We're now almost half-way through the first year of running our new MA in Urban History and Culture and our students have undertaken a variety of field work both in Paris and London, alongside their more theoretical studies. We asked Justin Hendricks, one of this year's MA cohort, to reflect on the group's recent trip to the British capital and to offer us some of his thoughts on the programme so far.
"Sitting on a bench surrounded by commercial holiday decor in the pristine waiting area of St. Pancras station, I didn’t want to leave London. Just three days earlier I was sitting in a different station that was dirty, exposed to the cold, and missing chairs because they’d been torn from their metal brackets. I took an overnight bus from Paris and come sunrise, woke up in a new city full of new sights and sounds.
I’ve been living in Paris for over a year and have found it also to be a place of “sights and sounds.” Coming from the United States, it’s always a peculiar thing to happen upon facades older than your own country. After a while though, you can easily become complacent to the deluge of complex images, voices, and constructs all around. On my first visit to Paris, I remember asking locals questions about the city and culture. I kept getting the same response over and over: “I don’t know, that just the way it’s always been.” It’s a strange feeling, when the unspoken and unexplained cultural expressions become all too familiar to you also.
For all the sights and sounds London had to offer, I received them. I made my way through the city streets and ended up at St. Paul’s where I enjoyed observing the famous church and comparing it to the cathedrals of Paris. Wandering on my own, embracing the clichés of Tower Bridge and fish and chips, I happily became a lone observer in a global crowd that swarmed to do the same, feasting on all London had to offer.
Like all our studies at ULIP, during the course field study in London, we addressed big questions about cities up close and personal. Instead of simply visiting museums and viewing the exhibits, Dr. Ward asked, “What’s the function of a museum in a society in the first place?” As we toured the Imperial War Museum and the V&A, we didn’t just look at artifacts; we searched for underlying messages and asked deep questions about institutional functions. Interviewing museum directors and surveying London’s apartment housing with an architectural historian enhanced our perspective and gave us a clearer picture of the city’s urban landscape and motifs.
Over dinner with peers and QMUL faculty, Leslie Jones and Miri Rubin, we discussed everything from religious backgrounds to the electronic band, A Tribe Called Red. It was a privilege to be at the table of the curious, those that were more than willing to encourage questions about the “sights and sounds.” After all, it was asking these big questions about urban culture that lead me to ULIP in the first place.
Most importantly, the program at ULIP is pushing my interest beyond the surroundings to the people who occupy them. Peter Ackroyd writes that even graffiti on a stone is “a vivid token of human existence in the city.” In the pristine ambience of St. Pancras station, I couldn’t help but contrast it to the familiar Parisian bus stop. I wondered what the differences in transportation could tell us about the people, like me, who use them. In a complex, global world of many sights and sounds, may we endeavour to turn over stones that remain unturned and learn the stories of the people who mark them."