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Prof Robert Lumley
Appointment
  • Professor of Italian Cultural History
  • SELCS
  • Faculty of Arts & Humanities
 
 
Biography

I studied Modern History at Oxford University before following a MA at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham where I subsequently completed a Ph.D on social and cultural movements in Italy, 1968-78, under the supervision of Richard Johnson. At Oxford I had the good fortune to have Richard Cobb as my tutor for the special subject on the French Revolution, and I regularly attended the Ruskin History Workshop conferences initiated by Raphael Samuel. I was, partly as a consequence, interested principally in social history and ‘history from below’. At CCCS, then under the inspired directorship of Stuart Hall, I participated as a research student in the formation of the newly emerging field of cultural studies, and  sought to bring this approach to the study of politics and culture in Italy. My fascination with all things Italian goes back to the months between school and university - a shorter equivalent of what is now called a 'gap year' - during which I did a language course in Perugia followed by an extended period of hitch-hiking that involved seeing all the works of Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio in the peninsula. But this attraction to ‘high culture’ was offset by an interest in politics and the contemporary. Looking back I realize how fortunate I was to be free of debts and free as a postgraduate student to experiment with new approaches to research. I would like students today to enjoy at least some of that freedom to study without immediate anxiety about careers and earning a living. Life after the completion of the PhD was difficult because cuts in education funding in the 1980s made finding a permanent university job hard. I did a good deal of part-time teaching in different institutions in the Midlands and London before securing a lectureship in Italian Studies at Sussex University in 1989, and then UCL. In the interim, I managed to publish a book – Museum Time-Machine – that brought a cultural studies approach to a long-neglected field, and to co-organise (with Zygmunt Baranski) a conference ‘Turbulent Transitions: Culture and Conflict in Contemporary Italy’ whose papers formed that basis of an eponymous volume, now a document in the foundation of Italian cultural studies. From 1990, UCL has constituted an ideal environment for research. Not only have I benefitted from the historic strengths of department of Italian, but work being done in other departments, notably Anthropology, Architecture, the Slade, and History of Art, have presented wonderful opportunities for collaboration of an interdisciplinary kind. I have personally worked closely with colleagues in these areas in research on the city and on art movements. In 1996 this led to four months at NYU as part of a UCL/NYU exchange connected to urban research directed by Richard Sennett. This milieu was fundamental in enabling me to redirect my work towards visual culture and contemporary art, notably Arte Povera. Seminars at UCL with colleagues from the Slade and History of Art anticipated the international conference I co-organised at Tate Modern in 2001 at the time of the exhibition Zero to Infinity, Arte Povera 1962-72. From 2004 my research extended into avant-garde film, focusing on the work of the pioneers of historical found-footage or archival cinema - Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. 


Research Groups
Research Themes
Research Summary

My research has changed and evolved over the past thirty years but coheres around a number of concerns in the domain of cultural history with a focus on Italy in the second half of the twentieth century. Earlier research was concerned in particular with political culture and the relationship between social movements and cultural forms. The book States of Emergency. Cultures of Revolt in Italy, 1968-78 (Verso, 1990) is still widely cited in studies in the field. My research from 1996, when I was a visiting scholar at New York University, turned increasingly to contemporary art and visual culture. My work on the Arte Povera art movement and its urban contexts was part of a collaborative AHRC research project on the Italian city. Work on Arte Povera led to collaboration in the preparation of the landmark exhibition Zero to Infinity, Arte Povera 1962-1972, held at Tate Modern and the Walker Arts Center in 2001-02 that included a catalogue essay and the curating of a film programme. I have found it interesting and stimulating to combine research with curating when possible. Further research on Arte Povera was disseminated through books but also in an exhibition at the Estorick Gallery in 2004 entitled From Futurism to Arte Povera: The Marcello Levi Collection. I am preoccupied by the material forms of the art work and modes of exhibition as well as by the historical context in which they were originally realised. I have continued to do research on artists associated with Arte Povera, notably Pino Pascali and Alighiero Boetti, and to publish through catalogues of exhibitions, including the major cycle of exhibitions across Italy organised by Germano Celant in 2011. However, my research extended into cinema from 2004 when I began a project on the experimental filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. I had been fascinated by their palimpsestic use of found footage and archival material from the silent era for some years and followed their progress from the mid 1990s. The coming together of contemporary art practice with visual 'research' on historical memory in the films closely engaged many of my own interests. My research has also included advocacy in that I have sought to get Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi’s work better known within the UK. In November 2011I co-curated a retrospective that was screened at Tate Modern. I continue to do research in this area.


Teaching Summary

My teaching includes undergraduate ‘content’ courses in the First, Second and Final Year, translation from Italian into English for Finalists, and significant contributions to MA courses in Italian Studies and to the 'Visual Culture' component of the MA of the School of European Language Culture and Society (SELCS). Over the past two years I have introduced several new courses: for Italian, 'Imagining the Nation: Italian Unification'  (Yr. 1), and ‘Futurism in Italy’ (Yr. 2), and for ELCS '"Raging Broom of Madness": Futurism and Modernity' (Intermediate), and ‘Critical Divides: Art, Life and Politics in Europe, 1958-69’ (Yr. 4). I have found the creation of the School of European Language Culture and Society an excellent opportunity for developing the curriculum more broadly and for translating knowledge and ideas from my research into the learning environment. On the one hand, it has been possible to maintain and extend a specialist national focus, and, on the other, to make connections with a wider European cultural history. The key common denominator is the concept of ‘visual culture’. Although it is an area with which Italy is closely identified, teaching provision has tended to be limited within the UK and more widely to offering Italian and Art History joint honours, with a focus on the Renaissance. The new ELCS courses in particular build on the broader base of study and teaching that UCL has to offer in three ways: firstly, by elaborating the category of visual culture to encompass but go beyond the domain of art history (by including, for example, design and film); secondly, to introduce new elements into the curriculum to make better use of resources in UCL and London (notably the Estorick Gallery and Tate Modern); and thirdly, by connecting the study of visual culture to political, social and cultural history. The study of visual culture within universities internationally is a significant development and an area in which specialistsin Italian can make a specific contribution. In addition, it provides a productive way of engaging with cultural changes in the wider world and with the varied interests that students bring to their studies. 

I have been involved (in collaboration with Florian Mussgnug) in developing the course 'Qualitative Thinking: Making Value Judgements' for the new Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL.  This new venture provides opportunities for broadening  teaching beyond the boundaries of subject areas to engage with a new type of student and with the prospect of a new direction in the teaching of undergraduates within UCL.


Academic Background
1983 PhD Doctor of Philosophy University of Birmingham
1975 MA Master of Arts University of Birmingham
1973 BA Bachelor of Arts University of Oxford
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