Tag Archives: London

Curating a Research Exhibition

dscf8465Landscape Surgery’s current theme of ‘communicating research’ took a look at research exhibitions, and revealed ways in which exhibitions can be far more than valuable forms of communication. The session was stimulated by three panelists: current surgeon and 3rd year PhD student n the department Katherine Stansfeld, ex-surgeon and PhD student and now British Library curator Phil Hatfield, and Carey Newson, who recently completed a collaborative PhD with Queen Mary, University of London and the Geffrye Museum of the Home.

Katherine introduced her research on mapping superdiversity and outlined several reasons why an exhibition might form part of PhD research: as a means of communication, particularly in reaching audiences beyond the academy; as research or analytical process, alongside other methods; and as a way of starting or continuing a dialogue with people who may be interested in or have participated in the research.

Three aspects of Katherine’s experience stood out. The first relates to planning and spatial materiality. An exhibition budget enabled a diverse team to be involved, including an artistic director and production staff. This increased planning and coordination time that Katherine has been spending on the exhibition. It also revealed how significantly the materiality of an exhibition space and design affects the way people can interact with an exhibition. The second and linked aspect is the process of deciding what to show and how to show it. This is clearly not a neutral process, and can be driven as much by material priorities as research or aesthetic ones. Collaboration was the third aspect, and Katherine shared her experience of working with young artists on alternative mapping. In conclusion, she commented on how the more time-consuming communication that results from these three aspects offers both challenges and opportunities.

In contrast to Katherine’s exhibition being very much within her research, Carey’s followed the completion of her thesis. Her research project, in collaboration with Queen Mary and the Geffrye Museum speaks to the material culture of domestic space, geographies of young people and the study of the home, and explored the meaning and significance of the teenager’s bedroom and its material culture. Visual anthropologist Kyna Gourley took photographs of the bedrooms, and Carey returned with a selection of these later to stimulate interviews with both teenagers and their parents. Some of the findings included the way the rooms reflected and expressed teenagers’ personalities and lives, and so changed over time; that the bedrooms were retreats more than social spaces; and that the 24 rooms studied were very different, yet with recurring themes. Teenagers were pre-occupied by dilemmas around what to keep and what to get rid of, recalling Nicky Gregson’s work on the relationship between ridding and dwelling.

Moving on to the creation of the exhibition itself, Carey, like Katherine, mentioned the materiality of the space, especially the glass cases which, initially thought to be problematic, led to the development of a series of installations. There were also particular challenges and creative design solutions in relating the objects to their bedroom contexts. The creation of a full-scale installation of a bed and contextual material was assisted by the original room’s occupier, and made a fascinating difference to the way the teenage audience engaged with the exhibition at the opening. Playful forms of engagement, such as sitting on and in the bed and taking photographs of each other, stood out. It seems curious the way these rooms are exhibitions in themselves, and this was in some ways an exhibition of exhibitions.

Phil’s presentation gave us an opportunity to take a broader perspective on exhibitions in the context of major cultural institutions, based on his involvement in six exhibitions at the British Library. One of the first points Phil raised was the effect of space and time and other resource pressure in such places. Large institutions have relatively complex planning and approval processes which impose longer lead-in times. They also have more proposals for exhibitions than space to accommodate them. Add to this the range of costs, that can be in the £100,000s, together with the numbers and seniority of staff involved, and you have a set of factors with very significant impacts on exhibitions. These collectively mean that the opportunities to integrate an exhibition into the timescale of a PhD are very limited, effectively nonexistent.

However, successful exhibitions still happen regularly at the British Library, and Phil identified a number of other more positive factors. By keeping in touch with curators over the long-term, there is more chance of being able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that do come up. A case in point is Phil’s own forthcoming exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the federation of Canada through the Library’s photographic archives, based on his PhD completed six years ago. In dealing with large cultural institutions, flexibility can be very helpful too. By contributing in small ways to exhibitions and book projects, blogs and public programming, you build a relationship based on relevant collaboration that can enhance other, greater opportunities.

A very interactive discussion followed, aided by the contrasts between the three speakers around the common theme. The contrasts highlighted the range of relationships that an exhibition can have with research as research method, output, opportunity for participatory involvement, and engagement with more diverse audiences. Even in the British Library, an exhibition can feed into the institution as a whole, beyond the specific research that it is focused on.

An interesting theme developed around the risks and other dynamics involved in showing a work in progress, as in Katherine’s case. This raised the importance of managing expectations. It also illustrates how the material processes of exhibition production can be significantly different. Take photographs for example. The specification of photographs being produced in the role of final record is different from that where they are being displayed as research tools. Applied to Katherine’s video work, this also highlighted the way editing affects the research process in important ways.

This is magnified in larger projects, where the numbers and specialisms of people involved make exhibitions effectively massive collaborations, where the identification of the work with the names of only one or two curators seems at the very least inadequate. Further discussion looked at the use of the term curation and the development of curatorial skills in more detail.

An intriguing thread led us through issues of presenting items to speak for themselves contrasted with the use of explanatory text. There was some link to the timing of the exhibition in relation to the stage of the research project. Katherine felt that, as a work in progress, she had greater freedom to allow the work to be displayed with limited explanation. Carey noted the importance and value of experience in advising and editing display text. Phil took this further to remind us of the intensely collaborative nature of producing display text.

These examples contextualised a point raised about the roles of artistic practices as research processes, where the output is less of a primary objective than gaining perspective through externalising ideas and thereby generating different modes of understanding. This linked intriguingly with contributions about what constitutes an exhibition, covering pop-ups and the example of using a Premier Inn room below the radar, and inviting people in four at a time. A retrospective thought on this is the way artistic practices and exhibition works in progress may be seen as failures in many traditional exhibition contexts. I wonder how an institution’s conditioning of exhibitions would engage with such unresolved dynamics and ephemeral events.

– Katherine Stansfeld: current third year PhD student in the Department of Geography at RHUL, and surgeon, who is in the final stages of preparing for her research exhibition ‘Superdiversity: picturing Finsbury Park’, which will open in Furtherfield Gallery in Finsbury Park itself in mid February.

– Carey Newson: a completed PhD student from the Department of Geography at QMUL, whose project was a collaboration with the Geffrye Museum of the Home, London E2. Her PhD was about about teenagers’ bedrooms, and an exhibition based on that research is currently running at the Geffrye (until April 23rd 2017). You can see more about the exhibition here.

– Phil Hatfield: Honorary Research Associate of the Department of Geography at RHUL, Digital Mapping Curator at the British Library, and once upon a time a surgeon and a CDA PhD student with the British Library, whose topic was Canadian photography. Phil has also led and participated in a number of Library exhibitions. The most recent of these – Lines in the Ice – resulted in a book that is currently available.

Huw Rowlands

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‘Geography Flies’ Through Years of International History

By Benjamin Newman and Hannah Awcock

ICHG Name Tag and Programme

The International Conference of Historical Geographers took place from the 5th to the 10th of July at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in Kensington (Photo: Ben Newman).

As the International Conference of Historical Geographers drew to a close, amidst bids from St Petersburg and Warsaw to host the next meeting of the conference, Innes Keighren took to twitter to write that it was:

This, of course, was true in every respect. Over the previous six days, historical geographers from around the globe had come together in a frenzy of papers, plenaries, field-trips, lunches, dinners and a general hum of enthusiasm for historical geography. There was more to celebrate than just a successful conference with ICHG observing its 40th anniversary, and it was on that subject that Alan Baker (University of Cambridge) was invited to give the first plenary talk of the conference on the opening Sunday inside The Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Ondaatje Theatre. His plenary would serve both as a celebration of the evolution of the meeting of British and Canadian Historical Geographers in Kingston, Ontario 40 years previous, and also as a reminder of the barriers to participation in historical geography, both at the conference and in the Journal of Historical Geography. His talk and invited contributions from international scholars left much to muse over at the welcome drinks reception that followed.

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Professor Catherine Hall gave an excellent plenary about British slave-owners (Photo: Hannah Awcock)

Monday would see the conference officially begin with eleven parallel sessions offering a feast of historical geography for delegates to enjoy. It would be difficult to summarise the diversity of the contributions, from urban historical geography, feminist historical geography, and GIS, to historical geography of extreme weather, war, knowledge, instruments, books, architecture, photography and many more. As the full first day of the conference drew to a close delegates excitedly gathered in the Ondaatje Theatre to listen to the first of three evening plenary sessions. UCL-based Professor Catherine Hall spoke to the title: Rethinking Slavery and Freedom. Professor Hall took a novel approach to slavery, focusing on the slave-owners rather than the slaves themselves. Thinking about how slave-owners constructed their world and justified their ownership of human beings allows us to put slavery back into British history.

Tuesday would be another busy day of all things historical geography, with Landscape Surgery’s first speaker, David Rooney. He got the Surgeons off to a good start with a paper on ‘Technologies of Segregation on the Streets of East London.’ He would be the first of a large number of Surgeons who participated in the conference, with Liz Haines, Noeme Santana, Hannah Awcock, Bergit Arends, Bethan Bide, Janet Owen, Innes M. Keighren, and Veronica della Dora, all involved in either convening, speaking, or both. And of course our own Felix Driver was Chair of the local organizing committee! Tuesday’s plenary was a landmark session with Felix chairing the inaugural British Academy Lecture in Geography, welcoming Bill Cronon (University of Wisconsin-Madison) to talk under the provocative title: Who reads Geography or History Anymore? The Challenges of Audience in a Digital Age. His talk discussed the death of the book length monograph, reading practices in the digital age and challenged the academy to consider the potential of various non-traditional outputs.

The RGS-IBG provided a perfect backdrop for lunch in the sunshine (Photo: Sophie Brockmann).

The RGS-IBG provided a perfect backdrop for lunch in the sunshine (Photo: Sophie Brockmann).

Conference delegates may have embraced Bill Cronon’s calls for academics to engage with social media a little too enthusiastically with the appearance of the @Geographyfly twitter account. The tweets were supposedly by a fly who liked to participate in proceedings by crawling around on the projector in the Ondaatje Theatre during plenary sessions. There was a certain amount of ‘buzz’ about who the genuine culprit was.

On Wednesday there was a break from formal sessions for a series of field trips. A series of 17 trips, ranging from the historical geography of hop picking in Kent to a musical tour of Soho, proved that historical geographers do far more than just sitting in the archive. Surgeon Innes Keighren was one of the organisers of a trip to Maritime Greenwich. We both thoroughly enjoyed our field trips, and the general consensus was they were all well organised and informative.

The field trip to the site of the 1862 Great Exhibition also included a tour of the Albert memorial in Hyde Park (Photo: Ruth Mason).

The field trip to the site of the 1862 Great Exhibition also included a tour of the Albert memorial in Hyde Park (Photo: Ruth Mason).

Thursday’s tube strike—minus some sore feet from walks across London—did little to dampen the atmosphere as parallel sessions kicked off again after Wednesday’s hiatus. That evening the final plenary of the conference was given by Professor Simon Schaffer (University of Cambridge), on the topic of ‘Astronomy at the Imperial Meridian: The Colonial Production of Hybrid Spaces.’ It is of note that none of the plenary speakers (apart from Alan Baker) identify as historical geographers, which reflects the truly interdisciplinary nature of the subject. In the opening plenary on Sunday evening Professor Mona Domosh (Dartmouth College) had suggested that maybe it doesn’t matter so much whether scholars call themselves historical geographers. Rather, what matters more is that people are doing historical geography in new and interesting ways, and after attending the ICHG it would be very hard to argue that it is anything less than a vibrant and dynamic discipline.

Historical geographers work hard, and they play hard! (Photo: James Kneale).

Historical geographers work hard, and they play hard! (Photo: James Kneale).

On Friday morning the finish line of this six-day marathon was in sight, but sessions continued unabated. The conference drew to a close with delegates choosing the hosts of the next ICHG. We would personally like to thank the Local Organising Committee and the RGS-IBG for doing such an excellent job of organizing and running the conference, and then all that remains is to say see you in Warsaw in 2018!

by Benjamin Newman and Hannah Awcock.

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Unreal City: Discovering London through the Archive (by Hannah Awcock and Bethan Bide)

London is a complex, vibrant, and diverse city to study (Source: The Guardian)

London is a complex, vibrant, and diverse city to study (Source: The Guardian)

London is a fascinating city, a buzzing metropolis with an incredibly rich history. It has been the subject of an untold number of academic studies, as well as an almost infinite assortment of films, books, poems, pictures and other cultural products.

 

London is obviously a fantastic city to study. It is the economic, social, political and cultural centre of Britain, and during the heights of the British Empire it served this role for huge swathes of the world. It has a population of over eight million people, who speak over 300 languages. This quantity and diversity of people, organisations and events provides fertile ground for huge numbers of research projects. As well as this, it is almost unrivalled in terms of the archives available for use, and being the focus and inspiration of so much academic and cultural output means that there is a wealth of sources available to study.

 

We are both studying London for our PhD research; Hannah looks at the historical geographies of protest in the city between 1780 and 2010, and Bethan is working on so-called ‘austerity’ fashion in London after the Second World War, in collaboration with the Museum of London. We are also both utilising archival research in our projects. London is a unique area of study for both of us in its own way. In terms of protest,  London’s role as the symbolic and literal centre of British politics makes it a key location of dissent. With regards to fashion, London is known as a world fashion capital, and although the history and origins of this status are contentious, London has long been a centre for fashionable production and consumption.

An archival glimpse of shopping on post-war regent street.

An archival glimpse of shopping on post-war Regent Street.

 

One of the first steps when conducting research to to ensure you have a clear definition of the terms involved in your project. However when it comes to London, that is not an easy thing to do. London means so many things, to so many people, that it is hard to pin down a coherent and concise definition. Is London a city of 8.17 million people, or an area of 611 square miles? Knightsbridge or the East End? London is all of these things, but each research project must decide how it wishes to locate itself amid these different definitions, by means of summary or selection.

 

The richness and diversity of London also pose other challenges to the researcher, particularly when it comes to archival research. Archival sources go through several selection processes; firstly, when the archival institution, curator or individual collector decide which items to keep and preserve, and then secondly when the researcher chooses which materials to use in their research.  As an archivist or collector, how do you choose sources to accurately represent such a varied city as London? As a researcher, which sources best represent that variety within the scope of your research? Is it even possible or indeed desirable to draw meaningful conclusions about ‘London’ as a coherent entity?

 

The possible existence of a London bias should also be considered. Is London researched too much, at the expense of other British cities? If this is the case, do we as researchers have a responsibility to correct this imbalance? Researchers and academics have a great deal of power in terms of representing the people and places that they study, should we therefore try to ensure that each place is represented ‘fairly’?

A poster for the London Calling demonstration about student tuition fees in 2010 (Source: Coalition of Resistance).

A poster for the London Calling demonstration about student tuition fees in 2010 (Source: Coalition of Resistance).

 

As you may have guessed from this post, we have a lot of unanswered questions in relation to this topic. For this reason, we choose not to draw conclusions, but instead leave the topic open for further discussion. Do you consider yourself to be a researcher of London? Was it a deliberate decision or simply a matter of convenience? How do you tackle the challenge of researching something of the sheer immensity of London?

 

Answers on the back of a postcard please (although any thoughts or opinions in the comments would also be very welcome!)

 

Hannah Awcock and Bethan Bide

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Souvenir Geographies — My first year PhD presentation in Landscape Surgery

Shirt of London Made in Turkey, (photo by author, taken in Cool Britannia, summer 2014)

Shirt of London Made in Turkey, (photo by author, taken in Cool Britannia, summer 2014)

The first-year PhD presentation day is a tradition of Landscape Surgery. I attended it last year as an audience member when I was a MA student, and was honoured to be a speaker in it this year. For the LS presentation, I created a slideshow to help demonstrate my PhD (available here), which can also give you a taste of my PhD.

This project looks at a widely-loved object: the souvenir. Many people keep souvenirs as reminders of a person, place, or event. A souvenir is inherently geographical based on its nature. A souvenir’s mobility is its most outstanding geographical characteristic: souvenirs move from the place of tourism to the place of home; from ‘extraordinary’ place to the world of the ‘ordinary’. Although souvenirs take on many forms, functions and representations, they are often formally associated with a specific geographical place.

Studies related to souvenirs in SCG are rare. Morgan & Pritchard (2005) studied souvenir and self-identity; Hashimoto & Telfer (2007) talked about authentic geographical souvenirs in Canada; Ramsay (2009) had an impressive field work of souvenir production sites in Swaziland; while Peters (2011) studied banal souvenirs’ home placement. Souvenirs studies have potential for exploration.

My PhD project ‘Souvenir Geographies: Authenticity and Place Making’ focus on souvenirs on two way: one is to explore how souvenirs’ authenticity and meaning change along with places; secondly it looks at how souvenirs shape places in the terms of place making. This process is revealed by following souvenirs in a linear route: from the making sites, tourist sites, transport sites (AKA non-places: airports, train stations; Augé, 1994) and then to the tourists’ homes. In this quadruple layer process, souvenir’s spatiotemporal peculiarity makes it a great object to follow, and to analysis from a geographical perspective. Putting my Cultural Geographer’s hat on, I analysis souvenirs based on their spatial movements.

In the terms of methodology, ‘following the thing’ and visual ethnography are the most basic and key methods used through out the whole project. Apart from these, semi_structured interviews, using postcards as a method, participant observation, keeping fieldwork diary: text, image and video, and blogging as a method (project blog) are also used in this project. When it comes to field work, two fields are considered for this project. The first one is UK, and the other is China. In each case, equal factories, tourist sites, transporting sites and homes will be visited and same number of postcards will be handed out.

Souvenirs studying is an innovative and novel topic area in Cultural Geography, which promises to contribute to discussions in a range of geographical topics: material culture, place and, in particular, tourism studies.

Zhuyun (Amy) Zang, PhD Candidate

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Space, Place, and Protest: The Historical Geography of Contentious Politics in London

The Hyde Park Railings Affair ( Source: Anon., “The Riot in Hyde Park,” Illustrated London News, August 4, 1866, accessed March 24, 2014, Illustrated London News Historical Archive)

The Hyde Park Railings Affair ( Source: Anon., “The Riot in Hyde Park,” Illustrated London News, August 4, 1866, accessed March 24, 2014, Illustrated London News Historical Archive)

In my PhD I plan to investigate the relationship between space, place and protest in London since 1780. Using case studies including the Gordon Riots (1780), the Hyde Park Railings Affair (1866), the Battle of Cable Street (1936), the Grunwick Strike (1976–8), and the Student Tuition Fee Protests (2010), I will attempt to argue that space, place, and protest are mutually constitutive, that they influence and impact each other (although I am fully prepared to find my hypothesis incorrect!)

The case studies were selected to be representative of the time frame, but also to represent different types of spaces, such as the street, parks, commons, and buildings. Although these distinctions do not stand up to much scrutiny, they help to ensure that as wide a variety as possible of the different types of space that make up London are considered in the project.

The method will of course be mainly archival research, but oral histories or interviews may be utilised for the more recent case studies, to help mitigate a common issue with the historical research of protests, the fact that archival sources are rarely from the perspective of protesters themselves. This is only one of several challenges I face in my methodology, but I hope that I will be able to deal with them all in time.

When I say ‘space’ I mean the physical characteristics of a location, for example buildings, roads, street furniture, or a lack of these things. I will investigate whether these characteristics impact protests as they occur within the space, and whether protests in turn impact the space, either directly or through pre-emptive attempts to limit protest. For example, during the Hyde Park Railings Affair in 1866, protesters broke into Hyde Park, which had been closed by police, by pushing over the railings. The protesters then clashed with police, with scuffles still occurring several days after the protest. If the railings had been stronger, and the protesters unable to get into the park, the protest may well have unfolded differently.

In terms of place, by which I refer to the meanings, connotations and emotions that people associate with a location, I will also look at the interaction with protest. I hope to find out if protesters deliberately make use of these meanings and connotations for the purposes of their protest, and if places are changed because a protest happened within them. For example, in the days preceding the Hyde Park Railings Affair, there was extensive debate in the newspapers about the propriety of using the park for a demonstration. Some argued that the park was for the people, and as such could be used however the people saw fit, whilst others considered the park appropriate only for quiet recreational activities. The Railings Affair sparked a battle over what Hyde Park meant to London and its people.

These examples illustrate some of the issues I may be engaging with during my PhD, and I very much look forward to investigating them further.

by Hannah Awcock

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