Although I talked about my PhD project at an internal research seminar for my school at UCLan (the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment) earlier this year, the paper I presented at the RGS-IBG (Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers) annual summer conference was a great opportunity to share my research and get more specialist feedback among researchers in my field – cultural and historical geography.
Despite only attending one day of the three-day conference (partly due to cost and partly so I could use my time in London to spend a day in the Tate Archives either side), which was spread out over the premises of the RGS and Imperial College around Exhibition Road in London, I was able to spend a stimulating and enjoyable day dipping in and out of other sessions. Whether or not they related directly to my research, this gave me a real flavour of the diversity of practitioners, topics and approaches encompassed within geographical research, from hearing about different methodologies such as walking, and how it can inform experiences and understandings of place, to learning more about the study of ‘childhood geographies’. I particularly enjoyed some of the sessions in smaller meeting rooms, which had a more informal feel than those which took place in lecture theatres.
The session I took part in, which was one of three entitled ‘New and emerging research in historical geography’ and organised by the Historical Geography Research Group (my Director of Studies, Dr Hannah Neate, is on the committee of this group), was specifically aimed at researchers at a similar stage to me. It was beneficial to hear and see how other PhD students both went about undertaking research in historical geography, and presenting their research – I was relieved to discover that I was not the only presenter to read from a script, although I did feel that the one paper in my session which was not read out benefited from a more natural and less stilted style, and I hope that I will have the confidence to do this in future without relying on a written-out paper. Another thing I observed was that other presentations dwelt far more on archival research and empirical findings, whereas I really tried to explicitly situate my research in a wider thematic context, in relation to previous or similar research in the field, something which other speakers seemed to focus upon less.
As my presentation was only fifteen minutes long (I think it actually lasted slightly less time than this, maybe 12/13 minutes) I aimed to really focus on one aspect of my research, calling my paper ‘Pictures for Schools: Educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969′. In this, I discussed Pictures for Schools and art education in relation to ideas of taste and aesthetic appreciation. Despite a phone going off for what seemed like ages during my paper (every presenter’s worst nightmare!) people commented that they found my paper really interesting, and I received some perceptive questions. Although I only had five minutes to answer questions, so could not provide answers as fully as I would have liked, they have given me useful points of consideration to bear in mind as I start to write up my research. These included questions about how many children were involved in Pictures for Schools over its lifespan and how the success of the project can be evaluated; whether I had looked at similar schemes such as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Circ’ collection, and notions of engaging with art through schemes such as Pictures for Schools and how this differed from owning art; how Pictures for Schools was linked to or differed from schemes circulating reproductions of artworks and what happened to the artworks sold through Pictures for Schools. It was also great to hear from an audience member who had attended one of the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges set up by innovative Director of Education Henry Morris, who I discussed in my presentation – Comberton School – in the 1980s (the school was the last village college to be built, opening in 1960, a year before Morris’ death in 1961). He commented that he didn’t like it at the time, but that since he left the school he has had memories of being surrounded by sculptures and other artworks which gave the impression of a cared-for environment, which was crafted and designed. He asked whether there was a legacy of this kind of approach being taken forward after Morris died. I have also continued conversations started at the conference over email, and have been invited to contribute a collaborative piece of writing for the Visit 1862 research blog, drawing parallels between post-war ideas of taste and nineteenth century ideas of raising standards of taste through exhibitions of design.
All in all the RGS-IBG conference provided a really valuable and useful introduction to presenting at conferences and has given me lots of ideas and pointers to put into practice in future – I look forward to the next time!
Paper: Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969, RGS-IBG conference (New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography), Thursday August 28Posted: August 13, 2014
I will be presenting my first conference paper, entitled Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969, at the Historical Geography Research Group’s session ‘New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography’ at the RGS-IBG annual conference in South Kensington in a couple of weeks. The session, which is one of three for emerging researchers in historical geography to share and get feedback on their work, takes place on Thursday August 28 from 11.10am-12.50pm in the Read lecture theatre, Sherfield building. More information, including my abstract, can be found here.
Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969 (paper at the New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography session, RGS-IBG conference)Posted: March 3, 2014
I have recently been accepted to do a 15-minute paper in the New and Emerging postgraduate research in historical geography session, sponsored by the Historical Geography Research Group, at the RGS-IBG summer conference in London at the end of August. Abstract below.
Pictures for Schools: educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969
This paper will show how Pictures for Schools, a scheme which has been the subject of little previous research, aimed to develop the so-called ‘aesthetic citizen’ and emphasised the part that making aesthetically-informed choices could play in the development of a new ‘design for life’ for modern, post-war Britain.
The inter- and post-war years saw an increased emphasis on developing British citizens’ awareness of their power to improve their own environments. Matless (1996) has identified a form of ‘aesthetic citizenship’, prioritising visual education and aesthetic appreciation, which, whilst partly linked to enjoyment, tied into ideas about the responsibilities of the citizen, their role in the reconstruction process and the creation of a future vision of Britain.
Part of the nation’s visual education was the move to make art and design more accessible to the population in the post-war period. One scheme for widening access to original works of art was Pictures for Schools, an annual series of exhibitions of artworks by British artists which took place between 1947 and 1969. Pictures for Schools was aimed explicitly at developing the visual skills and discernment of the next generation of citizens, targeting works for sale to schools and local education authorities and highlighting the individual and social benefits of exposure to original works of art as children grew up.
In this paper I explore how the organisers of Pictures for Schools emphasised the importance of environment on children’s education, prioritising modes of education which encouraged children develop their skills of looking, seeing and describing what was around them; skills they could then take forward into their adult lives as citizens capable of making effective taste judgments and actively shaping their environments.
This week I attended the Practising Historical Geography one-day conference, which is held annually by the Historical Geography Research Group of the Institute of British Geographers and Royal Geographical Society, the first such event I have attended. This year it took place this year at my home university, the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.
The conference was a chance for new and established researchers in the field of historical geography to share and discuss what they are working on. It was really good to meet and chat to students from all over the country who have recently started PhDs, on topics ranging from methodist spaces to development journalism. Like me, many of them come from a different academic background but have found themselves within a cultural geography department. It was interesting to hear how they are utilising the tools and theories of cultural geographers, such as writing on space, for their research.
It was telling that the first keynote speaker, too, was not a geographer. Alan Rice is a professor of English and American Studies at UCLan, yet there were overlaps with geography evident in his approach to undertaking, interpreting and articulating historical research, which for Rice sometimes takes the form of tours of Lancaster’s slave trade-related sites, where participants on the tour share and contribute in the making and disseminating of knowledge. Rice’s paper centred on a cultural object, a mummified black slave’s hand, and traced the hand’s existence, use and significance, a set of meanings which has shifted across several sites and centuries. He also touched upon the memorialisation of such sites and stories, which can elevate them from the forgotten status of hidden histories to having a continuing presence and significance, from officially-sanctioned artworks to ‘guerilla’ acts, interventions, reimaginations and tributes.
It was also good to hear from a postgraduate researcher, Rebecca Ford, who is finishing a PhD on the landscape and culture of watercress production and shared her experiences of gaining access to ‘hidden’ archives in a very specialist subject area. She also gave tips for finding and pinpointing material and contacts, even if they may not appear significant to the people who hold them (such as scrapbooks, which show what was important to the person or organisation who compiled them, as in the case of ‘Nan Youngman’s Pictures for Schools file’ which I have been looking at in the University of Reading).
Although I have a lifelong fear of taxidermy (an existential phobia relating to what I see as a particularly gruesome exercise of clinging onto the outer shell of something once all sentient life and therefore meaning/purpose has been removed), Merle Patchett’s workshop on the feather and plumage trade was an interesting way of thinking about the geographic journey of production and networks such as trade, labour, community, use and fashion which surround archival objects. Patchett had brought along an ostrich feather, a bird’s head and a bird’s wing as examples of objects which can reveal more than is first apparent, and reminded us that when we encounter such objects in an archive they are always surrounded by wider histories, drawing on a quote by Gosford and Knowles that suggests artefacts should be approached as being ‘always in a state of becoming’. Although I have been thinking about Pictures for Schools as a scheme more broadly than focusing on specific objects, and thinking about the networks and relationships that exist around the scheme and its social and historical context, and between the scheme and key agents such local education authorities, schools, educators, writers and artists, it reminded me that Pictures for Schools also involved a series of artefacts, in the form of artworks, and that these objects themselves are part of wider trajectories and networks of use and significance whether within the exhibitions, within the London art circuit, within an individual school or as part of a larger council collection.
Also interesting was a workshop by my Director of Studies, Hannah Neate, who took us out of the lecture theatre for a ‘field trip’ to local landmark Preston bus station, a huge piece of modernist architecture, complete with period decor such as clocks, tiles, flooring, fittings and typography, which has been subject to several years of both controversy and celebration in the town, as artists, academics and members of the public have fought a long battle against the council’s intention to demolish the bus station and replace it with a private development of shops as part of a regeneration scheme. The workshop was designed to stimulate thought and discussion about what historical geographers can get from field visits, interviews, conversation and other ethnographic methods, asking what ‘participating’ in a place can add to research and understanding, and considering the role of heritage in research (and vice versa). Although my research has so far been mainly archival, I hope to be able to do oral history interviews and visits with people who were involved in Pictures for Schools, to not just develop my understanding of the scheme and its significance, but to help me gain a wider understanding of the period and context in which it was situated than can be obtained from books and documents.