What do we really know about African art in European museums?

31462683605_ebc546dc0e_b (1)As part of the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018 former award-holder Zoe Cormack (Rome Fellow 2016-17), presents the exhibit ‘What do we really know about African art in European museums?’ An exploration of the arts and heritage of South Sudan. In this blog, in advance of the exhibition, Zoe shares some of the developments to her project since she left Rome a year ago.

(Photo: Antonio Palmieri)

I came to the BSR for a Rome Fellowship in 2016-17. My project was to study four nineteenth century ethnographic collections, assembled by Italians and now stored in museums across Italy, from the territory that is today South Sudan. Rome was new ground, as my previous research trips had been to remote parts of South Sudan. The time at the BSR gave me the opportunity to begin concentrated study of South Sudanese arts and material culture stored in European museums. This week, my research will feature in the British Academy Summer Showcase, an exciting opportunity to share my findings with a wider audience in the UK.

In Rome, the question I was most often asked was, how did these objects end up in Italy? There are many historical connections between Italy and South Sudan. When Sudan was incorporated into Ottoman Egypt in 1821, Italians were among the first Europeans to visit. Some came as traders, some worked in the Egyptian government, others undertook scientific journey of exploration. In 1864, Daniel Comboni (a priest, now a saint) from Brescia established a missionary order in Sudan, the Comboni Fathers, who still have a major presence in Sudan and South Sudan. The Sudanese saint, Josephine Bakhita, lived in Italy from 1885.

Of the collections I studied, one was made by Romolo Gessi an Italian soldier who was appointed Ottoman-Egyptian Governor of Bahr-el-Ghazal (a province in Southern Sudan). He is known in Sudanese history for recapturing part of the province from slave traders on behalf on the Egyptian government (the collection in now in the Museo delle Civilità in Rome).  The others were made by; Giovanni Miani, a trained opera singer from Venice who to Sudan to discover the source of the Nile (the collection is in the Natural History Museum in Venice); Carlo Piaggia, an explorer who lived at a Zande court in the 1860s (the collections are in the Florence Ethnographic Museum and the Archaeological museum in Perugia); and Orazio Antinori (of Antinori wines) who founded the Italian Geographical Society (whose collection is in the Archaeological museum in Perugia).


A case of objects from South Sudan in Giovanni Miani’s collection, Museum of Natural history, Venice. (image courtesy of the Museum of Natural History)

My research has addressed both how these collections were formed, but also how we might understand and work with them today. These are complicated objects to study. Formed at the outset of European and Italian colonial projects, ethnographic collections were integral to the process of creating difference, of categorising people and their material culture into discrete ‘tribes’ and generating the racial hierarchies that made the ideology of colonialism possible. In Sudan, this process viciously intersected with the growth of a long-distance slave trade in the Nile valley, which remains a painful rupture in South Sudan’s historical memory.

I wanted to understand more about how collecting had interacted with this violent history, but I also wanted to investigate how these objects might speak to current concerns about heritage, memory and community relationships in South Sudan. I have always been struck by how – despite the violent circumstances surrounding their incorporation into museums – these collections are a remarkable and unique record of historic arts and material cultures from South Sudan.

Juba from the air in May 2018 (photo by Zoe Cormack)


Juba from the air in May 2018 (photo by Zoe Cormack)

Since I finished my Rome Fellowship I have had several opportunities to address this question in more depth. On my return from Rome, I began work on an AHRC Research Network about South Sudanese arts and heritage in Europe. I have also spent about four months in Juba (the capital city of South Sudan), where with a Juba based organised called The Likikiri Collective – are doing amazing work using theatre and oral history to explore memory, ideas of community and the nation. More recently, I met Deng Nhial Chioh, who runs ‘Maale Heritage and Development Foundation’ in a displaced persons camp in Juba. For several years, Deng has been using images from online museum databases to build a curriculum about South Sudanese cultural heritage for displaced students.

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Presenting my research (with Prof John Mairi Blackings, University of Juba) at the Catholic University of South Sudan, Juba. (photograph courtesy of the Institute of Justice and Peace Studies)

Through the AHRC network we have also brought some of the South Sudanese diaspora in the UK into the research conversation. One comment about the museum collections, from a member of the South Sudanese diaspora in London, has stuck with me. He said “these things are important because they are about us. They are about people and a future that can be better than the past.”  As South Sudan grapples with a new civil war, which shows no signs of ending, these objects seem to offer constructive ways of thinking about South Sudanese identity.

Another development, which underlines the importance of the Italians collections, has been the decision in 2017 by the Government of South Sudan to put the former slave-station of Deim Zubeir on the tentative list of World Heritage Sites. Deim Zubeir is where Romolo Gessi fought with and defeated the merchant Suleiman Idris. Gessi subsequently took a ‘trophy’ from Suleiman (including his sword) and obtained other objects at Deim Zubeir. These are now stored in the Museo delle Civilità in Rome and the Musei Civici of Reggio Emelia. These museum collections could be used to build a better picture of the site in the nineteenth century and be put into a productive dialogue with heritage initiatives in South Sudan.

Zoe Cormack is now Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. She has held postdoctoral research awards at The British Institute in Eastern Africa and the British School at Rome.

For an opportunity to see Zoe’s Summer Showcase exhibit, visit the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018, at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AH. Open: Friday 22-Saturday 23 June,11 a.m.-5 p.m. and open for a late-night view: Friday 22 June, 6.30-9pm. 

For more information on the British Academy Summer Showcase 2018 click here.



Postcards & Photographs #2

I arrived at the BSR to study vedute, (highly detailed cityscapes), maps and postcards of the monuments of Rome, using Peter Greenaway’s film Belly of an Architect (1986) as a vehicle for investigation. Weaving a narrative of power and politics, Belly of an Architect is presented as a sequence of postcard images of Rome, that alternate with actual shots in the style of the postcards. Greenaway originally intended to trace a route through the city, structured almost like a Situationist dérive, by using postcards chosen for their perspective, each of which connected a monument in the foreground with another in the distance. For example, by using a postcard of the twin churches in Piazza del Popolo, in which one could find in the background a small image of a part of the Vittoriano, the next scene would be set in Piazza Venezia, and if in that postcard one could glimpse the Colosseum in the background, then the next scene would take place there, and so on. When films use postcards and texts these things are always mediated by the filmmaker’s intentions. It’s like the actors. They are both themselves acting and the part they play. Showing postcards in the film is like characters talking directly to camera or when actors play themselves on film.

How excited I was after I introduced my research at the BSR and the director told us about Eugénie Strong’s postcard collection in the BSR archives. When I originally planned this research, I intended to collect my own tourist postcards of the monuments of Rome, but I found Strong’s far more seductive and conducive to the kind of ‘postcard’ tour I was looking for, one that is entirely subjective, blurs place and personal history and, speaks to each of us in a different way, as if whispering in our ears about forgotten experiences, adventures, romances, individuals.


 Anfiteatro Flavio, postcard (BSR Photographic Archive, Eugénie Strong Postcard Collection)

Like a postcard itself, that arrives with no return address, and only a cryptic comment, postmark and stamp to claim its origins, is the postcard collection from the 1910s and 1920s of Eugénie Strong, the first assistant director of the BSR. The postcards are filed in albums and boxes according to place, like a map that is not yet made. The Rome album begins with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s (1720-1778) depictions of the monuments of Rome, and ends with the 1911 Ethnographic Exhibition to celebrate 50 years of Italy’s unification, that shows different pavilions from different regions of Italy for the World’s Fair that took place in the Valle Giulia. In fact the BSR building was designed by Edwin Lutyens and constructed as the British pavilion for that grand exhibition which is why it is in the English baroque style, double columns as pilasters on the walls and a neoclassical portico at the front.

Piranesi’s most famous built project is the piazza and church for the Cavalieri di Malta on the Aventine Hill. This is the famous portal with a keyhole that sights the dome of St Peter’s. Strong’s collection includes a postcard of the garden, as if we, like Alice, have entered through the keyhole.


Cavalieri di Malta, postcard (BSR Photographic Archive, Eugénie Strong Postcard Collection) 

The album continues with a collection entitled Rome Disappeared.


Roma Sparita, postcard album (BSR Photographic Archive, Eugénie Strong Postcard Collection)

One of my favourites is this one that shows La corsa dei Barberi, a horserace along the Corso, that took place at the time of the Carnival. It shows the Piazzo del Popolo and either very small horses, or else artistic licence in widening the street, and, since it depicts a time prior to its construction, no Vittoriano monument at the other end of the axis.



Corso dei Barberi, postcard (BSR Photographic Archive, Eugénie Strong Postcard Collection)

Most of the postcards are from collections that were never sent, but collected as sets, interspersed with a very few that were sent to her by friends, colleagues or scholars with requests. For example, each year her counterpart at the American Academy would send her a Christmas postcard, in exchange for one she had sent. Another favourite (not shown here) was of a stone frieze, of a pig, a horse and a cow with the note on the back: nice to see our old friends. What was the narrative behind this? Was this a favourite place to visit? And where was it? In the Forum? Elsewhere?


Eugénie Strong’s address, prior to assuming the Assistant Director post at the BSR (BSR Photographic Archive, Eugénie Strong Postcard Collection)


Renée Tobe (Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow 2017-18)

Postcards & Photographs #1

The early years of the BSR were dominated by two great figures. The contribution of Thomas Ashby, the BSR’s third Director, to the study of photography and topography has been well documented – see Macquarie Gale Rome Scholar Janet Wade’s post about her research following in the footsteps of Thomas Ashby on the via Flaminia, and my own recent blog on the many faces of Ashby.

However, the collections built up by his contemporaneous Assistant Director, Eugénie Strong, remain largely unexplored.

Three cupboards in the Photographic Archive hold the Eugénie Strong Collection. When you turn the key to open these cupboards you are suddenly grabbed by her personality which is reflected by the kind of material – photographs and postcards – she was to collect and assemble throughout her life.

Most of the photographs are testimony to her interest in Art History, ranging from Roman and Greek sculpture to medieval, Renaissance and Baroque painting. The photographic collection, bequeathed to the BSR after her death, includes many examples of nineteenth and early twentieth century photographs (all in perfect condition) taken by notable European photographers and needs careful examination before being re-arranged and made available for consultation and research.

The same applies to her impressive collection of European postcards, mainly relating to Italy and many with written comments on the back. Some of these are loose and arranged by country or continents (Africa, Asia), while the rest is neatly organised into nineteen albums.


Eugénie Strong in her role as BSR Librarian in the Main Reading Room

Eugénie Strong (1860-1943, née Sellers) had long been regarded as one of the most brilliant academics in the field of Roman sculpture, even before taking on the post of BSR Assistant Director and Librarian in 1909. Former Librarian at Chatsworth and Fellow of Girton College, Cambridge, she worked closely with Thomas Ashby when he was BSR Director from 1906 to 1925.

The astonishing number of images they gathered – Ashby taking photographs himself, with Strong collecting them from various sources – shows a keen interest in the value of visual culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. Their intention was not limited to pursuing their own research, but was concerned with developing a reference collection for the benefit of current and future BSR award-holders.

In addition to her image collection, there is also correspondence with Evelyn Shaw, BSR Honorary General Secretary, and various members of the Faculty of Archaeology, History and Letters (FAHL) in the course of her administration of the institution alongside Ashby. Remarkable was her role in coordinating the move of the BSR from Palazzo Odescalchi to the new building in Valle Giulia in 1916, while Ashby was engaged on the Italian front driving the British Red Cross ambulance. Not to mention all the responsibilities involved in the running of a Library!


The BSR façade during the building works (started in 1912 and completed in 1916)

It is no surprise therefore that she played an important role in supporting and encouraging all BSR award-holders, both in the Humanities and in the Fine Arts. The more we read about her through our past records, the more intelligible the picture of a resilient personality that made the pair with Ashby and contributed so much to raising and consolidating the BSR’s profile, until they both left in 1925.



Eugénie Strong in the centre of the picture surrounded by BSR scholars
Back row: Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Eugénie Strong, Colin Gill (Rome Scholar in Painting), Mrs Hardiman, Alfred Hardiman (Rome Scholar in Sculpture), Unknown
Middle row: Miss Jamison, Miss Makin, Winifred Knights (Rome Scholar in Painting)
Front row: F.O. Lawrence (Rome Scholar in Architecture), Job Nixon (Rome Scholar in Engraving), Unknown


This year’s Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow Renée Tobe has been delving into some of these Archive collections from the BSR’s early years, and in the next blog post she will reveal some of the treasures she has found in our collections.


Alessandra Giovenco (BSR Archivist)

Images courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archives

June Mostra 2018 / Meet the artists… Josephine Baker

As we approach the June Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists. Our penultimate interview is with Josephine Baker, our Sainsbury Scholar. 


You often address political currents or notions of ethical value in your work, in particular the symbols surrounding them. What ideas have you been exploring in this installation?

Last month I was working in the gallery downstairs on an installation called Night Music, elements of which I am showing in the June Mostra. The first central image you encounter – or rather can’t avoid – on the back wall, almost looming over the landscape of the installation, is a work made from chalk on bricks: a circle of stars, replicating those of the EU flag.


This work, and how it is placed amongst the other works in the gallery, is for me about contextualizing a universally-recognised symbol; forcing it out of its abstract value, into being in some way more dynamic, fluid, physical. By altering its form, colour, materiality and scale, I hope to put into question not just the associations attached to the flag, but also to question the structure of the image itself. For example, by rendering this symbol in black and white, the stars are in some way reintroduced to the naturalism that they represent, as an image of a constellation in the night sky. Its symmetry and ‘perfection’ then becomes – in this particular context as well as the context of my work more generally – about addressing an idealization and politicization of nature, or natural form. I ask myself: To what extent is that tendency a far cry from the symbolism surrounding the political idea of the unity of peoples? The symbol strikes up a bodily sensation in the room; the physicality of the image for me is in some way connected to the physicality of nation states and the geopolitics of Europe.

I think there are so many ways to interpret this work, but when as an artist you use an image this laden with identification, you inevitably come up against many concerns: perhaps the worry that others will assume that you are attempting an acute political commentary, or expressing your own personal political views, about Brexit for example. You ask yourself whether it will be read as propaganda, or how easy it really is to manipulate these images free from any political agenda. I guess this work will inevitably pose these questions to a viewer too, which could potentially be a really positive thing.


How does this work relate to or affect the other parts of the installation?

I want this work to be a focal point for the installation – to see to what extent we can confront symbolic language, to understand how much of a stake it has in its environment, how persuasive, how overbearing. Essentially, to ask to what extent it irreconcilably changes the way that you view everything else inside the space. How does this particular work give agency to or withhold power from the much quieter pieces? In this sense to me it is an obvious metaphor for the politics of power, and the unequal and haphazard relations between the different objects and images in the space. Yet the circle of stars of the EU flag stands as a symbol of unity, a perfect constellation of elements brought together. So perhaps the question also is: How do the works in this room create a similar constellation, addressing in themselves and their relations both the political idea and the emotional experience of unity?

The potential affective quality of installation for me is to place or position the viewer where space is not a fact, or an answer, but always a kind of question: Where am I? Where you find yourself is inextricably linked to notions of identity. The question ‘Who am I?’ would not exist without the place. I attempt to create environments that challenge the ‘where’ and therefore the ‘I’.


Your sculptures are literally silent, yet the things you represent – from pipe organs to natural disasters, or debates about the EU… – are inherently loud, both physically and metaphorically. How does the work address this seeming contradiction?

This is why the installation is called Night Music, to play with this contradiction through an ambiguity: Is ‘night music’ a nocturne, the sound of the night, an impression of it, or simply the idea of quietness, even silence? You can consider the night to be the exact opposite of the cacophony of day – the night when, as a human being, nearly everything is sleeping. I am interested in sounds being interruptions in the silence of nighttime, like perhaps how the sculptures intervene or punctuate the low-lit gallery space.

This body of work started as the idea of making an installation that plays with the same forms, tempos and relationships as make up a musical composition. Every instrument is a sculpture – they all do different things. There are some constants, refrains, some pick out and build the melody. Every piece has a part to play. Together they work to create a unified sound – be it harmonious or disjointed, eliciting calm or disquiet, but somehow unified. I’m interested in how the space or landscape of an installation can repeat, ripple, swell, in a similar way.


In the work there is also a nod to the distribution of sound in, say, the space of a baroque church. Upon entering a church in Rome you almost immediately encounter the edifice of the pipe organ, but you rarely hear it being played. Often the loudest thing inside the church is ironically the voice telling you to keep quiet. But considering the pipe organ, there is this contradiction between its grandeur, its presence in the space (you only see the front pipes – there are often hundreds if not thousands of pipes hidden from view, in different corners and crannies) and its latent chaos or harmony, the sound it can produce.

I want the environments I make to propel the viewer into a sensual experience of the things that exist within it. A musical instrument is such an example of a sensual combination of the spiritual and the utilitarian, which is often the tension I want to explore in the sculptures. They are tactile, they reference function and are made of utilitarian and standardised materials. The pipe organ is made out of plumbing piping. Most have handles that suggest the objects’ use in some kind of ceremonial practice that is never enacted. It’s about the attempt to understand the noise of the work’s political currents through this metaphor, where what is seemingly absent or invisible is nonetheless completely there, overwhelming the silence.



Josephine’s work will be exhibited alongside the six other resident artists in the June Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 June 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 June 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Installation photos by Roberto Apa.

June Mostra 2018 / Meet the artists… John Robertson

As we approach the June Mostra, our second exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists. Our penultimate interview is with John Robertson, our Abbey Scholar in Painting.

John Robertson

Photo by Antonio Palmieri


Pasquale, 42 x 29.7cm, leaves, paper, panel

Pasquale, 42 x 29.7cm, leaves, paper, panel

Your practice seems to have changed during the past months. You have introduced into your work references to the Italian 15th Century. Leaves, referring to Primavera by Botticelli, which you saw in Galleria degli Uffizi, now feature in your work. Tell us more…

The leaves are not specifically from Botticelli. I made the first leaf painting at Easter, when some leaves literally blew into the studio from outside. It was after this that I visited Florence and saw the Botticelli paintings including Primavera. You can definitely go to Botticelli from the leaf works if you want, but you can also go to someone like Ben Nicholson, to a kind of white modernist relief, or to a tradition of botany studies. I like this kind of openness in work, something you can travel with but not necessarily to a fixed destination.

That said, I do think going to Florence changed my palette, those Botticelli’s and the Fra Angelico’s, everything kind of greyed or ochre-d out when I came back. There’s a closer tonality in my work now, it’s less graphic and more…hmmm…. I don’t know… misty.

For this June Mostra what work will you present?

For my final three months I made 20 A3 panels and I have been ploughing through them. This time things are a lot more straight forward, a lot more like ‘straight-up’ painting.

What made you choose this specific size and scale?

I made this decision after the last Mostra. I wanted to use the last term to make a series of studies because I’d made a couple right at the end of the last one that were becoming ‘painterly’ somehow. I had a sense that they could go somewhere else, that they could feel more like paintings than collages. So it was something I wanted to try to work out, and I wanted the working out to be on the surface of the works, so I had this idea to make a group of small paintings and keep covering them as I go. There’s a lot more texture on the new works as a result, more layers, you can see that there’s paper underneath the final image that has been covered over. I didn’t see any reason to make them bigger, and I like the smallness actually, they’re kind of compressed or something, they’re intimate, you have to get close. Also they feel like pages, and I like that too.

You have now been in Rome for eight months. What effect has this experience had on your work?

Increasingly I’ve realised that it’s the studio time that has made the biggest difference to my practice. A few months in I started cutting out brush strokes and I felt really weird about it, it’s so amateur and crafty, a bit Blue Peter.  But it led to making these small works that are more complicated with complex layering. This change has really just come from being able to have so much studio time. There’s something about time in all this, a slower making that demands a longer looking, and really just having enough of a rhythm in the studio that the work gets a momentum of its own and kind of takes over. It’s a little animistic actually, and you sound like a bit of a lunatic, but really it feels like I’m just trying to listen to what the work wants, like there’s an image there already, hiding in these bits of paper, and i’m just trying to let it exist.

Then there’s the time the leaves blew in the studio at Easter, and the day after when Tomaso visited and wrote his email address on a piece of paper.

Tomaso, 42 x 29.7 cm, Tomaso writing his email address, paper on panel

Tomaso, 42 x 29.7 cm, Tomaso writing his email address, paper on panel

Of course Rome has affected the work too, and it’s possible to link my work and practice to it. I found out that in the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria (with the Bernini Ecstasy of Saint Teresa) all the marble pillars that look like one piece of marble are actually collaged pieces of marble, cut along the veining so that you can’t tell, and patch-worked to look like one piece. This is a pretty common practice, and it’s easy enough to see how that’s connected to my work. And the paintings themselves are a lot more baroque, I mean, everything’s a flourish or an arabesque, they could easily be close-up bits of a baroque frame or something.

All at Sea (for V), 42 x 29.7cm, Acrylic, paper, panel

All at Sea (for V), 42 x 29.7cm, Acrylic, paper, panel

So yes, Rome is there, in the work. But, I mean…so is the courtyard of the BSR, all those cigarette breaks, moving around the green plastic chairs to sit in the sun or shade depending on the weather, the poetry I’m reading, songs I’m listening to, friends I’ve made, red wine, for sure red wine, I even have some works that are pieces of paper I’ve used to mop up red wine spillages in the studio after hours, the studio, it’s all happened in the studio. It’s all in there somehow, Rome, the BSR, the whole thing.

John’s work will be exhibited alongside the six other resident artists in the June Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 June 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 June 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by John Robertson.

June Mostra 2018 / Meet the artists… Damien Meade

As we approach the June Mostra, our third exhibition of this academic year, we will be publishing a series of blogs taking a closer look at the individual practices of our seven resident artists. Our next interview is with Damien Meade (Abbey Fellow in Painting).

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Photo Antonio Palmieri

Your work involves processes that evolve over a period of time. Tell us more about your method of working…

It is a long drawn-out process – from researching imagery to a finished painting, it can be an extended period of time, sometimes even a year or more.

I usually start with clay, with which I make objects and surfaces that I use as props for my paintings. Sometimes what I do with the clay is informed by a sketch, other times it is a notion, idea or feeling. I use clay as a way of sketching in 3D, a method of processing ideas or images.

I try to embrace the formlessness of the clay, in that I often stop short of any refinement or any full realisation of any intention. This part of the process constantly throws unexpected results back at you. Sometimes when you turn to what you have made, often what you were expecting to see is transformed just by the shifting of an angle.

The objects and surfaces that I make are not necessarily interesting in-and-of themselves, it is only when they are lit or viewed from a certain angle that they can give me an image that provokes a painting. I’ll spend a month or so working with clay and building a bank of images, editing as I go. When I have a series of images that hold my attention, that’s when I begin to pursue them in painting.

I set to painting for a number of months at a time. Each actual painting can take anything from just a few days to a few weeks, and I generally work on multiple things simultaneously. Things that aren’t working will be turned to the wall and forgotten about, until one day I see them anew, with greater objectivity, and I’ll work into them again, making changes until they make me want to look at them again.


Untitled, 2018, Oil on panel, 65 x 49.5 cm


You mention that you start working with a clay model that over time becomes the painting. How do you recognise the completion of the model?

I don’t really. The sculptures are made quick and fast. Like I say, some hold my attention and others don’t. All I look for is that. Sometimes it is only when I am midway through the process of painting, or I have even spent weeks on it, that I lose interest in it and it is gone.

It is about settling on an image that sustains persistent looking, that keeps me there and holds my attention in that way. There is always an element of doubt throughout the entire process, will the image survive this degree of interrogation. But as finished paintings, when they work, they still have this effect on me.


While you have been in Rome have you encountered anything specific that you can imagine coming into your work?

I thought I came here to look at paintings, but it is the sculptures and objects that have really affected me – ancient Greek and Roman in particular.

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Ancient sculpture from inside the Vatican Octagonal court

It’s hard to talk about it beyond cliché, but of course with these relics its all about an extreme sensuality, and something uncanny – one thing invested with the qualities of another. In a kind of substitution of matter, you almost begin to see these relics as the ancients did – as alchemical in nature. And how this all permeates through time, through flesh as ruin. And the city itself – all that mediated matter and stratified layers of human activity. Like that sense of vertigo you get when you stagger between what was then and what is now, you start to see the city as one colossal archaic object, succumbing to entropy.

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‘Statue of Aphrodite, so-called charis’ Hadrianic period (AD 117-138), after original of the 5th century BC

In terms of how this will affect my work, I don’t know. As I say, evidence of the mediation of matter is everywhere here, and that’s precisely what I do as a painter and sculptor. Clay, like paint, is matter (or mineral) bound by fluid, and so in making paintings of clay, mineral mimics mineral. It interests me the role that minerals played in the genesis of life; that micro-instant when in a vent at the bottom of the ocean, geochemistry first became biochemistry. This perceived shifting of properties, between the animate and inanimate, the profane and the divine, is everywhere in this city. But maybe the influence of Rome is already in the paintings I have been working on for this coming Mostra. It’s all been getting under my skin a bit. It is a much broader and more immersive experience than just the influence of a singular work.

Damien’s work will be exhibited alongside the six other resident artists in the June Mostra. The opening will take place on Friday 15 June 18.30-21.00. Opening hours 16.30-19.00 until Saturday 23 June 2018, closed Sundays.

Interview by Alice Marsh (Communications & Events). Photos by Damien Meade.





Discovering the future of the past at the Vatican Library

In the world of digital humanities, attracting ‘buy-in’ and investment for digitization projects can be a challenge of David and Goliath proportions. Small libraries and archives often struggle to find their way in building consensus and interest around their unique collections. This was one of the key themes of last week’s conference Digitization and libraries: the future of the past organised by the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford) and the Vatican Library.

With the superb chairing of Richard Ovenden (Bodley’s Librarian), some notable speakers explored various methods of scholarly apprenticeship and practice (Anthony Grafton (Princeton) and Timothy Janz (Vatican Library)), the so-called ‘archaeology of readers’, the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project (Paola Manoni, Coordinator of IT services at the Vatican Library), and the use of IIIF protocol. 

Screenshot BAV

Emma Stanford (Bodleian Libraries Digital Curator) gave an insight into the use of social media showing how much can be done to increase access to, and engagement with, Library collections across wider audiences, unlocking the potential of so-called ‘citizen science’.

Since 2000, the BSR has been working hard to build up its own digital collections to meet the standards that are so important for Libraries and Archives and their future – the future of the pastKristian Jensen’s (BSR FAHL member, and Head of Collections and Curation at the British Library) paper on digital projects with BNCF (Paris) – funded by the Polonsky Foundation – discussed some of the conflicts threatening textual cultural heritage.

Interoperability is the term used to describe the building of metadata in such a way that they can be shared with and understood by other systems. This was the key principle on which our Digital Collections website was designed, adopting descriptive, administrative and technical metadata to bring together meaningful information both on analogue objects and their digital counterparts.

Jill Cousins (Director and CEO of the Hunt Museum, Limerick) explained the importance of metadata, with quality being preferable to quantity in terms of making content visible and accessible.jill c

Slide from Jill Cousins’ presentation

As we have built up our digital collections over the years here at the BSR, we have learned that enriching our records with appropriate metadata based on thesauri and controlled vocabularies is essential. We have not been mean in this respect!

Cousins also discussed open access and open content. The latter requires a thorough analysis of rights statements be applied to collections, which can then be labelled using the appropriate Creative Commons licence. Still, fear prevents many institutions from releasing their digital content without restrictions.

Collaborative projects based on shared metadata can also help rebuild collections of books scattered across Europe, as Cristina Dondi (Oakeshott Senior Research Fellow in the Humanities at Lincoln College, Oxford, and Secretary of the CERL) proposed in presenting her five-year ERC-funded project 15cBOOKTRADE. Collaboration is key to Digital Humanities projects and should also be promoted between researchers in both the humanities and the sciences.

It was more than encouraging to know that we have been on the right path since taking up the challenge of transforming our resources into digital assets, now a fundamental part of our day-to-day work. We may be small but we think big!


Alessandra Giovenco (Archivist)

Beatrice Gelosia (BSR Deputy Librarian)