Sea, the Conference

This blog has often touched on the subject of ‘sea blindness’ in modern Britain, notably here, and I also took that as the theme of the keynote lecture I delivered to last year’s conference for new researchers in maritime history. One important element of this discussion is the state of maritime history research in the broadest sense of the term: after all, expecting greater public awareness of, and engagement with, ‘the sea’ in all its aspects, is likely to be pie in the sky if those engaged in that research are working on obscure or done-to-death themes, if they are overworked by the demands of the sectors they work in, or simply if their numbers are declining as successive governments put more and more emphasis on training up only scientists, engineers, IT specialists, and other supposedly ‘useful’ disciplines. A recent piece in Topmasts, the excellent online newsletter of the Society for Nautical Research (available to non-members, too), put forward a tongue-in-cheek proposal that the problem of relentless focus on one well-worked theme in particular could be addressed by instituting a seven-year ban on ‘the N word’ (as in ‘N’s Column in T Square’), in order to focus on lesser known and neglected themes. This author concluded with a provocative statement: ‘maritime history is too important to let it die or sink to the tokenism of one essay in an undergraduate course’.

It’s in this context that I’m delighted to join with the organising parties to make a really important announcement. For some time, the Research and Programmes committee of the Society for Nautical Research, which I chair, has been developing the first conference that the society has ever run under its own name, rather than sponsoring other people’s. There are many reasons for doing this: it’s one way of improving the ‘package’ we offer our members, as well as raising the society’s profile, but the society also wanted to offer something rather broader than the many conferences which focus on specific themes, say, or the anniversaries of particular events. Consequently, we’ve partnered with the wonderful Greenwich Maritime Centre, who will be providing the facilities and much of the organisation for the conference to be held on 9 September of this year, under the title ‘The State of Maritime History Research’.

The text of the call for papers (also available on the GMC website) follows, but the key point that I’d like to make here is that we want this to be broad an event as possible, touching on a wide range of themes and disciplines. It’s certainly not all ‘doom and gloom’ in the world of maritime history research, but where are the strong and weak areas? What are the challenges? Above all, what, if anything, can be done to address ‘sea blindness’ – and is that a valid concept in any case? We’re hoping to attract prominent speakers and delegates for what should be a really important event, which we hope will garner considerable publicity. Moreover, if this conference succeeds, we’re looking to make it a regular event, held every few years, because this is an ever-changing scene – for example, university courses disappear, or new ones come into being, with bewildering frequency, while in an age of austerity, it’s a sad truth that the survival of many maritime museums and even historic ships is in doubt. (Witness the current crisis over the survival of HMS President 1918, for example.)

I’m certainly minded to offer a paper myself, but if we get a scrum of outstanding speakers, I’ll happily step aside!

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Over the past few decades there has been significant debate as to the place and shape of maritime history. In January 2008, the Council of the American Historical Association approved unanimously to add ‘Maritime, including Naval’ to its taxonomy of academic specialties. But since then, it has been suggested that the field has been marginalised.  Or does the growth of new areas of interest – such as the study of port towns, the ‘Atlantic World,’ Coastal History, and the role of gender in maritime history – suggest a flourishing, if more diverse, environment? What is the state of health in other research-orientated maritime activities such as public history and heritage?

The Greenwich Maritime Centre and the Society for Nautical Research are excited to announce a major conference to be held at the University of Greenwich to consider these questions. The conference will bring together key contributors from within the broad field of maritime history, as well as those who write on maritime and coastal topics, but do not consider themselves maritime historians. Papers and key discussion points will be published in hard copy and/or online by the Society of Nautical Research.

Proposals are invited for papers on any of the following aspects, or on other related and relevant themes. The principal criterion for acceptance will be the extent to which a paper provides a broad overview of the current situation in a specific field, and of the prospects for the future, rather than narrow, descriptive accounts of a particular period of history or historic ship (to give two examples).

  • The study of maritime history in the university and school sectors
  • The state of maritime research in particular geographical regions and countries
  • The state of particular sub-disciplines within maritime history and research, e.g. naval history, nautical archaeology, port towns, coastal studies
  • The health of the maritime museums sector, and current and future challenges for it
  • The state of the historic ships and craft sector
  • ‘Sea blindness’: fact or fiction?

Proposals of 500 words, together with a short biography of no more than 150 words, should be submitted by 1 June 2017  to  https://tinyurl.com/SNRConference2017

NB: There will be a nominal fee of £25 for the conference. Please book  at  https://maritimeresearch.eventbrite.co.uk, registration will open on 1 June 2017.

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