13 March 2017

Ahead of welcoming the first cohort of postgraduate students onto ULIP’s new MA Urban History and Culture in September, we talked to Director of Research, Anna-Louise Milne, about the course content, the academic staff involved, and just how the unique approach of this dual-centre course will train students to undertake pioneering research in the field of urban studies.

What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing cities in Western Europe today?

There are so many exciting ways in which new technologies are changing our relations to others and to our environment and they are generating all sorts of new possibilities for urban interactions, both for pleasure and for protest, as well as work and study! Today the intersection between the virtual world of social media and other web-based possibilities and physical convergence in public spaces is one of the biggest challenges we face. How we will use the space of the city in the decades ahead is totally up for grabs and crucially important for the sort of futures we want to build. 

The course blends modules looking at Paris and London past and present - what's the value of this historical approach to studying these cities?

Paris and London have evolved in tandem for centuries. Shaped by similar factors such as monarchical regimes and imperial ambition, there has always been a push and pull between their respective transformations, even during periods when Paris and London have been the bitterest of rivals and, at times, enemies. Today there are probably better relations between Paris and London than perhaps ever before, particularly given the increasing polarity between provinces and life in the capital, in both the UK and France. The stakes in building connections between global capitals, whether for knowledge transfer or social justice, are ever-greater. So the value in studying these two great world capitals in a comparative perspective is both historical and acutely contemporary.

What sorts of different media and materials can students expect to engage with during the course?

Cities are impossible objects. If we just take the opposition between an aerial view and a street view, or a transport map versus a street guide, we’re looking at completely different things. And that’s before we start considering all the information packed into historical aspects of the city – monuments, street names, the slight rise in a street that tells you there is an underground river, or a sewer. To grasp the multidimensionality of a city, and especially such vast and historic cities as London and Paris, you have not only to look, and read, and listen and watch, but also to do all those things in relation to one another. So the street name that happens to catch your attention becomes a window on a complex history that then changes the way you read a novel you’ve always loved but never really approached as if you were an archaeologist… And not only will you never look at cities again in the same way, but there’s a good chance that lots of your experiences will start to be informed by what you know about urban history.

How much time is spent out and about in the city of Paris?

Through the first term each week of study is structured around an encounter that will take students to all corners of the central city and out into the banlieue. But the beauty of this programme is that every walk round the corner, every local cinema, or even your daily trip to one of Paris’s amazing range of often weird and wonderful swimming pools will provide you with food for thought.

What will students gain from the collaboration between QMUL and ULIP academic staff?

The combined faculty for this programme has fantastic range and perspective. Not only can students study with colleagues in the Schools of English and Drama, History, and Geography of Queen Mary University of London; they will also benefit from the close relation that a small specialized institute offers. I’m deeply excited by the sort of interdisciplinary perspectives that I expect to see emerging in students’ dissertation projects. I’m sure I’ll end up learning as much as them!

How long have you lived in Paris? Do you have any particular favourite places in the city?

Oh, years! And the city has changed enormously over that time. I tend to revert to the same haunts, though. The view from the top of the Institut du monde arabe is fantastic, and I still love wandering into bookshops around that area, which is the traditional university area, because there is always a bargain or a surprise to be had. But I like to dance too, despite the years! So when I can, the happiest place for me is in the dance studio in an old hôtel particulier in the Marais, which is drafty and shabby but has such good vibes!