This week’s big adventure was a trip to the fabled meadows of Cambridge or, at least, the brutalist Robinson College (see Otto Saumarez-Smith’s paper on it here) and an ugly Travelodge overlooking some flats. The Urban History Group conference was the first academic conference I ever attended, this time last year, and this year was my first ever conference paper. In a particularly friendly touch, each year there’s a “new researchers” slot across all the rooms, so everybody gets to listen to something in its nascent stages, be that doctoral or other research, and this is where my paper sat. Incidentally, I’m all for free access to historical research and am interested to share my own paper – what’s the best way to share something that was just PowerPoint and notes, do you think? What would you prefer to see or be able to read?
I think there was a part of me hoping that the audience would see my (admittedly pretty cool) GIS maps and be too distracted to ask any difficult questions. This of course wasn’t the case, particularly as Marc di Tommasi who followed me had some equally excellent maps of foreign immigrants to 1911 Edinburgh, and the entire previous session, led by Laura Vaughan and featuring the outputs of UCL’s Space Syntax lab, was dominated by some amazingly impressive GIS work that I’m totally going to appropriate.
It’s something that everyone who’s done it says but which sounds like a cliche until you’ve been through it; but far from being something to dread, the questions I got really will help me to shape my research and tighten it up. While this was a paper of broad points rather than the fine detail of my research, I’m grateful to Richard Dennis (urban historian of great note) for picking up on my methodology. Part of my methodology is to populate maps with census information; but both census takers and map makers were so sloppy when it came to detailing living in courts and alleys that it’s nearly impossible to say with certainty who lived where in these unnumbered back streets. I don’t think this has to be problem, but it’s certainly something for me to address, and that limits the sorts of conclusions that simple quantitative mapping exercises can draw.
With that out of the way, the most common questions were relating to pubs. Perhaps this says something about urban historians, I couldn’t possibly comment. This is a fascinating and integral part of the world of the Victorian poor though, and I think will form a significant chunk of my thoughts about what Lefebvre called Representational Space. If I can identify pubs that present themselves as Irish in some way, what can I learn from how they do so? What about “English” pubs? What about other social spaces like churches, informal organisations, street corners even? What about the occupants, the users? About the way people actually do produce that space to their own purposes? I think this will be crucial to understanding life in the “slum”. Thanks so much to everyone for their questions.
Maps seemed to be one of the major ways people interpreted the conference theme, and obviously I wouldn’t complain at that. It’s good to see maps mined for their potential and thought about critically – I enjoyed Phil Dodds‘ paper for just this sort of unpicking. Carl Nightingale‘s keynote made use of a monstrous Prezi map as well, although I think there was just far too much in his lecture to make it readily accessible. The space syntax papers were great too, although I sympathise with Oli Betts’ question that this approach can appear somewhat top-down, like the slummers of old wandering the streets.
Friday, being the much more relaxed day-after-the-paper was enjoyable too. Tom Hulme‘s paper on historical pageants and the encouragement of local patriotism was perhaps my favourite of the conference, although the heritage panel following was great too, and very relevant for my own work at BCLM at the moment. The ontological dichotomy between academic history and museum history is so interesting (and often tense) that it was really helpful for my own practice to hear three academics representing museums, discuss their own uneasinesses with their environments, but also their staunch defences of heritage’s space within history as a wider discipline. Much to take back from the whole of the conference actually – and although they can be a fairly exhausting experience (especially for the introvert) I’ve come away somewhat exhilarated.