Asylum Geographies at the ICHG

By Carolyn Gibbeson 

I was kindly invited to present a paper at the Asylum Geographies session at the ICHG conference in London last week. I must admit I was slightly apprehensive on the trip down to London as I was attending and presenting at a conference of geographers and I’m not really a geographer (although I spend a lot of time reading geography books and papers). I needn’t have worried though as everyone was friendly and encouraging and there were plenty of sessions of interest to my work and more generally. One of the reasons I love going to conferences is that you always find something of interest and of relevance even in the most unlikely sessions. For example, Roy Jones and Karen Miller (Curtin University)’s session: Insanitary past; sanitised present: the changing roles and reputations of Perth’s suburban laneways in a session on waste, pollution and toxicity whilst not seemingly anything to do with my work outlined how a piece of land can go from a hated place to valuable real estate, in a similar fashion to what is happening with former asylum sites.

The session that I was part of, Asylum Geographies, ran all Thursday morning in the biggest, darkest and coldest lecture theatre in the RGS. A friend casually remarked that maybe it was a dark place for dark geographies – a reference to the theme of our session and the challenges with exploring difficult places. All of the sessions were brilliant and highlighted the depth and breadth of research being carried out in the area of asylum and post-asylum spaces. Cheryl McGeachan’s and Caroline Bressey’s papers in particular highlighted the difficulties or challenges those of us who research these places face with telling the stories of asylums: ethical and representational issues that never go away, even when dealing with asylums as closed spaces. My paper looked at place attachment/ place stigma and how different groups of people connected to these former asylum sites feel about them in the reuse process. It was followed by Ebba Hogstrom’s work on the House of Psychiatry in Uppsala where, although this is a new building for modern psychiatric care, the former asylum still haunts this new place, weaving its traces into a new building though the social, historical and physical.

What came across through all the papers was the sense of how this is an area of research that is growing but that is still often under-researched than perhaps other building types and I would suggest that this links in with the idea of their past as dark places. And yet, there are now many researchers looking at these former and post asylum spaces; navigating their past histories and the challenges associated with the representation or presentation of this. Perhaps though it is better to be struggling with these challenges and having those discussions about what is appropriate and what isn’t rather than letting these stories, lives and places be forgotten? Because of this the sessions felt like the continuation of a conversation or telling of the story of the asylums (as problematic as we find its representation), the credit for which goes to Chris Philo and Cheryl McGeachan. With all the fascinating research that was demonstrated through these two sessions, I hope that these conversations can continue as it feels like there are still important stories to tell, no matter how challenging it is to tell them.

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