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Tales of Ordinary Landscapes: Uncovering History in the Spaces of the Contemporary City


Wednesday, September 25, 2013 - 12:00 to 14:00
Seamus O'Hanlon
Guided tours of major historical landmarks are a staple of popular and public history. So too are heritage tours of old cities and historic neighbourhoods. The implicit (or possibly explicit?) idea behind all these tours is that ‘being there’, seeing where things happened, helps us to develop a feel for History in ways that just reading about the past cannot. None of this is new of course. The European Grand Tour or the visit to the religious and cultural monuments of the Middle East have long been a staple of a good education and a marker of cultural sophistication. The emphasis in most of these tours, walks and heritage trails is, however, on either the long past – whether 3000, 500 or even 100 years ago, where important people lived, or where big ‘things’ happened. 
But, as an historian of the contemporary period, and as someone who is interested in both everyday life and the dynamic nature of cities, I am often troubled by this. This might partly reflect concerns that I don't have an audience, but also because I worry that it reflects a still-popular belief that History is about ‘big’ things and major events - something that happened to someone else, a long time ago. While many tours now democratise history, they don’t overtly recognise that your story and mine is also history, or that history can be found in all sorts of unusual places – in the everyday landscapes of our daily lives.
In this talk I discuss my work as an urban scholar and reflect on my practice as an academic and public historian who uses the landscapes and streetscapes of the city to introduce a range of audiences to the multiple stories of the past and present of the contemporary city. The talk will reinforce the importance of helping our audiences to read landscapes historically and the primacy of imagination, narrative and story-telling in this process. 

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