I joined the University of Portsmouth as Senior Lecturer in Visual Culture in 2008 and became Reader in 2013. I enjoy the versatility required in teaching in the School of Art and Design, working at the boundaries of theory, practice and history. The Visual Culture staff offers a spine of historical and theoretical scholarship throughout the 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 Lyon Prize for achievement 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. I was based 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 very popular master's option in history of collecting and was Acting Head of Department for a period.
I apply cultural history to my exhibition curatorship and working with artists and designers to develop creative ideas. Much of my teaching adopts a similar approach. 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. Themes of the body, cognition and knowledge tend to link these various fields. 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 February 2021 surpassed 5.8 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 among the top five or higher of the many in the city that year, and attracting 25,000 visitors. All the above exhibitions have incorporated substantial publications, for which I was a leading writer and, in several cases, editor; they have of course also involved other extensive public engagement activities through news media, marketing and so on.