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Histories of home

Dr Philip Carter introduces the Institute of Historical Research’s forthcoming winter conference, which will use 3D and virtual reality alongside ‘old’ technology to explore the fascinating history of past domesticities and visions of idealised living in the homes of the future.

Staff at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) are currently spending a lot of time thinking about ‘being at home’. Not that we are idling, of course. Rather, on 8–9 February the institute hosts its annual Winter Conference which this year takes as its theme ‘Home: new histories of living’ (#IHRHome18).

The title reflects the event’s main aims: to bring together those working on past domesticities (and above all the experiences of home life); and to focus on new and innovative research that explores how homes have been conceived and lived in. This focus on research and methodological enquiry will, we hope, become a strand in future IHR events and conferences – in line with the institute’s standing as a national centre for training in established and emerging forms of historical research.

‘New histories of living’ will address four interrelated subject areas of interest to historians of domestic life: 1. historical reconstructions of interiors; 2. histories of individual rooms; 3. gender and the home, and 4. visions of idealised living in the ‘homes of tomorrow’.

Each panel comprises researchers – from museums and heritage organisations, as well as academia – whose work provides insight both into historical domestic experience and historians’ approaches to these pasts.

In considering historical reconstructions, for example, we’ll look at how digital technologies enable scholars to recreate domestic interiors in 3D and virtual reality, allowing us to see again and even walk through long-lost houses. We’ll also consider physical recreations of historical houses as modern-day visitor attractions, and the changing characteristics of the ‘dream kitchen’ which has been an object of desire since the 18th century.

Kitchens also feature prominently in our second panel on ‘rooms’, with reference to their historical uses, purpose, representation and ownership. Here we’re also looking at bedrooms, and – specifically – the tensions of historical bedchambers in confined spaces shared by families, servants, employers and strangers.

Image: ‘Interior of a home’ by Minard, William E, licensed under CC0 1.0

The complexity of historical homes is further explored in a third panel on gender, which studies the mixed spaces of Victorian working-class homes (including a visit to a rat-catcher’s parlour), as well as home life in male and female-only lodging houses and communal institutions. To their early 20th-century creators, instances of institutional cohabitation were often seen as models of future living. Our final panel, on ‘homes of tomorrow’, pursues this theme with studies of post-war council housing, the attractions of modern suburbia, and 1960s visions of the bohemian squat.

In between the panels, the IHR conference includes plenary sessions from three leading historians in the field: the Guardian journalist and architectural historian Owen Hatherley (who’ll offer a personal take on life in the St Mary’s estate, Woolwich); Professor Vanessa Harding (who discusses the meanings of ‘house’ and ‘home’ in early modern London); and Dr Jane Hamlett who looks for home life and domestic experience in the asylums and schools of Edwardian England.

A conference about ‘home’ shouldn’t be all about work. To accompany the academic panels and lectures, therefore, we’re also running a series of extra events which offer some alternative perspectives on domestic living.

From early February, the IHR hosts an exhibition of items from the Fortnum and Mason archive, including tableware, packaging and aristocrats’ shopping lists.

Image: 3D chair

Lunchtime drop-in sessions on 8-9 February will give people the chance to learn about 3D modelling of domestic objects, and how to 3D print a chair made by the 1720s craftsman, William Old. There’ll also be a series of 10-minute ‘object biographies’ which tell the stories (and historical significance) of some everyday household items, including one from the celebrated Brutalist architect, Ernö Goldfinger.

Household objects are also the subject of our #myhistoryshelfie competition which we’re running with The Geffrye Museum of the Home. Tweet a photo of a mantelpiece or shelf in your home, on which stand objects that mean something to you, and tell us why it’s important. We’ll display the best submissions at the Winter Conference and there’ll be a prize of Heal’s vouchers for our favourite #historyshelfie so you can add to your collection of household goods.

The architect Ernö Goldfinger also features in the first of two follow-on events the IHR is running after the main conference. On Saturday 10 March there’ll be a guided tour of 2 Willow Road, Hampstead—Goldfinger’s Modernist home—which is now owned by the National Trust. And on Wednesday 2 May 2018, the IHR and Victoria and Albert Museum host a day workshop for Early Career Researchers in domestic histories. This gives ECRs a chance to discuss their work and research methods with subject specialists, and is followed by guided tour of the V&A’s new furniture gallery with its curator Nick Humphrey. Booking details for both events will be provided at the Winter Conference, and then on the IHR website.

Read more about the Conference and send us your #historyshelfie.

Dr Philip Carter is head of digital at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

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