Survey of London – Whitechapel and Oxford Street

The next few months sees me starting collaborations on two new projects with the historians in the Survey of London, a group that, since the time of Victoria, have been tracing the story of London’s built environment. We’ll be working with them to inject our CASA-flavoured approaches into their studies of Whitechapel and Oxford Street.

Our first project kicks off next month, with researcher Panos Mavros bringing new approaches to understanding people’s experiences of Oxford Street by measuring their physical and psychological (aka “psychophysiological”) reactions. This will complement the historical and architectural methods that Andrew Saint is leading for this project. This pilot work has been funded by our faculty, through the Bartlett Research Challenges scheme.

January sees the launch of our large, three-year collaboration as part of an AHRC-funded project exploring the Whitechapel area. CASA will be working to develop an online platform to find new ways to engage audiences with the work of the Survey, led by Peter Guillery. Whitechapel is a vibrant, diverse area, and we will be finding ways to engage with the community, including their perspectives and stories alongside the scholarly work that forms the mainstay of the Survey of London’s work. An as-yet-unnamed CASA person will be handling the technical duties, working with a historian-researcher and the senior team members. This is a really major piece of work and will represent a substantial bit of digital humanities research for us – there’s not much to report at the moment, but there’ll be a lot to talk about once it kicks off officially. Watch this space.

It’s exciting for me to be involved in these projects – in two quite different ways, applying technological tools to humanities research to augment and enhance their methods. The use of psychophysiological measurement is a challenging way to create new understandings of Oxford Street – a shopping destination for over 250 years, it has experienced radical changes in the nature of retail. I didn’t think the history of shopping was something that I got very excited about, but the way it intersects class, gender, economic geography and place made me reconsider. It also brought to mind the part of Jon Savage’s history of London punk, England’s Dreaming, where he talks about (then-student, but later fashion and music svengali) Malcolm McLaren’s art project based on the psychogeography of Oxford Street – which he contended was deliberately designed to make the urban experience so unpleasant that people moved as quickly as possible from shop to shop, to get on with the important business of buying stuff. I’m not sure whether there is a grand conspiracy in this case, but I’m sure this feels familiar if you’ve braved Oxford Street before Xmas. I won’t be coming to the study with quite this jaundiced view, but the technologies that only recently became accessible allow us to explore these sorts of ideas in a bit more of scientific way, and ground them with historical evidence –  and I think that has immense potential.

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