27 October 2014
Professor Alison Blunt, the new Head of School for Geography, talks to us about the exciting developments in the School’s curriculum, how her postgraduate studies in Vancouver led to her fascination with ideas and practices of home and migration, and the many and varied rewards of collaborative research with museums.
You’ve recently taken on the role of Head of School for Geography. What will this involve?
I’m excited about my new role. The School is a great place to work and study, and my role is to ensure that everything runs effectively and successfully for students and staff. I look forward to working with colleagues in the School, Faculty and QMUL more widely, and to combining my new responsibilities with teaching, postgraduate supervision and research. I will also continue as co-director of the Centre for Studies of Home.
Is there anything you hope to develop or change in the School?
We made significant changes to the first year curriculum last year. As part of this we launched an exciting new project called ‘Reimagine London’ for all new undergraduate geographers in their first week at QMUL. In their first two days, our students researched the idea of London as a National Park in every London borough. Professor Catherine Nash organised this project in collaboration with Daniel Raven-Ellison from the Geography Collective, and it was an incredibly inspiring way to start the year. The students’ posters are up in the new Geography foyer, and will be on display in City Hall near Tower Bridge from this Friday (24 October) for a week as a Reimagine London exhibition. You can also see some of the photographs they took here. Building on these innovations, one priority for this year is to review the second year curriculum. Other priorities are to develop our postgraduate programmes and recruitment, and to increase and diversify our research grant income. More broadly, I am developing the new School strategy, and am looking to maintain and enhance the collegiality that underpins our success.
You were on sabbatical last semester. How did that go?
My sabbatical went very well, and it was ideally timed just before starting as Head of School. I spent most of the time developing a new research project which will study the relationships between domestic urbanism (the city as home) and urban domesticities (home-making in the city), focusing on the intersections of home, migration and the city. The research has three main parts: living in the city; art, performance, home and the city; and urban museums of house and home. I will be working on this project with a postdoctoral researcher, Dr Olivia Sheringham, for the next three years.
Your research focuses on geographies of the home, empire, migration and diaspora, and the spatial politics of the home. What drew you to these areas?
I’m fascinated by the idea of home from domestic to global scales, and how ideas, experiences and practices of home change as people migrate. I studied for my MA and PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and was very homesick for my first year. My early research was on women and imperial travel, focusing on Mary Kingsley’s travels to West Africa in the 1890s. She had grown up in Highgate like me, and I found it inspiring to read about her travels so far from home. The more I read about travel, the more I realised it was bound up with ideas about home. My interests in the political mobilisation of home led to my PhD research on imperial domesticity in British India at a time of crisis and reconstruction. That in turn led to my research on the Anglo-Indian community and the spatial politics of home for this community of mixed descent in the 50 years before and after Independence in India, Britain and Australia. I was particularly interested in how ideas and practices of home extended far beyond the domestic sphere to encompass ideas about the nation and wider diaspora as home. Since then, my research has focused on ideas about the city as home, both in a project called ‘Diaspora Cities’, which explored the ways in which four small communities from Calcutta imagine the city rather than the nation as home, both before and after migration, and in my current research on ‘Home, city and migration’, based closer to home in east London.
Your book Home published in 2006 opens with the question “What does home mean to you?” Could you tell us what home means to you?
Home to me is where I live now and where I grew up, both in north London. Both are closely bound up with family – my memories of growing up in the house my mother lived in all of her life, and my home life now, particularly as a mother. Whilst both feel quite rooted to me, my ideas about home have been shaped by living in Vancouver for five years and travelling widely for my research, particularly to India and Australia.
Is there a country or a city whose cultures of home you are particularly drawn to or that you think we could learn from?
Many of the people we interviewed in the ‘Diaspora Cities’ project had very fond memories of Calcutta as home – a sense of the wider neighbourhood and city shaping their sense of community and identity. For the Anglo-Indian, Brahmo, Chinese and Jewish Calcuttans we interviewed, attachments to the city as home were inseparably bound up with an appreciation of the diversity of Calcutta – an expansive and inspiring sense of home that includes rather than excludes people from different communities.
What do you think about the increasing importance placed on the measurement of impact in academia?
I think that the impact of our research is very important, and hope that this would be valued whether or not it is measured in REF. Our research has impact within as well as beyond the academy, notably through our teaching. I am involved in collaborative research projects with a number of partners, particularly in the museum sector, and find these relationships vitally important in communicating academic research to a wider public.
Could you tell us a bit more about these collaborative partnerships?
Like many other colleagues in Geography at QMUL, I do a lot of collaborative work with museums. I co-direct the Centre for Studies of Home, a partnership with the Geffrye Museum of the Home, which is an international hub of research and knowledge exchange on homes, past and present. We have a wide range of collaborative research projects and seven PhD students and three postdoctoral researchers. It is so inspiring to work with colleagues with curatorial and educational expertise on home, and to share ideas and learn from each other – we’ve developed an exhibition together, and are working on others, as well as developing new material for the collections, and new learning resources for different age groups. I’m also co-supervising two PhD researchers, Eithne Nightingale and Lamees Al Mubarak, with colleagues at the V&A Museum of Childhood on ‘The Child in the World’ programme, and have learnt so much about working with children and different communities, particularly in east London, as a result of this work. I am a Council member and trustee at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers), and co-supervise another PhD researcher Chandan Mahal, who is working on diasporic family history in the Society’s collections. Throughout this work I’ve been very interested in outreach work with different communities and audiences, both locally based and across diaspora, and am pursuing these interests as part of the Creativeworks London project.
And finally, what do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I have a six-year-old daughter, Beatrice, so spend much of my time going to the park, swimming, parties, and watching Strictly! We love going to family events at the Geffrye and the V&A Museum of Childhood. I also enjoy reading – some of my favourite authors are Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell and Jane Gardam. If I had more time I would play more tennis!
Who would you like to win Strictly?
Bea and I are backing Caroline and Pasha!
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