Biography

I joined the University of Portsmouth as Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture in 2008 and became Reader in 2013. I am a member of the Visual Culture team, providing a spine of historical and theoretical studies to undergraduate courses in Art and Design, culminating in a dissertation or research project in the final year. I also supervise PhD theses and help to mentor colleagues in research and practice.

I graduated in 1988 from a new interdisciplinary course in Cultural History at the University of Aberdeen, where I was awarded the university's Lyon Prize for distinction in finals. I then completed a British Academy-funded DPhil in History at the University of Oxford, with a thesis on the founding of the circus in 18th-century England. This was at Magdalen College, where I received the Richard Selig Prize for poetry and was elected president of the Middle Common Room. 

Previous academic roles include tutoring History at Somerville College, Oxford, and lecturing in Cultural Studies at Southampton Institute (now Solent University). In 1996 I held the Douglas W. Bryant visiting fellowship in 18th-century studies at the Houghton Library, Harvard University and then became Senior Research Fellow in History of Design jointly at the Victoria and Albert Museum and Royal College of Art until 1998. For nearly ten years after that, I served as lecturer in History of Art and Fellow of St. Catherine's College at the University of Oxford. In this post, I ran the doctoral programme, helped set up a new BA course, devised and taught a popular master's option in history of collecting and was Acting Head of Department for a period. 

Research Interests

I apply cultural history to my exhibition curatorship and working with artists and designers to develop creative ideas. Topic-areas in which I have worked include not only the history of circus and popular entertainment in England during the era of high imperialism and industrialization, as explored in my doctoral thesis and subsequent publications, but also material culture, collecting and memory, and more recently the relationship of visual culture with the sciences, in particular neuroscience. I have also written many catalogue and monograph essays in contemporary art, especially in areas of transcultural art and globalization. I have curated major international themed exhibitions in museums as well as working on more pinpointed, monographic shows in university galleries and the commercial art sector. 

In 2005, I devised and co-curated a major exhibition on the dendritic or branching form in scientific visual culture at the Museum of Design Zurich, entitled Simply Complex (einfach Komplex). This featured examples of technical imagery and new art commissions and installations. In our CCI Faculty's former SPACE and Eldon galleries in 2010, I organized the exhibition of Beth Fisher’s large-scale figurative drawings about the life-cycle and the family, Grisaille Legacy, on tour from the Royal Scottish Academy. Wellcome Collection then invited me to guest curate its major exhibition Brains: the Mind as Matter, which took place in London in 2012 and was revised for MSI Manchester in 2013. This newly looked at the brain as an artefact of material and visual practices and was the most popular exhibition ever held by Wellcome, attracting over 205,000 visitors over a total of seven months; the associated online game, Axon, got over 3 million plays in the first month and one of our videos has by August 2021 surpassed 8.7 million views.

In 2015, I co-curated with Sundaram Tagore an official collateral event of the Venice Art Biennale, Frontiers Re-imagined: Art That Connects Us, in the historic Museo di Palazzo Grimani. Featuring some 44 artists from 25 countries, from emerging talents such as Sasha Huber to masters such as Sebastiao Salgado and Robert Rauschenberg, this exhibition explored art as a means of inter-cultural encounter and fusion. It was one of the most popular and acclaimed events of the Biennale, with The Art Newspaper and other periodicals placing it in the top five of very many in the city that year, and attracting 25,000 visitors.  

Other curatorial and commissioning projects have included new work, supported by the Henry Moore Foundation, with Scottish sculptor Annie Catrell, FRSA, FRSS, dance artists Charlie Morrissey and Andrea Buckley, and film artist Frances Scott. This interpreted Bernini's baroque masterpiece Apollo and Daphne, from Ovid, in the Borghese Gallery in Rome and took shape in 2017 as a large video and sculpture installation entitled Transformation at the Ruskin Gallery, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. It coincided with the inauguration of Cattrell's major permanent, kinetic public artwork of the same title as part of the University's New Science Building. 

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