Iconoclasms -practices of the pas; interpretations of the present

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: History and Cultures


Iconoclasm - image or object breaking - is sometimes thought of as a phenomenon of the past. But to what extent does it remain part of our present experience, continuing to have impact on our futures? Was Picasso correct when he claimed 'Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction'? The Taliban's televised destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha in 2001, the 9/11 suicide bombers' attack on the Twin Towers, and live news coverage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in 2003 gave iconoclasms an international media profile. The media and the public use iconoclasms to image and imagine modern conflict. Iconoclasms remain important in the modern, visually literate, world because they involve breaking (and remaking) signs of cultural significance.

The Iconoclasms network brings together established academics, early career scholars, doctoral students, curators, conservators and artists from the UK, Europe and the USA to move forward the cross-disciplinary, cross-sector, comparative study of iconoclasms. It will promote understanding of changing attitudes to the meanings and values of representations, the development of visual cultures, and the ways in which images, objects and buildings are used to mediate power relations. The public as a whole reacts to incidents of iconoclasm; one of our major goals is to move common perceptions beyond reaction to dialogue, and to extend the debate about iconoclasms into the public sphere. As part of this process the discussions and research enabled by the network will help inform the development of a major public exhibition on Iconoclasm at Tate Britain and associated publications.

In recent years a number of significant publications have focused on iconoclasm, several of them emerging from conferences or exhibitions. However, to date, such projects have been 'one-offs'; the iconoclasms network, in contrast, will enable a sustained comparative debate and leave a lasting legacy. The network will grow during the term of the grant with a series of events hosted by the project's core partners. A two-day workshop will be held at Tate Britain in 2011; a second one will follow at the University of Notre Dame in 2012; and a final workshop will be held at the University of Birmingham, immediately following the opening of the Tate exhibition in September 2013 where selected participants will engage in a Scholars' Morning at the museum.

Prior to each workshop, panellists will circulate papers (others may circulate images of art they have produced) to each other, before responding to the writings/objects at the events and, along with audience members, shaping the workshops' agendas as discussions develop on the day. About half of the first workshop will focus on visual examples that relate to the 2013 exhibition at Tate Britain. The discussions at the first and second events will inform development of the exhibition and associated publications. The discussion at the third will concentrate on the impact and legacy of the project and the exhibition. Focusing our discussion on the exhibition itself will allow us to debate how we have debated, to focus our minds on how best to identify and embed the benefits we have gained from cross-disciplinary, cross-sector collaboration, and to ensure the project's legacy.

Participation in the network will inform the authors of the Tate exhibition catalogue. In addition, participants will be invited to contribute to a book of selected academic papers. Throughout the project an email network will welcome new members, circulating the papers presented and the notes that are transcribed and projected live during the project's events, moving debates along between meetings. While senior scholars, curators, conservators and artists will manage the network and contribute to it, early career academics and postgraduates will be key participants from the outset - their engagement will help to ensure the network's post-project longevity.

Planned Impact

The Taliban's televised destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 and live news coverage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in 2003 (not to mention the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989) gave iconoclasm an international media profile, and the idea of iconoclasm remains prominent in the public imagination. The media and the public use iconoclasm to image and imagine modern conflict. These issues came up during our initial 2009 workshop at the University of Harvard, and we will dedicate a session at all subsequent workshops to discussion of how best to ensure that the project builds on iconoclasm's media profile to impact on non-academic audiences.

More specifically, we are already working with the curatorial and research staff at Tate to ensure that the iconoclasms project informs, and is informed by, the curatorial processes involved in developing an exhibition that is intended to be Tate Britain's major show of Autumn 2013, 'Iconoclasm'. This exhibition is targeted at the broadest possible audience, and learning events aimed at all ages will be run for its duration. The format of all of the workshops that inform the exhibition's development will join traditional intellectual inquiry with curatorial 'brainstorming' about specific objects, so that the 'academic' participants will, in effect, act for part of the workshop as agents to stimulate curatorial thought processes, while the curatorial and fine art participants will act as agents to stimulate academic thought processes about iconoclasms.

Key curatorial stakeholders in the network include staff from other museums besides the Tate curatorial team: Dr Simon Baker (Tate, curator of photography, who has published widely on iconoclasm), Dr Stacy Boldrick (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Research and Interpretation Manager, who co-edited a recent volume on iconoclasm and co-curated Wonder, an exhibition that explored the destruction of medieval sculpture), and Mr Simon Cane (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Deputy Director, a widely published expert on conservation and a representative of a key stakeholder in the Tate Plus network of museums). Each of these collections' holdings includes artefacts that have either been subjected to iconoclasm or pertain directly to the network's discussion of 'symbolic' iconoclasm. We will consider how the stake-holding museums could best embed 'academic' network members in, for example, writing text panels, museum leaflets, or digital content pertaining to pertinent objects within their collections. We anticipate that these discussions will result in outputs that allow museum's expertise in communicating with wider audiences to assist transmission of the network's findings to wider publics. At the same time, it is clear from our experience at the first workshop, our current discussions with Tate, and our earlier collaborative research work with MLAs that the expertise of curators, conservators and practicing artists will impact productively - and creatively - on the academic debate.

The project's outcomes and outputs (including publications associated with the exhibition) will improve audiences' understandings of the past and present (generating social and quality of life impact) and would promote visits (generating economic impact by potentially benefitting museums' income streams and encouraging tourism). However, the network's sustained discussion of impact beyond the academy will also move forward debates regarding the challenges faced by incorporating the histories of iconoclasm into conservational, curatorial and fine art discourses and practices (are conservators, curators, and artists by definition iconoclasts?). Such discussions, especially when reported to academic and museum colleagues via the project participants' own professional networks, will provide social impact by promoting the benefits of new ways of cross-sec


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Boldrich S (2013) Striking Images

Description New insights into the use of visual communications and the transformation of visual signs
Exploitation Route As the basis for museum labels and, especially, museum education departments.
As part of the intellectual development of scholars and other interested in material culture and/or art history.
Sectors Creative Economy

Description As input into an exhibition at Tate Britain (London) 'Art Under Attack' 2013
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural