International Conference of Historical Geographers 2015

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146 Materiality and historical geography (2)
Convenor(s) Ruth Mason (University College London, UK)
Chair(s) James Kneale (University College London, UK)
Timetable Friday 10 July 2015, Timeslot 3 (14:15 - 16:00)
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 (1)
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details:
When form becomes content: drawing historical narrative from the paper of paper records
Elizabeth Haines (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK)
Over the last thirty years, historical geographers have been able to draw on increasingly subtle tools to understand the paper scaffolds of government and expertise: the ethnographies of Latour (1987) schematized networks and accumulations of power; Stoler’s historical ethnography of colonial administration revealed strained subjectivities (2010); Hull focused our attention on the use of simple apparatus such as lists or business cards in contemporary Pakistani governance (2012).
The paper trail behind the colonial cartography of Northern Rhodesia demonstrates that these theoretical tools can expand our interpretations of even such traditional fodder for historical geography as the imperial map. Careful observation of bureaucratic materials and labour allows colonial map-making to be situated amongst other narratives, such as the increasing literacy of Africans, and the employment of women in technical and clerical positions. It enables us to see desk work as framed not only by encultured notions of ability or rights, but also by the global patterns of availability of particular technologies and expertise, from carbon paper to aeroplanes.
This presentation highlights some of the best examples of the translation of the materiality of clerical documents into narrative (histories that include desk placings and sweaty hands), and explores (using the Northern Rhodesian archive as source) the dsevices we have to make that substance speak.
Redesigning the River: The Imperial Thames as material object, 1660-1830
Hannah Stockton (Queen Mary University of London, UK)
The River Thames played a vital role in the changes to the very fabric of London during the eighteenth century. The river simultaneously functioned as a ceremonial stage, a means of transportation, a workplace, and a commodity to be consumed. The river was, in one sense, many rivers, socially and culturally determined by how it was used and who by. The aim of the Imperial Thames project is to understand the impact of Britain’s growing imperial involvement upon these ‘rivers’, and consequently, its impact upon daily life in London. Using a methodological approach which has been almost exclusively used by historians of material culture, the Imperial Thames project will treat the river itself as an 'object' which is constructed, used and consumed within a specific historical context, and doing an in-depth study of that single object and the background of its design, construction and consumption. By examining the various ways that the Thames was redesigned and rebuilt, marketed and sold, employed and presented during the long eighteenth century, the project aims to gain a greater understanding of how this particular 'object', and perhaps therefore, the metropolitan capital, were affected by the imperial environment in which these changes took place.
Material culture and historical religious experience: metropolitan Methodism, 1851-1932
Ruth Mason (University College London, UK)
In April 1891, Mrs Robinson finished a quilt. This wasn’t any old quite, but a vast blue and orange quilt, embroidered with the names of charitable donators. Made for the Centenary Bazar of the Wesleyan Chapel she attended, the names and donations this quilt records were all given to the chapel’s funds. Now in the Engelsea Brook Museum, this quilt tells its own story, no written sources related to it remaining. However, this material object also tells us much more. A huge project that most have taken months, the quilt speaks of the love and devotion Mrs Robinson had for her chapel and the social network she drew on to raise money. When written historical sources about the day-to-day experience of engaging with religious institutions are few and far between, material culture can go some way to fill this gap. Using examples of physical objects, such as this quilt, this paper will draw on my PhD research into the spaces and material culture of metropolitan Methodism between 1851 and 1932, to demonstrate combining spatial and material approaches to historical religion can help provide insights into how it was experienced.
Material Culture in Brixton: Heritage, History, Society
Samuel Barton (University College London, UK)
Katy Beinart (University College London, UK)
Brixton is a neighbourhood with a complex story and a set of divergent identities. The complex social and cultural environment of the neighbourhood is matched by a material culture which intersects with the everyday. In our own research projects, we have seen the competing claims as to what Brixton is, challenged and supported by its material culture, with reference to notions such as ‘heritage’. Whether as AfroCaribbean products available in the covered markets, or the department store buildings of Morleys and Bonmarché, the material culture of Brixton maintains historical narratives of the neighbourhood and its community. We suggest that material culture can reveal a narrative which is of interest beyond the scholarly realm of historical geography, and that it mediates an interaction between the past and the present in the everyday life of Brixton. We will take as examples salted, dried cod, available widely within the covered markets, and the department store architecture on the high street. We will discuss how an object such as salt fish is encountered variously by people eating and buying in Brixton, and how it reveals a colonial history. Secondly we will interrogate the history of retail and modernity as it continues to make itself present through the built environment. Through these examples we wish to explore the manner in which material culture may be seen as opening up an encounter with the past - in the present tense - which is relevant not just for historical researchers, but also contemporary social research.