Co-authored by Giles Lindon and Hannah Awcock
On the 7th November, 2012, the cultural geography masters students, accompanied by our faithful guide, Innes Keighren , went to the HGRG’s Practicing Historical Geography one day conference for Postgraduates in Hull (oh Hull, City of a thousand dreams- not to mention cream telephone boxes). In this blog, we are going to focus on the two historical geography workshops that took place during the day, and see what themes might be useful for us as masters students.
Sonic Histories and Aural Geographies
Geography has often been critiqued for being a visual discipline; both for a focus on studying the visual, but also what we might call a visual ontology- colonial gazes, the geo-political all seeing view achieved with maps etc. This workshop looked at how we might extend the purview of geographical research into the auditory.
Kevin Milburn discussed his research into how senses of particular places are portrayed in music, and more generally, how certain music and musicians portrayed a sense of ‘urban-ness’. In particular, we looked at Frank Sinatra, and how through certain songs (‘New York New York’ being the most obvious) created a sense of Frank Sinatra and the urban-man, and also how a certain urbanism was mediated through these songs. This brings to the fore how we can use music as a sort of archive to help us more fully understand people’s responses to the urban, as well as developing a more complete understanding of people’s sensory lived worlds.
However, in the discussions at the end of the workshop, we also highlighted limitations of this approach. Namely, by using music as another ‘text’ to be ‘read’, we start coming across the same sorts of problems that have been aimed at, for example, ‘reading’ landscapes. We suggested that we could research the somatic elements of music, or engaging with non-representational theory liminal responses to it.
Loving historical geography
This session looked at how to use our enthusiasm for Geography to engage and transfer knowledge with the public. Dr Hilary Geoghegan (who counts enthusiasm as one of her areas of expertise) used her recent work with the Science Museum on a project to return a switch board to its original community (http://enfieldexchange.org.uk/ ) as a way of introducing the idea of how we can get our research out into the public sphere.
This question of engaging with the general public and sharing findings with non-academics, beyond our (often publicly funded) ivory tower is a goal that is relevant and, in our view, admirable across Geography and beyond. Quite apart from the question of the public benefitting from their investment in us, it ties into more general questions of research only taking things and not giving anything back.
For us masters students, this issue has come up when looking at Participatory Action Research, and also with looking at ‘Sound walks’, particularly with the work of Toby Butler. A sound walk opens up all sorts of possibilities for geographers trying to present information about places in a novel, interactive way.
We split into groups to discuss the relative methods, strengths and challenges of engaging with the public. One of the key factors that came out of our discussion was it is important that the particular public you are trying to engage with knows roughly what they are letting themselves in for. If they are expecting the wrong thing they may be disappointed, or simply may not show up in the first place. This seems to us like a particular challenge for Geographers, as academic geography is so different to public perceptions and the geography taught in schools (the amount of times we’ve been told that what we study is ‘not geography’ testifies to this somewhat). However, sharing our enthusiasm with a similarly enthused ‘public’ sounds like something that would be both enjoyable and beneficial, so it is a challenge worthy of being overcome.
In short, what we learnt was that dialogue with the historical geography tradition, especially from that part of it which is leading research, is highly beneficial. Although the themes we’ve highlighted are probably familiar to many of us, it was really interesting having them discussed with a slightly different emphasis, maybe opening up avenues of thought we hadn’t seen yet.