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Traces of Empire in the Built Environment: Exploring the Collective Memory of Colonialism through the Photographic Collections of the Historic England Archive

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Dr Tom Allbeson , Dr Erika Hanna , Mr Gary Winter No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

‘Traces of Empire in the Built Environment’ will use historic photographs to tease out the multiple ways in which the English built environment has been formed and reformed through its links to empire. This will include an examination of a wide range of areas, including the construction of monuments and statuary, the creation of buildings and spaces, and the work of the tens of thousands of people who travelled from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia and found work as architects and builders in England’s cities. The photography collections of the Historic England Archive provide a unique and currently underexplored resource for exploring these themes. The Archive’s collection of 9 million images is one of the largest photography collections in the country, and provides a crucial window into the shaping of the built environment. Using photographs as the key primary source for this research project provides an opportunity for the CDA student to consider England’s landscapes and streetscapes at moments of their formation, explore the official and unofficial uses of space, and examine the lives and contribution of people such as builders and machine operators who so often get overlooked in narratives of changes to the landscape.

The outcome of the project will be an 80,000-word thesis alongside a public-facing online resource for Historic England. It is expected that the student will directly contribute to Historic England’s public engagement activities, for example by writing for Historic England’s Heritage Calling blog and by making contributions to the Enriching the List initiative. It is also expected that the student’s research will enhance assessments of the archive collections and their context, and that images and stories the student uncovers will be used in public engagement initiatives. 

The research questions cluster around a series of issues relating to empire, the built environment, and photography, but will be shaped by the interests and research of the postgraduate researcher in consultation with their supervisors. They might include:

• How has the built environment been shaped by links with empire?

• What role have imperial citizens (architects, planners, builders, machine operators etc) played in shaping the built environment?

• How can photography be used in making sense of both grand narratives and granular stories of the role of empire in the formation of the built environment?

The project will draw on research methods and critical interpretive frames that illuminate the cultural significance of architecture, urban space and public ceremonies or spectacle drawing on research methodologies of cultural geographers, historians of anthropology, scholars of urban memory and others. This will include the following approaches:

• Social histories of imperial cities, considering the ways in which spaces and practices of the city were shaped by expansion and industrialisation

• Studies of collective memory as constructed through the transformation of urban space (e.g. the creation of monuments, the naming of public spaces or the staging of festivities)

• Social biography of photographs, tracing the changing networks within which images circulate and how this circulation shapes the meanings of both photographic objects and the subjects of photographs

• Analyses of how discourses of urbanism are shaped by historic visual material and practices.

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Funding Notes

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