Volume IV, number 3, June 2007
1. How did you become interested in transport?
The origins of my interest in transport history date back to an undergraduate and admittedly rather deterministic-desire to understand how the evolution of transport technologies, particularly shipping, inuenced larger patterns of economic and social history in the ancient and medieval world. I then consolidated that interest as a graduate student, rst in Canada and then in Denmark. My path from there to becoming the curator of a national transportation collection has certainly involved various unexpected, though not unwelcome, turns and diversions. On the other hand, my original instinct to link transport to larger historical issues has, I hope, always served me well.
2. Is there a distinctive “Canadian” approach to transport history and, if so, could you enlighten us?
The question of a Canadian approach to transport history is an interesting one. It is
arguably a feature of the collective Canadian consciousness to be preoccupied with overcoming distance, the country being what it is, and a great deal of thought and energy, in various spheres, has been, and continues to be, devoted to the problem. One of the enduring foundation myths of Canada as a federal state, concerns the building of the transcontinental railway (CPR) as part and parcel of the nation-building vision of the Fathers of Confederation. The great Canadian contribution to historiography is, of course, the Staples Thesis (or Theory) of Harold Innis and W.A. Mackintosh. For Innis especially, one of the most important components of the Staples Thesis was transportation. The fact that Innis later became preoccupied with communications and media serves, I think, to underline a concern with the systems that link people and facilitate exchange. Viewed from this perspective, T2M’s ongoing collective exploration of the concept of mobility evolving out of transportation, strikes me as being somehow akin to this, but that remains to be seen.
3. Equally, do Canadians approach museums in a different way to the rest of the world?
In Canada, as elsewhere, museums are living through what a colleague from London’s Science Museum, Robert Bud, once aptly referred to as “a Weimar moment.” However, to focus on the national question, the tradition of Canadian Museums is not so much different from that elsewhere in the world, as it is notably different from that of our American neighbours to the south; that is Canadian museums have traditionally been overwhelmingly publicly founded and funded. This has had a signicant impact on the particular history and evolution of museums in Canada and, more to the point, on the way in which they are perceived or approached by Canadians-that is, as fundamentally public institutions. The implications of this are greater than they might appear. At present, this tradition is at the forefront of a debate about-no surprise-funding, with the winds blowing in the direction of cultivating a culture of greater private support through tax policy incentive, rather than further direct funding. The great American tradition of philanthropy is the one being touted now. In addition to this, history museums here are also wrestling with the broad demographic changes that increasingly dene Canada, changes generating important professional discussions about the stories we tell and the audiences (public) we serve. Watching all this unfold among transport museums over the last twenty years has been a source of both concern and fascination-these are interesting times, very much in accordance with the venerable Chinese saying.
4. What developments would you like to see in your eld over the next few years?
Dening my eld as one that bridges both transport history and heritagefollowing David Lowenthal’s distinction- I am among those who would like to see an increased emphasis on what has been called the cultural turn. I feel there remains much promise in this. Being involved with museums of science, technology and transportation greatly enhances one’s awareness of just how persistent and pervasive the whiggish perspective is, both in the stories museums tell and, in fact, among a signicant portion of the visiting public. I do think things are beginning to change in interesting ways, but I am still continually struck by how oddly reluctant, or even embarrassed, people, including museum professionals, seem to be about recognizing the full cultural dimension of technology. The dynamic is somewhat different in the academy, but I still nd much to recommend the observations and ideas put forward in Gijs Mom’s Fiftieth Anniversary review of the eld in the Sept. 2003 edition of the JTH. I like to think that T2M, is, at its best, a very good vehicle to carry us forward pardon the transport metaphor.
5. What do you consider T2M’s strengths? And what could do with improvement?
The great strength and appeal of T2M is, in my opinion, its multidisciplinary and ecumenical nature. This is most apparent in its ongoing efforts to redene transportation history. I nd this “work in progress” quality very exciting. I also admire the ongoing use of conference themes to explore possible relationships and connections to other elds, as well as the sincere efforts being made to attract and to include graduate students. Having said that, I am also, as someone with a background in maritime history, very conscious of the relative absence in T2M of scholars with a special interest in shipping and seafaring. This probably may well say more about maritime historians than T2M, but the situation still needs to be seriously addressed; otherwise our organization will end up being like a chair missing a leg. Similarly, I would like to see more museum curators and public historians brought into the fold; we remain too fewand- far-between at present. This is necessary, I would argue, rst and foremost because they often bring with them observations and ideas drawn from important non-verbal documents of the past (material culture), but also because they tend to provide a healthy dose of concern for public engagement. It has always seemed to me an enrichment of any scholarly endeavour to ask whether or not, and if so how, our ideas and insights are reaching the wider world of John Q. Public, as well as pundits and policy makers.
6. T2M is coming to Ottawa – any advice at this stage on what members can expect?
The theme for the 2008 conference in Ottawa is Mobility and the Environment. Our reading of the theme includes both those topical and pressing questions surrounding the historical relationship between mobility and the environment, but also concerns issues related to overcoming geography and climate. We see this theme as providing an ideal context to explore common interests and approaches among historians of transport, trafc and mobility, together with geographers and environmental historians. Another major aspiration for 2008 is to bring more North American’s into the fold. Local arrangement planning has begun and we do hope to be in a position to encourage early registration. We know that we are unlikely to be able to match the great sponsorship success of the Paris Conference, so a good turn out and early commitments will be important in terms of the cost and range of events offered. We are looking at dates in mid-September, so the weather will likely be very pleasant and, we hope, allow us to enjoy some activities outdoors-a tting prospect given the theme. So, my only real advice, which I trust will be conveyed and repeated by all with an interest in T2M is simply this: register early and register often!