The Living Maps Seminar Series 2014


There is currently a series of seminars under the umbrella title of Living Maps (see doing the rounds in London once a month at the moment. I managed to get to the second one yesterday titled Hidden Histories. It consisted of three talks by three different speakers and was a fascinating look at how the histories and voices of communities get overlooked. One of the overriding messages of the seminar was how maps themselves are insufficient as a medium for recording the memories, and hidden histories that exist in places.

Halima Kanom, who works at the Museum of London Docklands and created the site Wander East Through East, gave a talk on the old Limehouse Chinatown in London. The talk was of particular interest to me because it has been an intention of mine to produce an illustrated map of the old Chinatown in Limehouse, ever since I discovered its historical existence on a Birkbeck field trip last year that consisted of a guided trail around the East End district of Bishopsgate. Halima created an audio trail called ‘Wander East through East’, as part of her MA in Heritage Studies, exploring the original Chinatown in London. She gave me a number of interesting sources to look through and I will update on it as and when I make more progress on it.

Toby Butler’s talk linked very closely with Halima’s. A lecturer at the University of East London, he has led community-created projects to produce memoryscapes of local areas, particularly at Royal Docklands in the East End. Both he and Halima use oral histories and different digital medias to offer a different, more immersive way of visiting and learning about a place.

Toby’s lecture was on projects that seek to interview communities in order to create, alongside them, a trail through the area. The aim is to incorporate locals in the promotion of their area and to enable visitors to gain a much more in depth knowledge of a particular area, through the promotion of local knowledge. Toby described it as ‘providing thickness to a place’. One of the specific issues he brought up was the issue of censorship when producing maps of the trail. A great deal of information was collected from community interviews, only a small amount of which is ever able to appear on trail maps. Further to this, he also raised warnings about the sponsorship of such projects, and that sponsors will often want to present certain images. He gave an example of an interview with an old man who lived in the Royal Docks who spoke of the gang crime that existed when he was a lad. His last line was ‘it existed then, just as it exists now’. The local council who had sponsored the project did not want the interview to appear because of the negative image it presented of the area. Toby felt he had to acquiesce. However, he makes sure he always quotes the interview when giving talks on the subject.

Another issue he raised, which is more specific to the act of making maps, was the interconnectedness of places. He cited Doreen Massey who wrote about how every space connects with lots and lots of other spaces. As such, creation of a map becomes difficult for those very same reasons of censorship mentioned above. How, when local areas contain so much local knowledge and histories, that are connected to so many different spaces, histories and memories, do you physically map such knowledge?

No less related to this, and possibly the most interesting talk to me (particularly as for the last 10 years a great deal of my work has been in horticulture) was given by Bob Gilbert, a former Director of Sustainability at Islington Council, now a journalist and author of The Green London Way (2013). Bob takes a forensic natural history approach to the study of urban environments, using urban flora and fauna as an archaeological tool with which to discover the past. He gave a number of London examples including the London Rocket, a white flowered member of the mustard family which rocketed into growth following the Great Fire of London in 1666. Though it has largely disappeared it still exists in pockets as a form of living archaeology. Another example included another member of the mustard family, commonly called the Brown Mustard which seeded from the plants imported by Bengali immigrants to London’s East End.

It reminded me of a project that the Arnolfini in Bristol undertook. A Brazilian artist Maria Theresa Alvez mined the ballast heaps that ships dumped at the mouth of the Avon at the height of the British Empire, for seeds. She then cultivated them and created a garden from them on a barge on the river. It is a fantastic example of the rich, global history of an area.


The ‘Seeds of Change’ project barge in Bristol. Photos courtesy of Max McClure

The seminar left me with a question that I wish to explore a bit more, which is how a map could be designed which would display the transient, dynamic, and inter-linkedness of human life, memory, history, and relationships between people and place.

I have a few basic ideas, which I will post more on as I develop them.

*The Living Maps seminars is a series of seminars and lectures, running one Tuesday a month which explores new directions in critical cartography. The next seminar is at Queen Mary, University of London on March 11, 6-8pm, titled ‘Grounding Knowedge’ which asks the question – if maps are graphic propositions about the world, how does their reading differ from that of texts or cultural memoryscapes?

*Links on the speakers:

  • Bob Gilbert

  • Toby Butler

and on memoryscapes:

  • Halima Khanom


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