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The University of Southampton
HistoryPart of Humanities

Dr Jonathan Conlin BA Oxon MA PhD Cantab FRHistS FHA

Senior Lecturer; MA History Convenor

Dr Jonathan Conlin's photo

History is past politics, and politics present history.

I am a historian of British cultural history from c. 1750 to the present, with a particular interest in the history of museums. My books include a history of the National Gallery and the first comparative history of Paris and London, and have been translated into seven languages. Alongside academic journals I have written for The Conversation, GQ, Sight and Sound and History Today. In 2017 I co-founded The Lausanne Project, which explores the legacy of the Treaty of Lausanne a century on. In 2019 Profile published Mr Five Per Cent, a biography of the Anglo-Armenian oil magnate, financier and art collector Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), that won the BAC Wadsworth Prize for Business History.

In 2021 Columbia University Press commissioned me to write The Met: A People's History of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For more on this ground-breaking project, see the "Research" tab, below.

Born and raised in New York (where I spent a good deal of time in the Met), I studied History and Modern Languages at the University of Oxford, spending a year at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn, Germany. After a Masters in History of Art at the Courtauld Institute I moved to Cambridge for my doctorate. Before coming to Southampton I was Junior Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and briefly worked for the BBC, as Specialist Researcher on the 2007 Michael Buerk series Trade Roots, which investigated ties between British institutions and the slave trade.

Alongside my Southampton teaching I have taught history of economic thought at the École Supérieure des Sciences Commerciales d'Angers (ESSCA) and held Visiting Fellowships at Dumbarton Oaks, Huntington Library, Lewis Walpole Library and Princeton University Library. To celebrate the fortieth anniversaries of the landmark BBC television series Civilisation (1969) and Ways of Seeing (1972) I organized a series of screenings and talks at the National Gallery, British Film Institute and National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Tales of Two Cities
Tales of Two Cities
The Nations Mantelpiece
The Nations Mantelpiece
Evolution and the Victorians
Evolution and the Victorians
Vauxhall Revisited
Vauxhall Revisited
Civilisation
Civilisation
Critical Lives
Critical Lives
Great Economic Thinkers
Great Economic Thinkers
Making History
Making History
Mr. Five Per Cent
Mr. Five Per Cent

Research interests

The Met is one of the greatest museums in the world, housing the artefacts whose images are instantly-recognizable ciphers of civilisation. But what about those who made and restored, bought and sold, catalogued, guarded, wore and visited those artefacts?

The People's History of the Met is the story of the people behind and in front of the familiar objects. The story of how a diverse set of communities in "the third great city of the civilized world" collected an astonishing wealth of remarkable objects, and made them their own — in the process creating a world-class institution displaying the very best of human creativity. With the Met under fire for allegedly failing to serve a diverse public, an account of the institution that puts the people's stories front and centre could not be more timely.

While the book will be structured broadly chronologically, chapters will be organized around these communities rather than directors' "reigns", landmark extensions or bequests. Opening chapters will consider the role of male artists and "robber barons", but also women, children and newly-arrived residents of Manhattan's Lower East Side. The emergence of the American Wing will be placed in the context of 1920s debates surrounding immigration, while that of a modern curatorial profession will be revisited, highlighting the women among the "Museum Men". Later chapters will introduce communities which have been entirely overlooked by traditional museum biographies, such as guards, suburbanites, tourists and the black and Latinx communities. The book will conclude by considering the Met's troubled 150th celebrations in 2020, highlighting the many analogies with earlier episodes in its history (for all the storm and stress, the Met has been here before, and will be again). It will make the case for such "universal museums" as cherished crucibles, not of exclusionary identity politics, but of shared curiosity and wonder at human creativity.

Research for this book is opening up a raft of archival and other sources and testimonies not previously considered by museum historians. I am eager to hear from anyone holding materials or memories overlooked by traditional accounts, whether they be of working for or visiting this great institution. It is time those stories were told.

Research Projects

Charles Kingsley 200 festival: Eversley 14-15 June 2019

In June 2019 a Hampshire village brought a Victorian author and controversialist back to life, using the latest historical research to explore former parish priest Charles Kingsley's legacy for contemporary debates on sexuality, race, capitalism, science and faith.

Crude History: A award-winning biography of global oil pioneer

A five-year research project funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the Gulbenkian Biography Project shed new light on the enigmatic and publicity-shy businessman, diplomat and art collector behind such household names as Shell and Total.

"They Made Peace - What Is Peace?" Lausanne and Its Legacy

The 1923 Lausanne Treaty remade the Middle East after WW1, with repercussions we continue to feel a century on. The Lausanne Project is a forum for scholarly exchange on the conference and discussion of its significance today, and is developing exhibitions and publications for the 2023 centenary.

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Articles

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Creative Media and Artefacts

Role-play exercise in Bloomberg Suite
Role-play exercise in Bloomberg Suite

All my modules are delivered using the “flipped classroom” model: hands-on, skills-based workshops, peer assessment and role-plays replace traditional lectures, leading students beyond the seminar room walls, across the university, city and wider region. Seminars take in the relatively familiar (Hartley Special Collections), the unusual (Southampton Crematorium, Exxon’s Fawley oil refinery) and the experimental (a role-play exercise using Social Sciences’ Bloomberg Suite).

With the support of the university’s Estates & Facilities department and Southampton City Art Gallery I recently designed two new modules which will change how our undergraduates interact with their university and city: HIST1181 Room for Improvement invites them to explore the history of higher education in Britain by studying the design of familiar campus buildings, bringing the backdrop of their lives centre stage. HIST2230 Portraiture: Curating the Self sees students curate their own temporary exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery.

Modules

HIST1084 Cities of the Dead: Death, Mourning and Remembrance in Victorian Britain
HIST2216 Oil Burns the Hands: Power, Politics and Petroleum in Iraq, 1900-1958
HIST3116 Between Private Memory and Public History
HIST3142 Passions and Profits: Wealth, Freedom and Virtue in the Age of Adam Smith (Pt. 1: Texts)
HIST3146 Passions and Profits: Wealth, Freedom and Virtue in the Age of Adam Smith (Pt. 2: Contexts)

Areas where I can offer supervision:

Modern British politics and culture; Victorian evolution and historiography; history of museums and arts broadcasting; history of the oil industry.

Recently-completed theses have addressed the history of tableaux vivants in the long nineteenth century and libertarian conservatism in High Victorian Britain.

Here are some examples of publications that emerged from research by my graduate as well as by my undergraduate students:

Dr Jonathan Conlin
History, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BF
Email address: jgwc2@soton.ac.uk

Room Number: 65/2073

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