International Conference of Historical Geographers 2015

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135 Materiality and historical geography (1)
Convenor(s) Ruth Mason (University College London, UK)
Chair(s) Ruth Mason (University College London, UK)
Timetable Friday 10 July 2015, Timeslot 2 (11:30 - 13:15)
Room Royal School of Mines Lecture Theatre 1.31
Session abstract Material culture has long been identified as a potentially useful source for historical, geographical, sociological and anthropological studies. But what can material culture (defined in the broadest sense to embrace: objects, things, ephemera, buildings, urban and rural landscapes, the natural and the man made, the animate and the inanimate, the human and the non-human) offer historical geographies? Anthropologists and sociologists have entered into detailed debates about the definition of ‘material culture’ and what it contributes to research (Miller, Ingold and Latour). In response, historical geography seminars and publications have become increasing full of references to material sources – or the materiality of sources. However, there has been little discussion about the role and potential of using material culture as a source, or what it can contribute to historical geography research. What sorts of material objects can historical geographers engage with? How can they engage with them? And how does engaging with material sources contribute to the development of the discipline? This session will bring together papers that demonstrate various ways of using material culture as a source for historical geography research. By so doing, it will also provide a forum for further discussion about the relationship between material culture and historical geography.
Linked Sessions Materiality and historical geography (2)
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details:
Animal-artifact as archive: Botched-birds reveal the unnatural histories of their making
Merle Patchett (University of Bristol, UK)
A recent vein of creative historical research has highlighted that material encounters and material sources can be rich resources for historical geographers. For the purposes of this presentation an encounter with a collection of “botched-birds” provides the starting point for historical recovery. The collection comprises the taxidermied wings, heads and entire bodies of birds that were used to adorn hats at the height of the plumage trade. During the “Plume Boom” (1880-1914) the business of killing birds for the millinery trade was practiced on a global scale. It involved the deaths of hundreds of millions of birds in many parts of the world. Birds of all kinds were used for both their feather and bodily appearance. London was the centre of the trade in exotic feathers, and in the periodic monthly, bi-monthly and quarterly feather sales, traders and feather merchants were able to bid for the ““skins” and “plumes” and “quills” of the most beautiful and most interesting unprotected birds of the world” (Hornaday 1913: 145). Developing a methodology which figures these feathery remains as object-based archives, I will actively demonstrate how such ‘animal-artefacts’ can be made to reveal the decidedly unnatural histories of their making. Overall I will make the argument that a commitment to using material sources (in whatever form they take) means that historical geographies, which may be obscured by conventional biographical and textual resources, are able to be told.
The Way the West Was Worn: Dressing for the Dude Ranch in 1930s America
Alison L. Goodrum (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK)
The 1930s was a ‘Golden Age’ of dude ranching in the United States. Wealthy clients (‘dudes’), resident in the urban centres of the Eastern seaboard, signed up for an extended vacation at one of many ranches ‘out West’. These dude ranches were advertised as a tonic for modern living and an opportunity to acquire horsemanship in spectacular – yet contained – outdoor spaces. Advertising rhetoric often addressed female tourists, who participated in horse sports and learned traditional skills from ‘college educated cowboys’. This paper focuses on the female dude rancher of the 1930s and her vacation wardrobe. This new form of holidaying brought with it a combination of sartorial challenges that offer insight on the material culture of human-animal activities. Riding dress and the presentation of horse and rider was governed by strict codes. However, these conventions were incongruous in the relaxed, casual atmosphere of the dude ranch, giving rise to an emergent form of riding dress: crumpled, unbuttoned, loose-fitting. The paper discusses the ways in which the West was constructed both symbolically and materially through specific shapes, colours, textures, silhouettes and styling details. It proposes that dress was an important device for female dude ranchers, who employed it to signal their physical movement through space. Wearing suitable, acceptable, clothes (or ‘getting it wrong’) demonstrated the degree to which one understood the natural order of the elemental and beastly world. Ranch-wear, and the way it was worn, was part of the acculturation process: of becoming, and being, a part of the physical and imaginary West.
Unravelling the Fabric of the City: Using Worn Clothing to Narrate London Lives
Bethan Bide (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
In response to the difficulty of creating narratives that speak for the multiplicity of urban experience, this paper looks to that which unites the physical place with its broad spectrum of inhabitants: clothing. Garments, viewed as a stitched medium through which we interact and make sense of our environment, offer a unique perspective on what it was like to live in a certain place and time. Drawing on case studies from post-war 1940s, this paper demonstrates how the material object can be used to create describe place. This paper uses a duel methodology to demonstrate the diversity of the material object as a tool. Firstly, the worn garment exemplifies the actions and routines of the lived body. Secondly, and simultaneously, the garment can be used to open discussion and unlock memories in oral history research. These approaches are drawn together to demonstrate how the material object can give us insight into broader social trends without drowning out individual voices, allowing the pulled seams of a women’s jacket to speak with equal weight to both historical notions of femininity, and to the experience of a suburban Sunday lunch.
Historical geography and the material culture of technology: a close encounter with the BBC’s 2LO transmitter
Alison Hess (Science Museum, UK)
Between 2010 and 2011 I worked with a former BBC engineer to uncover clues about the history of 2LO, the BBC’s first radio transmitter. 2LO transmitted the first BBC radio programme in November 1922 and has since been labelled an ‘icon of broadcasting history’. Like many technology objects in museum collections, 2LO was used, repaired, and improved, both during its working ‘life’ and its ‘afterlife’. In this paper, I will reflect on what a focussed approach to the materiality of the transmitter revealed about its past forms and locations. It will also consider the changeability of technology objects and how we incorporate questions of authenticity into the ways in which we think about the cultural significance of preserved materials. As a museum professional, as well as a geographer, much of my work centres on the material culture of the history of science, technology and medicine and how it can be used to present new stories to our audiences. However there is less space to reflect on the methodologies we use to uncover these stories. Using my work with 2LO as a starting point, I invite historical geographers to take on the challenge that the material culture of the Science Museum represents.
Museologies of mobility and the materiality of rejection
Paul Wright (Queen's University Belfast, UK)
The material source for this paper is large and awkward. British Rail's "Advanced Passenger Train (Experimental)" brimmed with 1970’s technology. Powered by gas turbines and mounted on hydraulic tilting gear, APT-E promised more than haste. It promised an elegant, proficient, and tantalisingly modern mobility that would efficiently draw cities closer together on a railway network otherwise trapped at inter-war speeds. It's awkwardness as a material source stems from the frustration of this promise when, in 1985, the project was cancelled, with APT-E itself being abandoned. This paper discusses how its eventual preservation and museum display (at Locomotion in Country Durham) recognises and navigates this awkwardness: for instance, APT-E's materiality was entirely dedicated to its revolutionary mobility, something which sits awkwardly with its present (immobile) material state. Equally awkward is the background of derision and disappointment that led to its rejection: unlike other exhibited objects, APT-E did not reach the museum following long, useful, or distinguished service. Drawing upon interviews and other qualitative approaches, this paper explores how historical geographers might think about and engage with artefacts that didn't fare well, but perhaps more interestingly, investigates what kinds of ideas and tactics are used by those who preserve and present rejected materialities.