A Museum, World War II, and Entangled Politics. A view from Gdańsk

Should state-funded museums focus on the past of one nation, or should they open up their exhibitions to incorporate history of an entire region or even the whole world? Should borders of nation states converge with the borders of a museum’s exhibition? Who is the target audience of a state-funded museum: that state’s citizens or foreign tourists? Or maybe both groups?

These questions probably give headaches to all museum curators – especially in the century of Skype, Ryanair, the EU and electronic visas, when both historical research and museum audiences are increasingly less constrained by borders. These issues became of particular importance to the scholars and staff at the recently opened Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, Poland (incidentally, as a middle school student I interned in the very same museum). The staff not only had to tackle issues related to the exhibition, which opened to the public in March 2017, but also found themselves in the middle of a political struggle.

Museum of the Second World War, Gdańsk

On the surface, the conflict was between the liberals, who set up the museum in 2008, and the conservatives, who after an electoral victory in 2015 attempted to change the museum’s leadership and vision. However, the key questions, even if no-one framed them in such terms, were: Can a transnational and global approach to history deepen one’s understanding of the past and the present? And how do historians communicate such a new approach to a non-academic audience?

Up until the 1990s, history was studied almost exclusively from a “national” perspective. Borders of states defined the parameters of scholarship. Even those areas of history that by their nature called for a transnational approach – such as migration, colonialism or national minorities – were approached primarily through the prism of nation-states. Similarly, comparative history focused on phenomena happening in various nation-states, and boundaries were still treated as given.[1] This started to change in the 1990s,[2] when some historians (mainly) in America and Western Europe turned to investigating cross-border relations involving both state actors and non-state individuals (e.g. scientists), groups (e.g. migrants), and organisations (e.g. NGOs). Such an approach has been termed “transnational history” (although the concept still awaits a precise definition).[3]

Unsurprisingly, this new approach is primarily used to study phenomena which in an obvious way cross borders; these include trade, migration, or transfers of ideas and scholarship.[4] It is worthy of note that transnational history, a novel approach in itself, can be more easily applied to (relatively) new areas of historical research – such as those listed above – than to well-established fields – such as political history – which still tend to be analysed from a national perspective.[5]

In Poland, a transnational approach to history is an even greater novelty than in the West. As part of the undergraduate research assistantship programme I looked into the current status of transnational history in Polish academia and discovered that this approach appeared in Polish journals and research projects only recently: it was “imported” from the West. My survey of articles published in the past five years in major Polish historical journals [6] shows that works which mention transnational history or utilising a transnational approach are, with a few notable exceptions, authored by either foreign scholars publishing in Poland or Polish scholars educated and / or working abroad.

The latter are mostly younger scholars, such as Kornelia Kończal and Lidia Jurek (both educated as PhD candidates at EUI in Florence, an institute which has strong ties to the ITSH at St Andrews). Just like in “Western” academia, a transnational approach (even though not always labelled as such) tends to be more acceptable when applied to newer areas of historical research, such as environmental history,[7] than when used by political or military historians. Interestingly, the first written mention of transnational history that I managed to find is not in an academic journal, but on the popular Polish news and blogging website onet.pl. In the 2009 article ‘National history in a supranational perspective’ Marcin Kula, a historian based in Warsaw, shows how one’s understanding of Polish history can be expanded through studying it in a comparative and transnational perspective. Interestingly, Kula mentions that this is precisely what the general public will be able to learn in the (then-under-construction) Museum of the Second World War.[8]

This brings me back to the much debated Museum. When Kula published his article, a liberal government was sponsoring a museum that strove to present a comparative and transnational interpretation of the war to the broader public, from both Poland and abroad. After a change of government in 2015, a shift in the museum’s strategy was supposed to follow. This is because history, patriotism and identity in Poland are very strongly tied to one another. As a result, history is of considerable importance to people, both in their political choices and private lives. National history’s natural allies are the conservatives, who subscribe to a “national” (Polish) identity.

Transnational history, in contrast, tends to find supporters among liberals who generally identify not only with the Polish nation, but also with the broader European or world community, forging a “transnational” identity which crosses borders of nation states. This is not to simplify the Polish political stage to “conservatives” and “liberals” – every politician and every voter has his or her own perspective on politics, history and identity. I also do not believe the struggle between Poland’s two main political parties can be brought down to their support of or opposition towards “transnational” history (even though historians are, admittedly, overrepresented in Polish parliament). However, it is one of the factors worth remembering when analysing the “politics of history” in Central and Eastern Europe.

Should the Museum of Second World War in Gdańsk be “national” or “transnational”? Opinions on this matter vastly differ. It is worthy of note, however, that for legal reasons the new conservative government did not manage to introduce changes to the exhibition. Since the Museum – perhaps the first “transnational” museum in Poland – opened its doors in March 2017, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Surprisingly this includes the enthusiasm of some conservatives, such as senator Anna Maria Anders, which may be interpreted as a hint that the exhibition will not change much in the foreseeable future.[9] Does the museum’s “transnational” approach work? Well, see for yourselves: Gdańsk is easily accessible by plane, and the entrance fee is approx. 5 pounds. I’m going there this Saturday.

by Tadek Wojtych, University of St Andrews

tadek.wojtych@gmail.com

 

[1] Ian Tyrrell, What is transnational history?, January 2007, <https://iantyrrell.wordpress.com/what-is-transnational-history/> [2 March 2017].

[2] Klaus Kiran Patel, Transnational History, 3 March 2010, <http://ieg-ego.eu/en/threads/theories-and-methods/transnational-history> [13 May 2017], par. 2.

[3] Ibid., par. 4.

[4] Davide Rodogno, Struck, Bernhard and Vogel, Jakob, ‘Introduction’ in Davide Rodogno, Bernhard Struck and Jakob Vogel (eds), Shaping the Transnational Sphere: Experts, Networks and Issues from the 1840s to the 1930s (New York and Oxford, 2015), p. 5.

[5] Patel, Transnational History, par. 2.

[6] I surveyed Acta Poloniae Historica (2012-2016), Kwartalnik Historyczny (2010-2014), Klio Polska (2012-2016) and Przegląd Nauk Historycznych (2011-2016). I also looked at Biuletyn Historii Pogranicza (2008-2013) because of its focus on borderlands.

[7] Edmund Kizik, ‘Review of Kommunikation der Pest. Seestädte des Ostseeraums und die Bedrohung durch die Seuche 1708–1713 by Carl Christian Wahrmann‘, Acta Poloniae Historica 107 (2013), pp. 225-31.

[8] Marcin Kula, Historia narodowa w ponadnarodowej perspektywie, 5 October 2009, <http://wiadomosci.onet.pl/kiosk/historia-narodowa-w-ponadnarodowej-perspektywie/9l5hl> [2 March 2017].

[9] ‘Córka gen. Andersa o Muzeum II Wojny Światowej: „Fascynujące, świetnie zrobione”’, wyborcza.pl, 23 April 2017 <https://goo.gl/QdyUGz> [17 May 2017].

Botany and Empires across the Oceans

As part of our Research Seminar series Dr Sarah Easterby-Smith (St Andrews) will be speaking on: “Gathering green gold. Botany and the French Empire in the eighteenth-century Indian Ocean”

Time and Venue: Monday 3 April 2017, 4.30pm, room 1.10, St Katharine’s Lodge, School of History

Abstract: Botany is a brilliant subject for global history. Enlightenment botanists were

Hand coloured plate from Johann S Kerner’s eighteenth-century book ‘Beschreibung und Abbildung der Bäume und Gestrauche’.

fixated on transferring information and objects across large distances and they forged connections with a wide array of practitioners in order to do so. Plants, too, were considered central to economic development, and botanical collectors were often commissioned to work on schemes intended to further imperial aspirations. This paper discusses two aspects of eighteenth-century botanical collecting. Firstly, it assesses the activities of French botanical collectors in the Indian Ocean, examining their work in relation to that of other imperial powers. Secondly, the paper considers the examples discussed above from a historiographical perspective, to question what (if anything) microhistorical studies can offer more broadly to global history.

 

Symphonic war entanglements

The ITSH warmly welcomes a new PhD researcher: Percy Leung. Percy started his PhD project on “Symphonic Beneficence. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra during the First World War” in January 2017, under the supervision of Professor Frank Müller. Percy is originally from Hong Kong, he has received a BA in Combined Honours in Arts (History, Music, Politics & International Relations) from Durham University and a M.Phil. in Music Studies from the University of Cambridge.

Percy Leung

Here is what Percy says about his project:

“I am deeply passionate about the relationship between music and politics. My undergraduate dissertation explores the contradictions and paradoxes of the Nazis’ cultural policies, whereas my masters’ dissertation is essentially a comparative analysis on the Soviet Union’s and the United States’ cultural policies on music in post-war occupied Germany between 1945 and 1947. It focuses on these two Cold War superpowers’ efforts in reconstructing the German musical life after the collapse of the Third Reich, as well as on their Denazification policies on German musicians.” Read more on his project here.

Japan and World History

The School of History and the ITSH are proud to host Professor Carol Gluck (Columbia University) as part of our Modern History Research Seminar Series. Professor Gluck will be speaking on “Modernity in Common. Japan and World History”. 

This lecture is based on the dual assumption that just as one cannot tell the modern history of any society in isolation from the world, the history of the modern world can in fact be grasped from the vantage point of any place on the globe. In this instance, the place is Japan. One of a “globeful of modernities” Japan shares commonalities and connections with other modern societies. At the same time it offers the opportunity to develop ideas about the “modern” based on empirical evidence different from the European experiences that underlay earlier theories of modernity. Here I examine four questions frequently asked about modern Japanese history, from the nineteenth century until the present, in order to see how they appear when viewed in a global context — in the context of “modernity in common.”

Monday, 20 February 2017, 5pm, Venue: School II (St Salvator Quad)

The event is co-organised with the Japan Society, St Andrews. Following Professor Gluck’s talk, there will be a reception in room 54 (St Salvator, Quad).

5th GRAINES summer school: Sharpen your digital edge & tools

GRAINES Summer School: History and its sources – after the Digital Turn

Call for Applications

The Graduate Interdisciplinary Network for European Studies (GRAINES) is now inviting applications for its upcoming 5th GRAINES Summer School “History and its sources – after the digital turn”. The event will be of particular interest to PhD students who are looking to explore the implications of digital history – qualitative and quantitative – for their own projects.

GRAINES summer school, St Andrews 2015

GRAINES summer school, St Andrews 2015

The programme will provide opportunities to present and discuss research projects which involve source criticism after the digital turn, i.e. digital approaches to collecting sources and the application of digital technology to analyse these. Further topics of discussion will include qualitative or critical approaches examining the relationship between quantification and the digital turn, such as the history of statistics.

There will be four main thematic sessions addressing various fields of digital history, including databases as a tool for collecting and analysing sources; computational text analysis; geographical information systems (GIS); and approaches to quantitative and statistical history. Participants will have the opportunity to discuss the relevance of digital approaches for their own research, and propose topics for discussion groups.

The GRAINES Summer School particularly invites projects in the fields of European History and Global History from the Middle Ages to the present.

When & Where

Tuesday 5 September (6pm) – Friday 8 September (2pm)

Department of History, University of Basel

Applications

The participation fee of € 200 also covers board and accommodation. Please note applications should be submitted by 31 March 2017 via bgsh.geschichte.unibas.ch/registration. In justified cases, applicants can apply to be exempted from the participation fee. The number of participants is limited.

Information

Organised by the Basel Graduate School of History and the GRAINES network. For questions, please contact Dr Roberto Sala, co-ordinator of the Basel Graduate School of History: roberto.sala@unibas.ch

 

Qing China – between walls and the maritime world

Professor Yang-wen Zheng (University of Manchester) 
Wind of the West Ocean [西洋风]: How the Maritime World Shaped Modern China 
ITSH and Modern History Seminar Series
Time and Venue:
Monday, 30 January 2017, room 1.10, School of History, St Andrews (St Katherine’s Lodge, The Scores)
Generations of Chinese scholars have made China’s frontiers synonymous with the Great Wall and presented its civilization as fundamentally land-bound. I have challenged this perspective, demonstrating that China was not a “Walled Kingdom”, certainly not since the Yongjia Disturbance in 311.  China reached out to the maritime world far more actively than historians have acknowledged, while the seas and what came from the seas-from Islam, fragrances and Jesuits to maize, opium and clocks—significantly changed the course of history, and have been of inestimable importance to China since the Ming. 
It is time we integrate the maritime history of China, a subject which has hitherto languished on the periphery of Chinese studies, into the mainstream of current historical narrative. This talk focuses on the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) when China’s maritime trade pattern changed as its imports shifted from luxuries catering to the court and elite, as they had done since the Han-Tang era, to mundane consumer items.  This change began in the latter half of the Ming and became obvious during the Qing.  What led to this change and what can we learn from it?  From what the Chinese wear to what they eat, chew, drink and smoke, from how they live to the ways in which they move themselves, and even to the manner in which they think and re-invent the country, foreign goods, inventions and ideas that came from the maritime world have fundamentally changed Chinese economy, culture, society and even politics. 

Working with Space

Over the past few years the ITSH and the EUI in Florence have been cooperating at different levels. In 2010, St Andrews hosted the workshop “The Individual and the Local in Transnational and Comparative History“, published as a special issue of the International

Working with Space - EUI Dec 2016

Working with Space – EUI Dec 2016

History Review as “Size Matters” in 2011. In December 2016, it was time again to meet – this time at the EUI discussing “Working with Space“. In between a number of PhD researchers have used the ERASMUS postgraduate link between both institutions for individual visits of up to a semester.

The “Working with Space” workshop was led by Pablo Hernández Sau, Martin Vailly and Nazli Songülen (all EUI) and co-convened by Regina Grafe, Stéphane van Damme, Pieter Judson (all EUI) and Bernhard Struck (ITSH). The meeting in the stunning Villa Salviati brought together 12 PhD researches from both institutions and a number of visitors. Set up deliberately as a workshop and discussion forum we explored the many and varied dimension of Spatial History.

The workshop discussed both analytical questions around space and spatial history as an object of enquiry, as a (heuristic) tool, and as the historian’s framework. Individual panels and presenters zoomed into specific fields including travel, economy, and knowledge / science. Around these fields a number of different approaches to space were discussed including mental mapping, networks of actors, epistemic communities, or spaces of opportunities.

Working with Space - EUI, Dec 2016

Working with Space – EUI, Dec 2016

The discussion around the workshop can be followed on Twitter via #workingwithspace.

The St Andrews pre-workshop writing can be found here.

Thank you very much for your kind and very generous hospitality – see you @ITSH.

Workshop Report: Spatial History and Its Sources

This workshop engaged with analytical approaches, themes, and sources in the emerging field of spatial history. It marked the first step towards a new volume to be published in the series “Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources”. In keeping with the guiding principle of this series, the workshop explored ways of doing and practising spatial history, on the basis of a variety of primary sources, and informed by different analytical perspectives.

The workshop was opened by the organisers Riccardo Bavaj, Bernhard Struck, and Konrad Lawson, who all stressed the need to identify what was distinctive about the field of spatial history, and what, if anything, spatial history added to the practice of historians. RICCARDO BAVAJ (St Andrews) argued that the field of spatial history is not so much defined by “its sources”, and by what scholars choose to investigate, as it is defined by the way in which sources are analysed and by how scholars choose to write history: It is, he emphasized, a matter of perspective, methodology, and analytical approach. Bavaj outlined three potential perspectives: the everyday-making of geography and the production of social spaces; practices of territorialisation and symbolic appropriations of political spaces; practices of mental mapping and the deployment of spatial semantics. KONRAD LAWSON (St Andrews) complemented this by focusing on the opportunities brought by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to the field of spatial history. While GIS had long been employed in the social sciences for the analysis of clearly defined research questions, it had much to offer to historians of space as a heuristic tool of discovery when adopting the same careful and critical approach to the representative and interpretative aspects of extracting and visualising geographical data as was the case with more established methodologies.

SARAH EASTERBY-SMITH and MATTHEW YLITALO (St Andrews) honed in on ships as mobile spaces that influence and frame social relationships. Particularly, they reflected on three dimensions: mobility, mutability, and temporality. Inspired by Foucault’s notion of ships as ‘heterotopias’ par excellence, they analysed ships as social spaces characterised by disruptions of ‘normal relations’ (e.g. public/private) and their chameleonic nature. Indeed, journeys on ships usually featured long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of intense interaction. Easterby-Smith and Ylitalo illustrated their points with the example of the CSS Shenandoah, a commercial and whaling ship which sailed across the world oceans between 1863 and 1865, performing various acts of transgression depending on where it sailed or harboured.

MICHAEL TALBOT (Greenwich) offered a different point of view on the spatial setting of the sea. Contrary to Alexis Wick’s “The Red Sea: In Search of Lost Space” (2016), in whicp1130371h the sea, in contradistinction to the land, is presented as an entity that is denied any historical agency, Talbot made the case for viewing the sea as a distinctly historical entity. Focusing on an imperial command of Mustafa III, and the efforts of the Ottoman Empire to control violence in the eastern Mediterranean and to protect ‘our seas’ and ‘waters’, Talbot argued that the sea in this context showed all the essential traits of territoriality (or ‘maretoriality’) as defined by geographer Robert Sack: a bounded area; a means of identifying and marking the area; a form of authority manifested over people, objects, and processes in the area. Talbot also highlighted the importance of ‘brown water history’ that considered coastal waters as transitional (ecotonal) spaces between land and sea.

MARK HARRIS (St Andrews) examined from an anthropological perspective the question of what it means for a society to live along a river. The case of the Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon, led Harris to investigate the river as a site of encounter and subjugation, highlighting the division between Portuguese and Amerindian spaces. As part of his evidence he presented a report and a map prepared by Jesuit missionap1130384ries in the 1740s of the River Tapajós. These documents revealed the different kinds of knowledge as represented in ethnic and spatial terms to refer to people and the areas along the river. Apparently of European authorship, these documents were complex statements of first and second hand knowledge of the river and its native people. Both colonial and native relations were shaped by this riverine space – the flow which drew all down to its mouth where the colonial fort and Jesuit mission were located.

In his exploration of landscapes, JAMES KORANYI (Durham) analysed the German-speaking travel guide for Romania “Komm mit” (“Come along”/”Join in”), which was published in Bucharest between 1970 and 1990 (with a print run of 20,000-30,000 copies), and whose target audience were, especially, East German tourists. The travel guide served a number of purposes: Above all, it allowed Romanian Germans to reclaim certain regions as “their space” (also through the use of German place names), and to reimagine Romania as their Heimat. At the same time, it helped the regime to promote Romania as a socialist homeland of beautiful landscapes, glossing over the actual destruction of rural spaces – one of the reasons it passed censorship. Most intriguingly perhaps, the travel guide reinjected a sense of appreciation for localness and the smaller scale in a political environment dominated by two large power blocks.

In her analysis of mountain travel in the early modern period, DAWN HOLLIS (St Andrews) demonstrated that mountains, while an object of physical geography, allowed for the exploration of a plurality of spaces. Following Henri Lefebvre’s tripartite definition of space, she examined mountains as a conceived and practiced space, but also as a ‘representational space’ that carried religious meanings (‘the city of God at the top of the mountain’). While historians have focused a great deal on a proposed change in perspective on mountains thanks in part to the rise of mountaineering, the cultural experience of mountains before this period shows considerably more rich and diverse views than previously understood. Hollis thus challenged the assumption of a dichotomy between an early modern sense of ‘mountain gloom’ vs. a modern vision of ‘mountain glory’.

JORDAN GIRARDIN (St Andrews) discussed various aspects that ought to be considered when using travel literature as a primary source. Focusing on Thomas Pennington’s “Journey into Various Parts of Europe” (1825), he zoomed in on the points of departure and arrival, and their socio-cultural contexts, the mental map of the traveller, experiences of confusion and miscommunication, and social encounters during the journey. The inclusion of – unreliable – “historical notes” in Pennington’s account presented a particular challenge for using this primary source. Girardin suggested a combination of both qualitative and quantitative analysis and stressed the potential of combining techniques of close and distant reading.

BERNHARD STRUCK (St Andrews) drew attention to maps as media of spatial representation and a key primary source for spatial historians. He chose a topographical map by Jakob Melchior Ziegler from 1848, which carried the title ‘Deutschland’, sending out the message “This is Germany”. A peculiarity of the map was the mentioning of notables – scholars, artists, and other luminaries – near their place of birth or residence. The silences of the map were particularly noteworthy in this regard: While the name of Immanuel Kant was shown under the city of Königsberg, the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was absent from the map – a map that envisioned a ‘greater Germany’ that included Austria. What Struck’s analysis conveyed was the combination between an aura of scientific accuracy that maps like Ziegler’s evoked and the art of political persuasion in which they engaged.

LUKASZ STANEK (Manchester) examined drawings of Nigerian traditional architecture by the Polish architectural historian Zbigniew Dmochowski. Applying mapping techniques from 1930s surveys of traditional wooden buildings in eastern Poland, Dmochowski had carried out a vast survey of Nigerian architecture first as an employee of the colonial Department of Antiquities in the 1950s and later as the head of the Institute for Tropical Architectural Research at the Gdańsk Polytechnic (1965–82). Dmochowski made a case for “accepting tradition as the starting point of […] creative, independent thinking”, its translation into “steel and concrete”, and its use for the creation of “a modern school of Nigerian architecture”. As Stanek made clear, the isometric drawings by Dmochowski offered the opportunity to explore the normative power of the perspectives prp1130467oduced and thus explore the relationship between documentation and design.

Finally, TIM COLE (Bristol) reflected on a map of the Pest ghetto, which was established in November 1944, illuminating various dimensions in the process of ghettoization: territoriality and the exercise of power through ghetto space; the creation of “Jewish presence” and “Jewish absence” through ghetto walls; spatial (and mapping) strategies to put Jews in “their place”. Cole also problematized, however, the tendency to privilege the perspective of perpetrators, and stressed the need to counter this perspective by giving due consideration to “place-making strategies” of Jewish victims. He concluded his talk by pointing to the opportunities, but also some of the pitfalls of digital GIS mapping, as well as the memorialization of the Jewish ghetto in today’s Budapest.

A final discussion concluded this exploratory workshop. It was emphasized that the planned publication on spatial history and its sources needed to make clear what added value a spatial historp1130476ical perspective provided that distinguished it from more established approaches. The papers each provided their own answer to this challenge, offering valuable contributions in at least three general areas: highlighting the opportunities of using particular types of primary sources; exploring the potential of particular kinds of spaces for generating new historical questions; and finally preserving reflexivity through a critical engagement with spatial theory.

Conference overview:

St Andrews, 2nd September 2016

Introduction (Riccardo Bavaj, Konrad Lawson, Bernhard Struck)

Ships (Sarah Easterby-Smith & Matt Ylitalo, St Andrews)

The Sea (Michael Talbot, Greenwich)

Rivers (Mark Harris, St Andrews)

Landscapes (James Koranyi, Durham)

Mountains (Dawn Hollis, St Andrews)

Travel (Jordan Girardin, St Andrews)

Maps (Bernhard Struck, St Andrews)

Architecture (Lukasz Stanek, Manchester)

Ghettos (Tim Cole, Bristol)

Concluding discussion

This workshop report re-posted from H-Soz-Kult.

Workshop Report: Nation, Culture and Civilisation: Talking about and beyond ‘the West’ (1860-1940)

Building on the recently published volume “Germany and ‘the West’: The History of a Modern Concept” (2015), this workshop sought to explore the transnational discourse on ‘the West’ from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (1860–1940). While the first part of the workshop, held at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich, focused on Germany, Britain, France, Russia and the US, the second part, held at the University of St Andrews, shifted the geographical focus to Japan, Korea, China and the Ottoman Empire. The workshop sought to answer a variety of questions: When, where, and why did ‘the West’ become a central point of reference in intellectual and political discourse? Why did people begin to talk about the West in a socio-political and often civilisational sense? Did the concept of the West, as Christopher GoGwilt has argued, eclipse the concept of Europe around the turn of the century, or did it displace the notion of ‘whiteness’, as Alastair Bonnett suggests? What influence did racism, social Darwinism and imperialism have on conceptualisations of the West? How did different spatial identities relate to each other: national, European / Asian / Islamic, Western / non-Western, and civilisational? Did countries typically seen as paradigmatic of ‘the West’ today consider themselves part of such an imagined community at the time? In what ways were conceptions of the West deployed to shape national identities in non-Western regions that had become increasingly incorporated into the communicative networks of Europe and America?

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Talking Transnational History – 4 Questions for…Jordan Girardin

Coming from Sciences Po, Jordan Girardin joined St Andrews in 2012 for an MLitt in

Jordan Girardin - presenting on The Alps and Alpine travel, Sep 2016

Jordan Girardin – presenting on The Alps and Alpine travel, Sep 2016

Modern History (including a good dash of transnational history exposure – since 2015 the ITHS  offers a free-standing postgraduate Master in Transnational History) and went on to stay for a PhD. He has recently, in just under three years, submitted his thesis entitled Travel in the Alps: the construction of a transnational space through digital and mental mapping (1750 – 1830). So, let us ask a few questions – and of course, warm congratulations on this great leap forward.

  • How did your project on the Alps around 1800 evolve and develop?

I started my PhD in 2013 and my main objective back then was to show how the Alps became a transnational space between the 1750s and 1830s. I was convinced that I would find enough sources to state that the Alps went from being a huge obstacle to a very interconnected space. The reality was of course not so clear, and more importantly I realised that the terms I used applied to the twenty-first century but were not always so adequate for the period I studied. It was very hard to argue that local Alpine populations saw themselves as ‘transnational actors’ interacting with different valleys across political borders, even though their action could be described as such. However, I was still fascinated by the creation of a consistent Alpine space across national territories and therefore decided to focus on travellers’ perception of that region. As they were not familiar with the Alps, their interpretation of space certainly was going to be more subjective – even ‘wrong’ or exaggerated at times – and therefore allowed me to focus on mental mapping and representations of space. Travel became the main aspect of my topic in the end and this is something I wish to continue doing in my future research!

  • What are the major trends and arguments of your work?

My thesis is an investigation of how the Alps rose as a clear concept in the minds of European elites from the 1750s to the 1830s. Up until the 1750s, the term ‘alps’

Eighteenth-century view of the Alps

Eighteenth-century view of the Alps

was hardly capitalised and mostly referred to the peaks themselves. The works of the Enlightenment and the growing number of travellers made the Alps more popular and more clearly defined in travel literature. My thesis attempts to break down that process between the facts – travel itineraries changing, scientific and socio-economic networks evolving – and their impact on mental representations of that space, using travel accounts, political discourse, and maps. My final chapter explained how the Alps even became a myth, a mountainous space par excellence. It addresses that not all the Alps were seen as quintessentially Alpine in the eyes of travellers: instead, the north-western region of the Alps (around Lake Geneva) featured all elements that eventually made up the Alpine myth and their reputation then applied on behalf of the entire Alpine space. The end of the period I studied (around the 1830s) sees the end of that transition: at that point, all conditions made it possible for the Alps to become a cultural object clearly defined in public representations, and for tourism to genuinely flourish in the shape of a proper economic market.

  • What did you learn about the practice of transnational and / or spatial history? 

I very much looked forward to apply transnational/spatial theories and practices in my PhD, after having chosen transnational history as my main specialisation at MLitt level. Over these three years I learned how to moderately use these theories and their terminology. Indeed, there is always a risk to over-conceptualise a rather empirical example; my first drafts did so, and at times I ended up losing track of my own narrative. Transnational history is a subtler mix of key concepts and terms (space, networks, hubs, interactions) in order to better serve a concrete example (through everyday life history, small scale analysis, or prosopographical approaches for instance). I believe my topic allowed me to find the right balance; through it I realised that spatial approaches can enhance anyone’s research and open doors to new research perspectives. Over the course of this PhD I spent some time building a database of travellers and trying to render their itineraries through digital mapping: this practice – which I believe is part of spatial and transnational history – also allowed me to find out results that words and concepts simply could not materialise. I am convinced transnational/spatial history still has a lot of potential and I look forward to exploring it even more in my future research.

  • Having finished a PhD thesis in three years, what secret would you share with other PhDs?

It may sound quite paradoxical, but I would say ‘keep busy!’. Having more projects to look forward to will force you to be organised, to structure your day, and to get your PhD work done once you have properly allocated some time for it. My least productive moments happened when my PhD was my only daily task. Once I started teaching, presenting conference papers, taking up small internships or taking part in the life of the School and Institute, I became better at planning my work and getting it done. Leave some free time for yourself, keep healthy, keep moving, and your thesis will become a pleasant part of your daily life. Although life can sometimes get in the way, I would also recommend that you establish early on an approximate date of submission, and try to stick to it. The run-up to submission may be exciting, but do not forget that it is not over until you have actually submitted it: I spent a few weeks believing I was done, but my Word document was sitting comfortably on my hard drive. If you and your supervisor have established that your thesis can be submitted, then do everything to actually submit it: the moment you bring your copies to Registry is the real finish line, and it will feel amazing!

Afterwords of “Thanks”: And lastly, on behalf of the ITSH, we would like to thank the University of St Andrews for generously funding Jordan’s work with a 600th Anniversary PhD Scholarship. We would also like to thank the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the Forschungszentrum Gotha as well as our GRAINES friends and colleagues in Basel for hosting Jordan for a semester (a bit closer to the Alpine space than St Andrews). Thank you everyone.