A Design Historian at the International Conference of Historical Geographers

To follow up my reflections in April about being a design historian at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG), I thought I’d share how this same design historian experienced the International Conference of Historical Geographers (ICHG) last week (5th – 10th July, 2015).

1862 Field Trip ICHG 2015 © Ruth Mason, 2015

1862 Field Trip ICHG 2015 © Ruth Mason, 2015

Held at the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington London, this conference required much energy to travel to (apart from during the tube strike!). Bringing together around 800 ‘historical geographers’ from across the world it hosted panel sessions on topics from protests to pubs, navigation tools to new towns and philanthropy to photographs. Additionally on Wednesday (at the middle of the conference) normal proceedings were halted while delegates selected from a range field trips around the capital.

Much smaller in numerical attendance and apparently narrower in its subject matter that the AAG, the ICHG nevertheless posed (more) interesting questions about the discipline of Geography and the particular sub-field of Historical Geography.

 

1862 Field Trip, ICHG 2015 © Ruth Mason, 2015

1862 Field Trip, ICHG 2015 © Ruth Mason, 2015

As a design historian carrying out my PhD in a Geography department, questions about what subject my PhD is in are regularly met with looks of bewilderment and confusion. While Design History may not be a universally known academic discipline, Historical Geography is perhaps even less well understood. It was therefore perhaps fitting that the conference opened with a plenary from Alan Baker describing the development of historical geography as an international discipline. However, what struck me most forcibly throughout the conference was not a growing understanding of what a cohesive subject referred to as ‘Historical Geography’ might be, but the importance that the sub-discipline places on interdisciplinary voices and approaches.

Two further plenaries were given by Catherine Hall (a historian) and Simon Schaffer (a historian of science and technology). I lost track of the number of times people told me that they weren’t really a geographer. It was notable how many ‘straight’ geographers made a foray into the world of archives for the benefit of this week long bonanza. And it is worth noting that three former RCA/V&A History of Design MA students were involved in the running of the conference’s mid-week field trips.

Staircase in the Royal School of Mines, location for some of the ICHG 20015 © Ruth Mason, 2015

Staircase in the Royal School of Mines, location for some of the ICHG 20015 © Ruth Mason, 2015

However, what united the ICHG’s papers, discussions and field trips is much more interesting that the variety of disciplinary backgrounds from which its participants initially hail. Unsurprisingly issues of space, place, location and movement ran throughout the conference’s discussions. I particularly enjoyed a set of papers about ‘Architectures of Hurry’, concerned with how modernity affected mobility patterns in urban centres. I got drawn in by a set of papers on animal geographies and the relationships between people, animals and places. And I took a keen interest in a panel about philanthropic geographies that largely focused on unpicking some of the geographical networks underlying nineteenth-century approaches philanthropy in London.

Indeed, I came away from the conference feeling inspired and reinvigorated. It forcibly demonstrated to me the synergy between historical geographies and design histories. Both, in their own ways, ‘magpie subjects’, these two little know fields provide invigorating contexts for carrying out innovative and exploratory research. In a time when ‘interdisciplinary’ research is all the rage, it is subjects like historical geography and design history (which have always had their feet in more than one camp) that demonstrate how disciplinary boundaries can be softened and dispersed in successful and interesting ways.

© Ruth Mason, 2015