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.