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Conference Reviews

38th Annual Conference and Bookfair Association of Art Historians
The Open University, Milton Keynes, 29-31 March 2012


The Association of Art Historians (AAH) conference is the largest and, arguably, most important platform for exchange of ideas and art-historical debate in Britain. It is an intensely programmed, well attended event:  this year just short of 500 delegates were present, largely from Britain but also from 28 other countries worldwide. Over 250 papers were presented, ranging from the 11th century Master of Pedret to American artists collectives of the 1970s.

Concerns with oppositions and awareness of contrasts, if not a desire for synthesis altogether, were central to many of the 33 sessions presented: between evolution and destruction (Picturing Evolution and Destruction: Regeneration and Degeneration in Modern Visual Culture), between dominating histories and their suppression (Conflicting Art Histories; Lost Histories of Architecture), between theory and praxis (From Museum Critique to the Critical Museum) and between past and present (Out of Time).

It is difficult to single out sessions within such a rich programme, but the coherence and quality of the papers in Walls with Stories: Mural Painting in Britain from the 1860s to the 1960s and Sculpture and its Exhibition Histories were exemplary. Sessions with wider scope, such as Out of Time, Art History Beyond National Boundaries and Art and Destruction were also important, as they presented an overwiew on how similar methodological concerns are shared by scholars working on diverse chronological periods.

A faultless organisation matched the high standard of the papers and the two plenary sessions had wide appeal: Lord Puttnam, Chancellor of the Open University, made a compelling argument to preserve arts funding in Britain and Penelope Curtis, Director of Tate Britain, introduced the changes which will take place in the building and display of this museum. The interest and diversity of the material on offer made this an important event even in the impersonal setting of the ghost campus of the Open University.