Issue 18 : Autumn 2004
Dr. Deborah Swallow, the newly appointed Director of the Courtauld Institute took up her duties at the beginning of the Autumn term, 2004. She succeeds Prof. James Cuno, who has become the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Dr. Swallow read English at New Hall, University of Cambridge, and gained her PhD in Social Anthropology at Darwin College, Cambridge. From 1974-1983, whilst being an assistant curator at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, she was Lecturer and Director of Studies in Anthropology at Girton College and was also Fellow of Darwin College.
Since 1983, she has served as Assistant Keeper, Acting Keeper, and Chief Curator of the Victoria and Albert Museums Indian Department, and Senior Chief Curator of the Museum. Most recently, as Director of Collections, she has had strategic responsibilities including acquisitions, research, assistant curator training, regional policy and outreach, and national and international relations. As Keeper, Dr. Swallow was responsible for the management of the Asian Department.
Dr. Swallow is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a member of the Advisory Board of the Nehru Centre (High Commission of India) and an Executive Trustee for the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections at the V& A. She is a specialist in the history of the relationships between British, Indian and South-East Asian textiles and dress, and in the ways sectarian and cult affiliation have been expressed through the patronage of art and the endowment of religion, both in its built and material forms and as ceremonial and ritual performance. She has published widely on these subjects.
Of Dr. Swallow, Nicholas Ferguson, Chairman of the Governing Board of the Courtauld Institute said, "Dr, Swallow brings to the Courtauld the right combination of skills and experience to lead us into the future. She is a proven leader and committed to the highest standards in teaching and research."
Before she took up her post as Director, I had a conversation with Deborah Swallow about her attitudes to art, history, and her experience, both professional and academic, which makes her such an exciting appointment at a time when the Courtauld Institute faces fundamental questions about its role in art and cultural history.
" 'Woman museum curator, with non-art-historical background, with oriental expertise becomes director of western-oriented art-historical university. You would seem to be an unusual choice to supervise the next period at the Courtauld."
"I have worked in contexts where being a woman is not an issue. Anthropology at Cambridge was peopled with leading lights who were women, and that has been the case since the 1930s. At the V & A. I never had a sense of a distinction between male and female. It is a balanced institution which had a female director for several years. On a personal level, a feminine slant is not at the forefront of my consciousness.
"As to a non-art-historian — the Courtauld may seem to have taken a brave step! My first degree was in English literature, my next social anthropology. Approaches to the study of the non-western material world in anthropology have become much closer to those of the art historical world and both disciplines have learned hugely from each other. My anthropological colleagues might see my writing recently as art history. There is no dilemma there for me.
"Much of my non-western interest in recent years has been related to the interplay between east and west, and to the impact on India of western art and architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries. Amongst other things, I have collected work by modern artists from the Indian sub-continent for the V & A. In the 20th and 21st centuries it is impossible to treat these as isolated traditions.
"I have discovered that Courtauld already relates to traditions beyond Europe and the Western world. The work of the Research Forum has a broad range. So do the exhibitions in the Hermitage Rooms. Aspects of the work of several of the staff of the Institute reach into the middle eastern traditions, and the Roman expansion into the larger near-eastern world. Issues facing European medievalists have direct parallels in other parts of the world. From the other end, archaeology has been finding further evidence of Roman trade into India, and studies of the Greco-Roman influence in Gandhara in north-west Pakistan have led to increasingly sophisticated discussion about indigenous and imported traditions and the social contexts of stylistic transmission through west central Asia and Iran to mainland Greece. I would argue that we need to move beyond a view of the world, which simply counter-poses East and West. They are all interconnected in multiple ways. The same disciplines, applied with the same intellectual rigour, are required for their study.
"I feel privileged to be joining an institution with such a great reputation, with its outstanding scholars and students, with the exceptional benefit of a superb collection under its care and with its promise of a dynamic future. I look forward to strengthening established relationships and to initiating new partnerships between the Courtauld Institute and other institutions of artistic endeavour."
We wish her well in her future with the Institute.
Editor, CIA News