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The Sackler Research Forum: A Useful Research Platform

The twinkling fairy lights dangling in the Sackler Research Forum are surprisingly alluring; it looks cozy and ambient. I am sure that was a clever marketing decision partly to lend Vernon Square a warmer aesthetic and centralising it as the new (albeit temporary home) of the Courtauld. At the same time, the festively snug room could partly be to balance the intensely academic ideas that are thrown around inside it. Or maybe I just can’t keep up sometimes.

In 2003, the Sackler Research Forum was established with the aid of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which continues to support it to this day, alongside funding from The Sackler Trust. To both Courtauld students and the public, the Forum offers lectures, conferences, workshops and seminars all about the history of art, conservation and museum studies. Personally, I think this is a great thing about the Courtauld; that we are offered access to extra seminars and lectures. A huge part of the audience for these events are students, but the postgrad attendees massively outnumber the undergrads. Looking over the upcoming events, and speaking from my experience of attending them, they do seem more steered to those later in their studies. Usually, they are quite specific fields, which is excellent for people who are ready to delve into a specialism. And the speakers or guests that are invited, or specially flown in, are experts in their discipline. But how relevant and useful can the Research Forum be to Courtauld students, both undergrad and postgrad?

Screenshot of The Courtauld's Sackler Research Forum Page (Photo:

I was very excited to go to an event recently, called ‘Weimar’s Others’, which was focused around a book launch. At launch events like this, it pretty much means you get the most up-to-date, this-is-happening-now information, which is refreshing if your reading lists consist of authors writing from the 50s. It also means you get the most modern perspectives on issues that were previously glossed over. The new scholarship of the art history of the Weimar period foregrounds questions of gender, queer identity, disability studies, and critical race. Focusing on art historical margins has the potential to change our perception of what the Republic was, or, on the other hand, confirm the dominant narratives of political danger and moral decay. During the Q&A, most of the conversation was debating the correctness and accuracy of key terms used by art historians and curators studying Weimar culture. It is these kinds of insights that make the Research Forum so valuable. Even though this particular event seemed aimed more at active historians and researchers in the field, rather than students, it is important to have an awareness of the current debates in art history.

It is a rich vein to be tapped, which is why the Forum has two main strands: advanced research for a loyal audience of art historians and humanities researchers, and the Open Courtauld strand, which aims to reach out to a wider audience. A portion of the audience is current Courtauld students. Of course, not everybody is in the mood to go to extra lectures at the end of the day, especially if you’ve been battling a spout of brain fog. So it’s a good thing not all of the speakers are purely academics. The first Research Forum event I attended was a talk given by Ellen Nolan, who is an artist and photographer as well as a university lecturer. After inheriting a suitcase of photographs and documents, belonging to her great aunt, Nolan studied the role of clothes in her great aunt’s life and their function as a historical document. I remember it vividly as a big style inspiration, as well as a new point of interest for me. Earlier this month, Sussan Deyhim performed an audio-visual compilation of her works. In touch with her Iranian and American roots, her performance was personal and forward-looking. With over 150 events per year, it really does seem that broadness of subjects and audience is a driving factor for the Forum.

The RESFEST 2018 Belfast poster (Photo by the Courtauld)

The Forum also has a Festival; the flagship event RESFEST (short for Research Festival) happens twice per year, once in London, in April, and the other off-campus. Last year’s was in Belfast at the Ulster Museum, in celebration of the connections between London and Northern Ireland created by Samuel Courtauld. Fun fact: Samuel funded his collection through Courtauld Ltd, a textiles company, for which eight factories were in Northern Ireland. The next RESFEST is later this month, at the V&A, Dundee. There will be a curator’s talk, a DJ and Rujazzle’s installation ‘Queering the Canon’. At expanding the fields of debate, and spreading interest of the field, the Forum is affirmatively useful. I do not think the events need to be specifically tailored to younger students, as they aim not as much to teach but more to debate and progress. But maybe an ideas box could be introduced for the absent undergrads’ suggestions; if there’s any specific field that isn’t covered in the curriculum that these students would be motivated to go and hear about.

Their overarching goal, as stated by the Head of Research (and lover of medieval chickens) Alixe Bovey, is “to be a platform for research, debate and innovative practice in the history of art, curating and conservation, and to celebrate the extraordinarily rich subject.” The discussions and exchanges going on at the Forum is an irreplaceable part of the art history ecosystem in London. You can network, if you’re good at that. If not, it can be enhanced by the free wine. I am not going to conclude with a list of upcoming events, as I’m sure you’ve all had the blanket emails. Though I will say that the Forum events, as cozy as they are, are a good way to learn about anything that doesn’t come up in your day-to-day degree.

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