding, they provide havens for wildlife. And much recent research shows that they are vital to human wellbeing. So there is a direct link between the perception of trees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the issues that face us today.

I’m delighted to have been awarded a Research Excellence Award by the University – this will enable me to focus on sharing the results of my research with a wider audience. I have curated an exhibition at the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford, and worked with the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum on activities and resources for visitors.

Christiana Payne is Professor of History of Art at Oxford Brookes

Monday, 30 April 2018

Modernist architecture and design in inter-war England

I work on the history of modernist architecture and design in inter-war England. I’ve long been interested in moving away from the standard narratives about this, which have tended to focus on individual practitioners, and which tend to lament the tardiness of the English modern movement and to equate it solely with the work of émigré practitioners. Instead, my work has shown how from the early 1920s onwards, there was much debate in England about how the country might be re-formed and the new types of architecture that might help facilitate this. I’ve looked at the networks of people who shared these ideas and the coming together of clients and architects which enabled transformative environments to be created not just in the domestic sphere, but also in arenas such as housing and education. I’m also really interested in the ways these ideas were promoted – through media as diverse as architecture periodicals, radio talks, film and books –and how this created what I call ‘narratives of modernity’ that embedded these ideas more widely, creating a progressive consensus that manifested itself after 1945 in the architectural forms of the Welfare State.
Another key area of interest, and one that often intersects with my work on modernism, is the ways in which women have contributed to the formation of the built environment. This has been a key preoccupation in architectural history for the past 20 or so years, and I’ve been at the forefront of an impulse that has favoured expanding our understanding of what constitutes the design process rather than pursuing a quest for ‘great women architects.’ So I’m really interested in women who’ve written about, for example, new forms of domesticity, campaigned from better housing, or been the clients of radical projects and who’ve played a formative role in their creation.

Why did you choose these subjects ?

As an undergraduate and then a Masters student, I had developed 2 main interests – modernist architecture (especially in the UK) and in re-thinking art and architectural history in the light of the feminist approaches which had really started to take hold when I was doing my BA in Art History. I can pinpoint exactly when I found a subject that enabled me to move these interests into a sustained research career. I was looking at an article on a key modernist project – Kensal House – which was completed in 1936 and noticed that the attribution of the project was rather an unusual one 

For a start it listed a number of individual architects (rather than one only, or the name of a practice, which would have been more typical) and then, at the end, was the name of a woman (the architects were all men) who was described as a ‘housing consultant.’ I was already really interested in Kensal House because, as an early example of modernist social housing, it was always featured in histories of English modernism but no one ever went into detail about it. In particular, it was the attribution line that intrigued me. Why were all these people listed? Who, I wondered, was Elizabeth Denby, and what was a housing consultant? No one had bothered to ask such simple questions before. I did, and it led me to a study of a fascinating individual in Denby who played a major role in developing modernism in England but who was not an architect, and who, despite being very well-known and much admired in her day, had been ‘disappeared’ from history. I wanted to put her back, but in a way that changed the nature of that history. 

In this respect I had a lot of help from Denby herself. She left very few personal papers so I had to re-create the environments from which she emerged and in which she practised - the networks of people with and from whom she developed her ideas about housing and design – in so doing it became apparent that to think about architecture as the work of one single individual was utterly simplistic. The sort of projects with which Denby was involved, like Kensal House, were formed by – among other things- a client’s (the Gas,Light and Coke Company) need to promote its goods and services and itself as a modern enlightened corporation; an evolving politics of housing which now emphasised slum clearance and inner-urban regeneration; a network that linked Denby to a local employer in an area in which she’d worked as a housing campaigner in the 1920s (north Kensington) and her ability to steer a project to embody her own philosophy of housing. The latter she promoted both through buildings like Kensal House but also in her influential book, Europe Rehoused, which was published in 1938.

What makes your research different?

In many ways all my writing since then has sought to simulate this  idea of architecture as an ongoing process of being made – whether I’ve been writing about Denby or inter-war modernism more generally (like in my 2007 book Re-forming Britain). I’ve been concerned to show how networks of people and ideas and circumstances intersect to make our built environment and then how those environments continue to evolve through their use, and their mediation in the press and so forth. Most recently, I’ve taken these ideas to a slightly earlier period and place – early 20th–century Edinburgh – to explore how a range of women reformers transformed the everyday lives and environments of the women and children who lived in the slums of the city’s Old Town. It’s been fascinating to document the way women doctors, kindergarten teachers and housing reformers worked together to effect change and how their contribution to reform has been sidelined by the much-better known (and really rather over-rated) Patrick Geddes. 

My next project takes me back to the inter-war period: From Networks to Receivers – Material and Spatial Cultures of Broadcasting in inter-war England will be a history of the design of BBC Broadcasting House (1932) and the wireless sets through which its programmes were heard. I am privileged to have been the recipient of one of the University’s Research Excellence Awards, which will support the writing of book manuscript.

Dr Elizabeth Darling is Reader in Architectural History and teaches on the History of Art programme at Oxford Brookes University.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Drugscapes: A Brookes Criminology Seminar

On the 22nd of May, Oxford Brookes Criminology is hosting its first research seminar, marking the end of an academic year that also saw the launch of the university’s BA/BSc degree in Criminology. Titled ‘Drugscapes: Two years after the ban’, this one-day event seeks to debate and understand how recent prohibition-geared legislation pushed by the Home Office has impacted on recreational drug markets, trends in use and regulation strategies in the United Kingdom.
The Psychoactive Substances Act 2016 came into force in May 2016, following efforts by policy makers to create a more flexible legal framework under which new psychoactive substances (NPS) or ‘legal highs’ – naturally-occurring and synthetic compounds outside existing control schedules, at the time – could be efficiently policed. The Act put forward a rather vague understanding of what constitutes a psychoactive effect (and substance) as that ‘stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, [and which] affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state.' The logic of this was to effectively create a “blanket ban” that would effectively criminalise all substances to be potentially sold for their psychoactive qualities even before they were actually produced and distributed.
 A generic prohibition would allow the police to go after “head shops” and online vendors bringing in ever novel, chemically tweaked lines of unclassified products. The new legislation provided exemptions for nutritional, alcohol, tobacco or caffeine goods, as well as for substances used for medical purposes, but couldn’t avoid some degree of confusion. Nitrous oxide or “laughing gas”, for example, was ruled by a criminal court as not falling under the incidence of the PSA 2016 as it can also be used therapeutically, as an anaesthetic. This followed the arrests of two defendants who were planning to sell it at the Glastonbury festival, presumably not to the emergency medical staff on watch.
Experts observed that beyond the terminological ambiguities, the Act does not distinguish between (categories of) substances in terms of their (public health) harm potential, focusing solely on ‘psychoactivity’, a notion impossible to disentangle from everyday practices of consumption i.e. we ‘binge’ on Netflix shows or listen to music, among other things, precisely because we seek to alter our biochemical balance, emotions and awareness. Furthermore, they anticipated that new police powers to clamp down on retail outlets would possibly create a displacement effect that could see NPS being absorbed by traditional and less scrupulous street markets. 

This has been observed to be the case, for example, with synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists (SCRAs) or ‘Spice’ products. As ‘head shops’ went out of business and street dealers took SCRAs on, they targeted rough sleepers with cheap and potent strains that the police even suspected were laced with heroin and other more traditional, high-risk drugs. In the context of austerity cuts on housing and unemployment benefits pushing more vulnerable people into destitution, this further created a media scare around so-called ‘Spice zombies’ lying unconscious on doorways or moving about in catatonic fits and psychotic episodes, around high streets and city centres throughout the country.         
It is not clear to what extent this new law has been able to inflict a significant reduction in supply. If street outlets can be easily monitored and shut down by law enforcement, online cryptomarkets have proven to be quite resilient to control efforts. Data collected from the hidden Web showed growing numbers of vendors selling NPS such as synthetic cannabinoids or cathinones in the first months after the introduction of the PSA 2016. There have also been concerns around the use of super-strength synthetic opioids like fentanyl, fuelled by dark net sales, possibly leading to an overdose ‘epidemic’ similar to that which has been claiming  thousands of lives in the United States. 
Recent market reconfigurations have also flagged different treatment provision needs. As homeless groups migrate from alcohol, heroin or crack cocaine to synthetic cannabinoids and men who have sex with men turn to intravenous NPS use and ‘chemsex’researchers have suggested that better integrated mental health and substance abuse interventions, as well as more efficient user engagement strategies backed up by straightforward referral channels (e.g. through the sexual health services) should be the focal points of response strategiesDrug testing services embedded within night-time economy club or festival venues that inform participants of the exact composition of the street drugs they buy are proving to reduce drug-related harms and fatalities.           
‘Drugscapes’ in the United Kingdom and elsewhere are in permanent flux, shaped by market forces, new technologies, digital cultures and not least ‘war on drugs’ policies which perpetuate old ways of doing things but overlook the complexities of emerging social worlds and problems. By bringing together cutting-edge research and practitioner experiences, we hope to capture some of these dynamics and also help imagine more creative ways of dealing with the harms and challenges they pose. 
Lecturer in Criminology

Monday, 16 April 2018

Curating ‘Modern Artists tell the Easter Story’ – the student’s point of view

Brookes is host to the Methodist Modern Art Collection (MMAC), which comprises artworks which tell the Christian story by many of the twentieth-century’s leading British artists. This academic year, the opportunity arose for a small group of Art History students to work with its custodian, Dr Peter Forsaith, and, as a team, to conceive and curate a small exhibition which drew on this wonderful resource.
The Project 18 Team: Phoebe Exon, Kinmy Lo, Lauren Golightly, Sarah Morley and Tatiana Solis (with a Graham Sutherland)
I applied for what we called ‘Project 18’ because I was brought up in the Methodist faith, and already knew about the Methodist art collection before starting my history of art degree at Brookes. I was also taking the second-year module Curatorial Practice, which offers an introduction to the theory and practice of curating, so was keen to apply what I was learning in a real situation. The fact that the chosen group would be given a lot of independence in creating the exhibition was inviting but also rather daunting. I can safely say that these gut reactions (mixed in with a little stress) remained whilst carrying out the project!
The students with Dr Peter Forsaith
Things got off to a positive start. The Project 18 team consisted of three second years (Phoebe Exon, Lauren Golightly, and me) and two third years (Kinmy Lo and Tatiana Sollis). Although it wasnot a credited module, meaning that it did not count towards our degree, we all knew that the experience offered by the Art History department would be very beneficial for us, because we plan to work in the art world after graduation. We started the process by meeting together and discussing our ideas for the proposed exhibition. Next we met with Peter and discussed possible themes, locations for the show, and most importantly of all at this stage, we assessed which paintings were available to us and which weren’t currently marked out to be on loan when our show was scheduled.
Despite other module commitments and the third years completing dissertations, we worked well as team to make key decisions and to bring the project to completion. Our choice of location was framed by a number of factors. We knew the exhibition would take place around Easter 2018, so our time was relatively limited. We decided therefore to have the exhibition at Brookes. This was a way to celebrate the fact that the MMAC is housed here and to give all those who work and study at the university a chance to see some of the work in the collection. We decided that the Glasgow Room in Harcourt Hill campus, which normally acts as a meeting room, would be a good space because it is a large room, and, very helpfully, already has hanging rails installed on the walls.
Getting ready to hang a painting
At the same time as we finalised our location, we looked further into which paintings we wished to display. As the exhibition was scheduled for Easter we decided on having an Easter theme (hence the title, ‘Modern Artists tell The Easter Story‘). Although the collection is devoted to the visual expression of the Christian faith, we wanted the exhibition to appeal to everyone. We hoped that our display would enable visitors to think about what Easter meant to them whilst they contemplated the artworks surrounding them. After chopping and changing the lists of which paintings we wanted to include, we decided to select seven paintings and, through them, tell the main events in the Easter story.
Hanging a painting
We had learnt on the Curatorial Practice course, and Peter reminded us, that curating requires an open mind and adaptability and we saw this first hand during Project 18. We had originally planned to have the paintings in chronological order depicting the Easter story, however we ended up switching paintings around so that the focus was more on what worked well hung next to each other, whilst still allowing the chosen artworks to remain in a relatively chronological sequence. For example, we decided to add an extra painting Nathaniel (asleep under the fig tree)by Mark Cazalet, which completed a set of eight, in order to hang that next to Cazalet’sFool of God (Christ in the Garden)as these two paintings worked more successfully as a pair. I believe that if we had not gone into this project as open minded as we did then we could have had real issues. Thankfully, we worked well as a team and shared the same priorities when completing this project. The show opened just before Easter and ran for three weeks. We were so pleased that it was well-received and appreciated by all who visited.

The experience was incredibly valuable for us all. We learnt that open mindedness, adaptability, communication skills and respecting each other’s point of view are key to achieving goals. Alongside these more general lessons, we took away vital lessons from the world of curating and where our ambitions might fit within it. Many Art History graduates follow a career path in the art or museum world and curating is a highly popular pathway, not to mention highly competitive. Working on Project 18, combined with having helped Peter to take down a MMAC exhibition in Hull a few months before, the very practical side of curating which I experienced made me realise that I prefer the theoretical side of the art world. Therefore a path such as management or research in the art world may be more suitable for me. So I am currently investigating my post-university career with a focus on working in a learning or education department in the gallery and museums sector after gaining more experience as a gallery or museum assistant.
For me, my involvement in Project 18, alongside the Curatorial Practice module, has allowed me to realise my passions, and has helped me to sift out what works best for me from the vast opportunities which are available to history of art graduates. There seems to be a stereotype that the career paths of an art history graduate are quite narrow. This is not the case and I wholeheartedly implore people to look into the opportunities that are out there!

Sarah Morley, second-year undergraduate on the BA(Hons) History of Art degree

Photographs by Andrew Parker, second-year undergraduate on the BA (Hons) History of Art degree

For more about the show see:
& for a recent article about the Curatorial Practice module see:

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Girls and Power

What is your research about?

I'm interested in the ways in which ideas about gender circulate in popular and institutional settings such as media texts and schools, and how these ideas shape young people's views of themselves, their worlds and their imagined futures. I focus particularly on issues relating to girlhood and power - the spaces that culture creates for girls to grow in, and the ways in which girls inhabit them. I have just published a book on the 'successful girl' phenomenon. This was based on a study which traced 'successful girl' narratives across television screens and web forums and classrooms.

How did you come to choose this area?
Before working in Higher Education I had a career in the secondary education sector, as a teacher and then in teacher professional development. I taught English for some years, and my first and Master's degrees are in English; the sense of narrative still informs my work. As do many teachers, I found the educational inequalities I encountered every day had few adequate explanations beyond individual 'abilities.' I was particularly interested in the ways in which myths about gender and class operate as ways of accounting for unequal achievement. Embarking on a PhD was the beginning of trying the challenge the myths and find better ways of understanding and responding to social injustices. This is not just another task for teachers - my research explores the ways in which unhelpful narratives are circulated in policy committees and science labs, in the television industry and the textbook. One of my research interviewees commented, 'We need better stories.' I couldn't agree with her more.

What makes your research different?

I create methodologies which allow me to explore girl's lived experiences alongside policy and popular texts. This helps build a picture of the cultural world young people engage with and the tools it gives them for creating their sense of identity. I also try to use the digital tools that they adopt, as well as more traditional approaches. At the time I was doing my PhD, teen girl fan forums were very popular online, so I created one for the project, attractive over 160 participants. For my current project I am using visual social media platforms to create collages with participants. These will form a fascinating digital archive.

What are the highlights of doing your research?

The main one is that I get to spend so much time doing something which is both important and interesting. My focus means that I never feel trapped in an academic bubble. I have been all over England, to Australia and New Zealand and a host of European countries to visit schools and interview girls, and to share findings with other researchers and - importantly  - with practitioners. Also, the research community in my field is a supportive one. I've found gender scholars have an inbuilt commitment to equality, generosity, and solidarity.

What is the contemporary relevance of your research?

We are still such a long way form achieving equality, and not only in terms of gender. Looking at the gendering of leadership in the current political climate is highly timely as issues faced by women come into sharp focus. These include the rise of public misogyny, the vilification of women politicians and campaigners online, and sexist representations of political leaders in mainstream media, and the lack of voice and representation, especially for working class and minority women. Exploring girls' ideas about leadership, their experiences and imagined futures is a vital part of trying to create a society in which they might see themselves as decision makers.

Dr Michele Paule is a Senior Lecturer in Culture, Media and Education at Oxford Brookes University