Monday, August 29, 2016

In what ways might old maps be useful for contemporary urban scholarship?

MappingDeeply, Mapping the PastMy long-term interests in map artefacts and mapping practices seem to be stuck in the past these days! I have become, to an increasing degree, a historical geographer in terms of my research activities. Intellectually, I am engaged in thinking about the role and relevance of visual representations such as maps and map-like spatial materials from the past, within contemporary scholarship on cities, infrastructure and techno-social practice. 

In broad terms I am mapping out the value of historical cartography, and at the same time working to make more old map and 'technical' plans of infrastructure publicly available through digitisation.

I am trying to think about what we can glean that is distinctive from having free access to many old and original thematic maps, detailed topographic sheets, technical diagrams, engineering plans, historic aerial photographs and paper architectural drawings. Can the ready availability of increasing range and depth historical visual representations reveal unique aspects of the structure of cities not available from other sources?
Some of my current thoughts on the latent value locked up in historical cartography and other kinds of 'technical visualities' of the built environment, and how appropriate digitisation can help unlock access and lead potentially to new ways to understand space and place are discussed in a piece I recently wrote for Progress in Human Geography. Also related is my review essay for the journal Imago Mundi examining the publication of new monumental historical encyclopaedia, Cartography in the Twentieth Century.
Cartography in the Twentieth Century review essay
In practice my research on historical cartographies and technical visualities has been conducted in large part through conventional archival methodologies, involving considerable time working in various interesting archives and ‘technical’ collections in Manchester, such as those at the Museum of Science and Industry. To find particular old maps and original plans for infrastructure in Manchester I have also had to venture elsewhere, including the National Grid Gas Archives in Warrington, the GPO / BT telecommunications collection in central London and the National Archives at Kew. 
I have also been undertaking a number of digitation projects relating to historical cartography and technical visualities, usually in collaboration with specialists at the University of Manchester Library (UML). Most material digitised concerns aspects of Manchester’s urban geography, transport provision, town planning and infrastructural development during the nineteenth and twentieth century. 

Some of the key digitisation projects I've instigated in the last five years or so include scanning a set of old maps and original plans relating to the design of the Manchester Ship Canal, encouraging the capture of series of 60 different street directory maps for Manchester city centre from across the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century (the originals are held by Manchester City Library and are available on their Flickr page or browseable via UML Luna service). I also initiated the digitisation of bomb damage maps from the Second World War, and put in a lot of work on the scanning and sharing of key official reports related to ‘fifty years of planning the future of Manchester’. All these digital resources, relating to aspects of Manchester's historical geography, are heavily used by different groups including members of the public and I receive a steady stream of enquiries about them.    
Plans and maps of the Manchester Waterworks 
Rather more niche pieces of digitisation that I have instigated relate to infrastructure in Manchester including the railway system and the water supply. The UML have digitised the 1844 ‘Plan and section of an intended railway, to be called the Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway’ and also J.F. Bateman’s massive book on the ‘History and Description of the Manchester Waterworks’ from 1884, which contains many fascinating engineering diagrams and some useful maps of system design. In collaboration with the Holy Name Church on Oxford Road, I have also digitised some of the key architectural drawings for this Grade I building. 

In relation to the history of the University of Manchester, I have served as academic lead on the Campus Maps Through Time project, making the selection of which original archival materials and important historical reports should be digitised.
Campus Maps Through Time
Some of the results of my archival research and digitisation work, which speak directly to the unfolding of urban space, were deployed in the recent public exhibition on 'Making Post-war Manchester' that I helped to co-curate with Richard Brook and the Modernist Society. You can see the range of visual material narrated in the exhibition catalogue, now available freely online.

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