Deaf geographies, and other worlds.
As mentioned in the previous post, I’m returning from a geography conference in London in which a colleague and I ran a panel discussion on Deaf heritage spaces, and a guided walk. The walk focused on the ‘Deaf spaces of Victorian London’, and went from Fetter Lane (near Fleet street) and sites associated with the 1840s origins of the Royal Association for the Deaf, through to Oxford Street where the St Saviour’s Deaf church was built and stood until 1923.
The walk was long; London is big, and busy, and is being rebuilt from the inside out so it’s loud (for hearing participants) and dusty and hot… but those who took part all said that they enjoyed it.
For me, though, as one of its organisers and one of those actually responsible for imparting some of the knowledge to others, there was a growing frustration. Here’s why.
Stop one was the site of the first chapel used by the Association. Neither the chapel nor the court that it’s in, nor the building that it was attached to, is there anymore.
We made reference to the workshop of one of the original Fleet Street printers being the site of the first meeting of the Association – his workshop isn’t there anymore either.
We made reference to the Association’s rental of buildings in Bartlett’s buildings near Holborn Circus – They’re not there either.
… and so on.
Sure, some of the places still are there – although most of them are changed beyond recognition (compare the London Polytechnic in the 19th century to the present University of Westminster. But nearly all of the places we were asking people to see as ‘Deaf spaces of Victorian London’ are gone.
There are only so many times you can say to a group of hot, tired and increasingly footsore geographers ‘It’s not there anymore, but try to imagine…’ without starting to feel that you’re cheating people.
I’m not sure that there’s any easy solution to this. Prior knowledge helps – those on the walk who already had a good understanding of the sites and their historical significance were most able to tie that knowledge into real-life places. But for those who have no knowledge, and are simply there to see what Victorian London looked like through
deaf eyes… is there an answer? More visual material? Introductory narratives? Contemporary maps? Ambiance film? Visual overlays to hold up against the modern? Augmented Reality? Virtual Reality?
It’s not just us facing this challenge; other historical geographers that I spoke to at the conference also find that their sites have disappeared. But we might be alone in asking so much of those we’re guiding; it’s not just a question of asking them to believe that those
places were there, we’re asking them to understand them and their users and their environment through the unfamiliarity of a deaf, visually-oriented sensorium.
There has to be a limit to how much people can imagine without support… and effective ways to make the most of that imaginative challenge.