At the end of March around 90 academics gathered at the architecturally fascinating Robinson College in Cambridge for the annual meeting of the Urban History Group. Dr Tom Hulme, early career lecturer in urban history at the Institute of Historical Research, came away feeling confident that there is still a place for urban history, but less certain of what form that should take.
It’s a special year, being the 50th anniversary of the first conference devoted to urban history. Back in 1966 this took place at the University of Leicester – a time when a general sense of ‘urban crisis’ was growing. Instrumental in its organisation was Professor H J Dyos, considered to be the father of the discipline in Britain.
In 2016, taking the broad theme of ‘Re-evaluating the place of the city in history’, participants were encouraged to reflect on two of the central aspects of that first event: the general scope and methods of urban history; and the potential, or importance of, comparative research.
My introduction to the Group meetings was back in 2009, when I was a Masters student in Leicester – the first proper conference I ever attended. Now, with a PhD in urban history from the Centre for Urban History and a job in the Centre for Metropolitan History, I felt a bit sheepish that I’d never been back.
Attending this year felt a bit like ‘coming home’ – but in a good way. Thankfully one of the selling points of the conference is just how welcoming it is, facilitated by a manageable size and excellent organisation. I was excited and educated by many of the papers, from ‘youthscapes’ and the ‘plasticine city’ in Melbourne, to urban public culture and planning (or the lack of!) in Kanpur. A session devoted to first-year PhD researchers was equally stimulating, and hopefully useful for the students who presented what seem to me to be excellent projects. Hopefully they and other postgraduate students will be encouraged enough to come to the Institute of Historical Research’s postgraduate conference for urban historians in early July.
In 2009 the theme had been ‘crises and the city’ – with papers about the economy, society, and the environment. The final roundtable of this year’s conference was, in a roundabout way, also about crisis – but this time of the discipline itself. Chairing was Richard Rodger, professor of economic and social history at the University of Edinburgh. Implicitly identifying wider cultural shifts that have taken place in academic history, Richard argued for the return of what may seem like ‘old’ questions – the economy and demography – in urban history.
Digging out the published conference proceedings for the 1966 meeting, the difference is certainly stark; identity and space have triumphed. Shane Ewen, one of the panellists and author of What is Urban History?,used his time to argue for the continued relevance of the ‘urban variable’ that had so animated Professor Dyos and others in the 1960s. He also encouraged researchers to make their examination of the past relevant to policymakers in the present. Not an uncommon suggestion in the current funding climate, certainly, but one that still (understandably) leaves some academics feeling wary – as comments from the audience made clear.
Rebecca Madgin, one of the chief organisers of the conference and co-editor of Cities Beyond Borders, agreed with Shane – but cautioned that talking to policymakers has a language all of its own. Roey Sweet, professor of urban history at the Leicester Centre, brought up what I feel was the elephant in the room: the distinct lack of coverage given to the pre-modern city at the conference. She is certainly right – skimming over the programme again there are only a couple of talks that pre-date 1850. How can we do a history of urbanisation that isn’t just about modernisation? As Roey pointed out, getting a longer diachronic approach is vital – something we are certainly hoping to do here with our Cities@SAS launch event in June, and our Urban Belonging conference in 2017.
I left the conference feeling confident that there is still a place for urban history, but less certain of what form that should take. At its heart the debates of the roundtable, and the conference more generally, reflected those that are taking place throughout the humanities: what is the purpose and remit of humanities research, and who or what is research for? Big questions, with ongoing answers…
Dr Tom Hulme is an early career lecturer in urban history at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Historical Research, and is based at the Centre for Metropolitan History. Before taking up this post he was a Research Associate at King’s College London on the project ‘the Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain, 1905-2015’. He received his PhD from the University of Leicester in 2013.