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Forthcoming conference of Prof. Robert Bickers at the ENS – IAO on March, 26, 2013

Pre-conference information. Prof. Robert Bickers (Bristol University) will give a conference on March, 26, 2013 at the ENS – IAO (Ecole Normale Supérieure of Lyon – Institute for East Asian Studies). The program and details about the conference will soon be delivered.

Prof. Bickers: a specialist in modern China dedicated to visual history

Prof. Robert Bickers (Bristol University) specialises in modern China, and the history of colonialism, and in particular of the British empire and its relations with China and the history of Shanghai (1843-1950s). Among its main publications we may mention the books Britain in China (1999), and Empire Made Me: An Englishman adrift in Shanghai (2003), a biography of Maurice Tinkler (1898-1939), a British member of the Shanghai Municipal Police. This is at once the study of a man’s life in a world opened up by empire, of a quasi-colonial organ of British power in Shanghai, and of the city of Shanghai itself during its inter-war spree. A new book, The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (2011) surveys the history of the foreign presence in that period. His interest in the world of British colonialism more broadly underpins the new volume in the Oxford History of the British Empire companion series that he has edited on British communities across the worlds of formal and informal empire. He is also interested in cemeteries and photographs and their post-colonial lives, clipper ships, lighthouses and meteorology in China.

He also owns its blog which presents his main books and personal essays.

He is involved in the ‘Visualising China’ initiative, and its underlying Historical Photographs of China digitisation programme. He also ran an AHRC-funded project on the history of the Chinese Maritime Customs Service.

The “Visualising China” Project: a digital archive and platform for collaborative and interactive history

Visualising China is a JISC-funded project to allow users to explore and enhance more than 8000 digitised images of photographs of China taken between 1850 and 1950. It allows access to many previously unseen albums, envelopes and private collections and also major collections such as Historical Photographs of China, the Sir Robert Hart Collection and Joseph Needham’s Photographs of Wartime China. The project is an interesting example of collaboration between a private company (JISC) and the academic world – what we called in France “Partenariat Public-Privé” (PPP) which has recently developed and is more or less welcomed as a new opporunity of supporting research in France – a form of “traditional” collaboration – almost routine – in English-American academic world, especially in the field of Digital History – Humanities.

The project has led to develop a platform dedicated to sustainable research and the creation of a visual – digital database of historical photographs of China. The platform is purely oriented towards documentary uses. Contrary to other platforms in the same field such as Virtual Shanghai (http://www.virtualshanghai.net/), you will not find academic essays or other metadiscursive resources, but only primary sources and materials for research. The main goal of the project is thus to collect, gather, preserve and give access to a huge amount of visual documents – especially historical photographs – on China between 1850 and 1950. It is easy to navigate thanks to a sophisticated search engine, which allow advanced research through various entries – by dates, places, themes, keywords or tags – and to establish relationships between documents through tags. The reader will find external links which will give him access to external resources and original sources of the materials. Last but not least, the platform allows you to keep a trace, to track and visualize your personal itinerary of research – putting in practice the kind of “trails” imagined by Vaneshar Bush in his 1945 article « As we may think » (Atlantic Magazine, July 1945).

The platform has been designed as a collaborative and interactive one, open to a wider audience and promoting a kind of “democratic” history. Everyone is invited to contribute by using its knowledge to comment on or annotate these images. Everyone can submit its own sources and photographs, which can be added and shared on the platform, and its own keywords and tags – at the risk of “folksonomy” each of us having its own way of categorizing reality, thus how to coordinate and find a common language and taxonomy?-  or commentaries for the already existing images. This form of interactive and open collaboration is emblematic of many current DH platform and new medium for academic communication taking advantages of Web 2.0 resources. It raises the crucial issue of the questioned authority of professional historians, and the question to know who is responsible for and able to write history and to  produce knowledge, at a time when Internet and digital tools allows everyone to have access to historical sources and to write history. Isn’t it necessary to keep or establish a form a control? Who is to control and evaluate the knowledge produced and disseminated on the Web? According to which criteria?

The project also has its own blog  for a wider communication.

Finally, Robert Bickers academic activities and its involvements in many projects not only contributes to our knowledge of Chinese history, but also invites us to reflect upon upon the new digital tools and mediums available for doing research in general, for “making” and writing history in particular. How do they reshape our relationships to history, to historical sources, and how do they affect our practice of history? Thus I deeply encourage my fellow PhD students – and everyone interested in Chinese or Digital History – to assist his conference in March.

Cécile Armand

Ancienne élève de l'Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) de Lyon (promotion 2006), actuellement en deuxième année de thèse à l'ENS Lyon, sous la direction de Christian Henriot (Institut d'Asie Orientale - IAO). Mon sujet porte sur la publicité en Chine du milieu du XIXe-au milieu du XXeme siècle, mais je m'intéresse à des questions historiographiques et méthodologiques plus générales ainsi qu'aux "humanités numériques".

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