Monthly Archives: November 2018

A visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum (Part 1 of 2)

Guest post written by Rachael Utting, a PhD student in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, whose project is entitled ‘Collecting Leviathan: curiosity, exchange and the British Southern Whale Fishery (1775-1860)’.

During my month-long stay in America on a research visit looking at British whaling log books and journals in American collections, I was lucky enough to spend a week on Nantucket Island. This former whaling colony is an hour by ferry from Cape Cod and nowadays is a very exclusive holiday destination.  I was housed by the Nantucket Historical Association at Thomas Macy House, 99 Main Street, used by the NHA as accommodation for staff and visiting researchers (this offsets the astronomical price of hotel accommodation on the islands which would be prohibitive for most visiting researchers!). Dating from the 1700s, this former whaling captain’s house is complete with artefacts and paintings belonging to previous owners and functions as a ‘living museum’. This means that tours visit on weekdays and house residents have to scurry away and hide, and you can’t put anything on the furniture.

The NHA, founded in 1894, manages five historic buildings on Nantucket Island including the Whaling Museum. This was established in 1930 on the site of the Hadwen & Barney Oil & Candle Factory built in 1847, and was based on the whaling collections of local congregational minister Edward F. Sanderson. The museum opened in its current extended guise in 2005 with eleven exhibition spaces dedicated to Nantucket history, scrimshaw and whaling, with a central exhibition hall housing a 46ft sperm whale skeleton from a stranding on Nantucket in 1996, and a huge sperm whale jaw bone collected in the Pacific in 1865.

The 18ft jaw (from an enormous 80ft bull whale) was so impressive that showman BT Barnum tried to purchase it. The visit to the museum was extremely relevant for my work on the collecting activities of whalers because the museum has a permanent exhibition showcasing the many ‘curios’ that American whalers brought home during the nineteenth century. These were donated to the Nantucket Atheneum, an institution incorporating a private library, museum and philosophical society founded in 1834. Such was the diversity of the museum collection, a visitor in 1843 stated, “I can not [sic] stop to a enumerate even a specimen of the almost infamy of curiosities, natural and artificial here deposited by the whalers.”

The Atheneum museum collections were largely destroyed in a fire in 1846. When the remaining artefacts outgrew their home, they were donated to the newly formed Nantucket Historical Association in 1905. What this collection (roughly 400 artefacts; see examples below) demonstrates is that American whalers were collecting widely. As whaling ships of this era had international crews, with many Americans manning British Southern Whale Fishery vessels, there is nothing to suggest their British crewmates were not following suit. If this is true, and British South Seas whalers were collecting, donating and selling their collections and, as I believe, were a significant acquisition source of island material culture (particularly from the Pacific Islands), then this is not reflected within British museum displays. Despite having a significant whaling economy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain has no dedicated whaling museums and whalers have been largely ignored as a collecting phenomenon. The Nantucket Whaling Museum exhibition proves that they were perfectly placed to collect and that there was a flourishing market for their souvenirs. This included the Atheneum, private Island collectors and also mercantile ventures such as Mrs Polly Burnell’s shell shop, run from her Nantucket home from 1831-1854.

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Advert for Polly Burnell’s shell shop, The Inquirer and Mirror, 8/4/1854.

My weekdays were spent visiting the NHA Research Library attached to the Island’s Quaker church. I read five logbooks and one journal during the week, scouring them for evidence of collecting. These were all vessels belonging to the British Southern Whale Fishery and registered in Britain, several of them with Nantucket captains, which would explain how they ended up in the Island archive. Within these fascinating documents I encountered hostage situations between crew and Islanders, the gruesome massacre of 10 crewmen at the Marquesas Islands, a meeting with John Adams (Bounty mutineer) at Pitcairn, evidence of beachcombers on the Galápagos Islands and an apprentice boy who tried to kill himself twice by throwing himself overboard. Most relevant for my work was the journal of Dr Eldred Fysh, surgeon on-board the Coronet 1837-1839. Fysh documented his interactions with the Islanders across Indonesia purchasing shells, tools and live birds. The crew collected weaponry in New Ireland and also animals. What happened to Fysh’s acquisitions is a mystery; he returned to his native Norfolk and died in 1849, aged just 37.

My investigations are ongoing!

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Drawing from the Journal of Dr Eldred Fysh on-board the Whaling ship Coronet 1837-1839.
© Nantucket Historical Association.

Written by Rachael Utting, edited by Jack Lowe.

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Literary Geographies

Our third Landscape Surgery of the autumn term discussed the topic of Literary Geographies, with presentations from three of the department’s visiting scholars: Nattie Golubov (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), Lucrezia Lopez (Universidade de Santiago de Compostela) and Giada Peterle (University of Padua). Each presenter discussed the ways in which their research has engaged with different forms of literature, and what their individual methodologies can contribute to geographical study. This was followed by a panel discussion that grappled more broadly with what encounters between literature and geographical inquiry can achieve.

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Our presenters in discussion during the session

Our first speaker on the day, Nattie Golubov, has been a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at UNAM since 1995, having taught widely on English literature, literary and cultural theory. Her research engages in the critical study of a variety of types of American texts, to understand how relationships between diverse groups of people in the US are expressed culturally.

Nattie began by highlighting how academic literature on migration has tended to view the process from perspectives of postcolonialism, diaspora and exile, while focusing disproportionately on the point of departure and the point of arrival. Using Teju Cole’s (2017) book Blind Spot as a point of reference, she explained how literary approaches to the topic of migration can be fruitful for scholarship on this subject, with stories in the form of novels and other texts being able to evoke the translocal (relationships between specific locations within countries, not just between countries); complicate the binaries of nomadic/sedentary and centre/periphery which have characterised existing migration scholarship; and foster critical reflection on the geographies of where texts on migration are written, published, read and translated.

In her current research, Nattie has been examining contemporary US romance literature that tells stories about American soldiers in Afghanistan. What she finds interesting about these texts, she explained, is how the subject matter of the stories is at once heavily geopolitical, yet grounded in the ‘normal’ and everyday. While the locations portrayed by the novels can lead to an awareness of the planetary, this is typically foregrounded by familiar tropes of small-town America and the space of the house/home.

With romance being a very popular genre that is widely read in the US – especially by women – this can render the representations used in the novels problematic, notably through the sometimes shocking language that describes places in the Global South. Nattie gave the example of one location being referred to as the ‘armpit of the world’; while simultaneously the novels perpetuate a fantasy of whiteness and enclosure in these territories.

Nattie’s work is seeking to ask what it is about the ‘normal’ that is so attractive and tenacious in literature. And in turn, what kinds of (geographical) relationships do these novels forge with the reader? Can they produce a new type of sociality around the topic of migration?

Our second presenter was Lucrezia Lopez, whose research explores practices of tourism, heritage and religious expression by investigating how they are represented and interpreted culturally. Her current research, titled in this presentation as ‘The Contemporary Spaces of the Way of St. James’, studies the travel diaries of those sharing their experiences of pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago.

Lucrezia started by outlining how literature, cinema and the internet are contributing to a new spatial discourse of the Camino de Santiago; reinforcing the notion that there are multiple ‘Caminos’ articulated by the different artists and writers who represent it.

Travel diaries in particular are a relatively new method people are using to share their experiences of travelling on the Camino, reflecting a broader turn in the literature towards exploring the internal journeys of pilgrims taking part. Lucrezia identified two trends within the travel diaries’ representations of walking the Camino: neo-romanticism, reflecting the aesthetic value of travel diaries in conveying emotions/feelings and representing an idyllic rural landscape; and neo-realism, reflecting the testimonial value of travel diaries in drawing attention to traffic, waste and issues of sustainability on the Camino.

As for the act of writing itself, Lucrezia has found that a concept of liminality or ‘in-between’ space is expressed through practices of documenting the pilgrimage using travel diaries. The process of writing about the landscape in this way is believed to cultivate a different sense of self; a cathartic, therapeutic and/or spiritual practice that is part of the pilgrimage. However, some of these writers have been exploring this intimacy using alternative forms of representation than just text. Lucrezia referred to the comic book On the Camino by Norwegian artist Jason (2017), and how his use of images portrays the practice of pilgrimage on the Camino using popular visual tropes of the solitary thinking walker, bridges, and rural landscapes.

Ultimately, Lucrezia located three spaces through which the travel diaries operate: the space of the reader, the subjective space of the pilgrim/author, and the physical space of the Camino itself. How the Camino is imagined is a product of the work that varying forms of representation (e.g. comic book versus text) do in these spaces, alongside the personal discourses that are performed through individual practices of writing, reading and walking.

With wider relevance for thinking about methodology within literary geographies, Lucrezia finished by speaking about some of the challenges she has faced while studying travel diaries for her research. Which sources do you choose to consult, which do you leave, and why? Which academic research should be consulted, amongst the wide range of scholarship on the Camino? And could examining this kind of literature for research be a ‘leading’ methodology, privileging the researcher’s own interpretations of the texts?

Our final speaker was Giada Peterle, a post-doctoral research fellow and lecturer whose work is creative and interdisciplinary, bringing a range of narrative forms to her academic study within geography to think about the ways we understand, shape and represent the places we inhabit. Her current project is titled ‘Urban Literary Geographies: Mapping the city through narrative interpretation and creative practice’.

Giada’s presentation started by situating her work within a wider trajectory of creative geographies. She charted how the dialogical exchange between geographical and literary theory, as well as an existing and ongoing reciprocal exchange between place and literature, has been an important influence within the recent creative (re)turn in geography (e.g. Hawkins 2013; Madge, 2014). As well as fostering interdisciplinarity, this scholarship has approached storytelling not just as a form of representation, but as a creative practice to engage with, in which the embodied experiences of academics themselves can inform research.

Giada illustrated how her work has entered the domain of creative practice through Street Geography, a collaborative project between several geographers at the University of Padua with Progetto Giovani (based in the Office of the Municipality of Padua), which aims to encourage dialogue between academic research, art practice, and Padua citizens in an effort to contribute to the conceptualisation and realisation of more meaningful and sustainable cities. Street Geography brought together three geographers and three artists to create three site-specific exhibitions in Padua that question the ways people live in cities, as well as the significance of change, movement and relationships in shared urban spaces.

This presentation concentrated on one of these site-specific exhibitions, A station of stories: moving narrations, which was undertaken in Padua railway station. Giada recounted how the project team wanted this site-specific work to reflect the varied mobilities and stories that the station embodies, as an environment of co-presence and contradictions: between transit and encounter, consumption and dwelling, work and criminality, encounter and exclusion.

This conceptual approach led to an idea of the material space of the station itself being a narrator. Using this tactic in their writing, the team aimed to provoke empathy with the place; challenging anthropocentric understandings of the station by imagining the site telling stories of its own changing environment from a non-human perspective. In turn, the team hoped to enable readers to think about how, when and on what terms different stories of the city are told. This latter objective was especially relevant as most of the station’s spaces are normally used for advertising. How could these spaces be appropriated to encourage people to think critically about the station as a confluence of diverse stories?

The team’s answer was to use the comic book form. As a type of literature that is easy to read and accessible, but also quite mobile in how it is read, using comics took into account the different entry points and directions of movement from which the story could be approached and interpreted in the station. This depth of engagement was facilitated by the comic’s physical presence as a public art exhibition; though the physicality of the comic panels also brought practical challenges. Giada recalled finding all the exhibition panels face down on the ground only the morning after mounting them for display, and consequently having to change the way they were stuck up. The team were also concerned that members of the public writing on the panels might obscure the material shown.

In the end, the physical positioning of the panels in the station successfully engaged diverse audiences of academics, travellers and residents through a series of intentional and accidental encounters with the artwork. Creative geographical approaches such as those adopted in Street Geography, Giada contended, demonstrate how encounters between geography and art can engage wider communities with the discipline, by seeing it as a creative approach towards understanding spaces that incorporates their materialities and affects, as well as the personal experiences of researchers.

The three presentations were followed by a panel discussion, which picked up on points of crossover between Nattie, Lucrezia and Giada’s work.

In a conversation on what the spatial perspective of geography can offer literature, our presenters considered the complex relationship between ‘real’ physical spaces and how they are represented in fiction. They reflected on how geographical approaches and (creative) methodologies that investigate the spaces of readers, writers and publishers, such as Innes Keighren’s work on geographies of the book (e.g. Keighren, 2013), can attend to the ways in which literary representations of space are implicated within the wider social, political and material processes through which different literatures are produced and consumed.

It was also suggested that the themes of mobility and non-linearity within geographical thought can help with understanding how the form of a text interacts with the way its geographies are experienced by the work’s creators and readers. Our presenters concurred that such experiences of literature have become increasingly non-linear, through both the unique and interactive forms of consumption that digital technology enables, as well as postmodernist trends in literature that have sought to think beyond linear constructions of narrative.

Thank you to all three of our presenters for sharing some fascinating insights from their research, and for all they have contributed as visiting scholars to our research community in the Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group during their time at Royal Holloway.

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Lucrezia Lopez, Nattie Golubov and Giada Peterle

Bibliography

Cole, T. (2017) Blind Spot. London: Faber & Faber.

Hawkins, H. (2013) “Geography and art: An expanding field: Site, the body, and practice” Progress in Human Geography 37(1): 52-71.

Jason (2017) On the Camino. Seattle: Fantagraphics.

Keighren, I.M. (2013) Geographies of the book: review and prospect. Geography Compass 7(11): 745-758.

Madge, C. (2014) “On the creative (re)turn to geography: poetry, politics and passion” Area 46(2): 178-185.

Written by Jack Lowe, edited by Megan Harvey and Alice Reynolds

INTRODUCING THE MA CULTURAL GEOGRAPHY STUDENTS 2018/19

Emma Christian

After completing my undergraduate BSc degree in Geography at Royal Holloway, I decided to continue studying and specialise in cultural geography by doing the MA in Cultural Geography. I did my undergraduate dissertation on Jazz heritage in Paris as I am very interested in how art movements can shape a place in time and space. My aim is to have an academic role in order to attempt promoting the use of art in education. I also want to use form of art–such as graphic design, documentaries, and music–in order to create several atmospheres to which people can associate, and therefore become more sensible to the subjects. I believe art is the way to raise awareness about socio-political and environmental world issues in a way that touches on people’s emotions. In my opinion, action is more likely to happen is people are more emotionally impacted.

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Ellie Cooper

I completed my undergraduate BSc degree in Geography at Royal Holloway last year and I have started the MA in Cultural Geography this year. My undergraduate dissertation examined the importance of maps in contemporary society, looking specifically at the role of technological and cultural influences, including the growth of map-art and artistic interpretations of place. My main interests are concentrated around artful geographies, aerography and the importance of creative methods within activism.

Ollie Devereux

I’m studying for an MA in Cultural Geography, following the completion of my undergraduate degree in Geography at Keele. Previously I have studied: the relationship between bridges and our conception of home, the works of Peter Lanyon linked to spatial theory, aerography and the Anthropocene, and the multiplicity of Cornish nationalism. I want to combine my recent experiences of working at Tate St Ives with my geographical interests, which drew me to this MA. I am also looking to study the cultural and spatial affect of newly built bridges, likely using the Russian built Kerch Strait bridge as a primary case study.

Rhys Gazeres de Baradieux

I am a skateboarder of 11 years and (sometimes) a guitarist of 3 or 4 years. In terms of research, I am interested mostly in critical urban geographies, specifically neoliberal forms of governance in the city. My undergraduate dissertation explored the exclusion of skateboarding from St. Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard (formerly a well-recognised skate-spot within the community) that inevitably resulted from re-developments at the site during the summer of 2017. I was led to the MA in Cultural Geography due to my interest in applying for a PhD that will interrogate skateboarding’s debut inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, an event that will undoubtably (and already has!) led to the increasing structurisation of what originated as a creative, counter-cultural urban sport. During the MA course, I hope widen my interest somewhat to explore themes such as smart cities governance and development and dystopic representations of post-capitalist cities in manga and anime.

Matthew Philips

After my undergraduate degree in Human Geography at RHUL, I knew continuing with studies was something I wanted to do. So, I’m currently studying on the MA in Cultural Geography course. The dissertation from my bachelor’s-degree was focussed on identity, atmospheres, mobility, and affect in the Cyprus Buffer Zone; assessing how racism manifests in Nicosia, especially between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots. One reason for continuing my studies is to explore the usefulness of new methods in research, such as documentary filmmaking as a way of generating research and disseminating it, especially as I have a background in photography. Using these methods, I’m looking to research areas around local identities and nationalism for my MA dissertation.

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Megan Zerilli

I completed my undergraduate BSc degree in Geography at the University of St Andrews, where I partnered with Fife Women’s Aid during my dissertation to explore domestic abuse and refuge provision. In undertaking the MA in Cultural Geography at Royal Holloway, I’m continuing my focus on feminist geographies, interpersonal violence, and participatory research methods with the aim to research the perceptions of safety in the urban environment.

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