Spatial Histories – Gallaudet, a case study?


[Aerial view of Gallaudet College 1922 I Contemporary image Gallaudet University via Google Earth]

I’ve been thinking about this project for a long time and looking forward to this week’s readings and discussion. After reading the book The Ugly Laws by Susan Schweik, I’ve been fascinated with the spatial organization of cities in relation to ideologies of difference.

I remember broaching this topic with a former professor. At the time I was working on the emerging concept of DeafSpace and interested in a historical discussion of how deaf people orient themselves in space/construct spaces that respond to their unique sensory experiences. I was dissuaded by my professor – probably because of scale and a general distrust of using digital tools. But this week’s readings gave me a bit more ammunition in that discussion.

“Digital history allows the exploitation of kinds of evidence and data bases that would be too opaque or too unwieldy to use without computers. It is all the stuff that we cannot narrate, or at least narrate without losing our audience. All historians run across such evidence in the archive. We look at them and toss them aside.” Richard White

Richard White’s discussion of Lefebvre’s The Production of Space was especially meaningful for me (it’s in my amazon shopping cart now). But in general, the thread across these readings was that spatial history is not “new”. That we use space, discuss space, contemplate space as historians. Or as Guldi succinctly described in her post about The Spatial Turn in History, “The historian’s route, traveling across diverse landscapes, was the single continuous thread that made possible the forging of an integrated story about the modern nation.” What is “new” is the digital component, the ways in which technology enables us to access and interpret and display information differently.

“The spatial turn represents the impulse to position these new tools against old questions.” Jo Guldi, again. 

Guldi hits the nail on the head. The project that i’m interested in is a spatial analysis of Gallaudet University. The first big question is probably, why? There are two main reasons:

  1. Deaf residential schools are the locus of American Deaf culture. They serve as both catalyst and repository. Most deaf people are linguistically and culturally separated from family members- schools often represent their first access to social networks and language environments that lead to cultural identification. At the same time, historical study of the deaf community often begins, and is sometimes limited to, the resources at deaf residential schools. As institutions they produce and retain an abundance of biographical and social information about students and teachers. Frequently these schools housed printing departments and published newspapers that distributed information about community members and created ideological networks that connected deaf people across the country.
  2. Gallaudet University is a contained unit. The spatial location of the institution hasn’t changed since it’s founding in 1864, but the spatial arrangement of campus and surrounding city has changed and continues to change. This means that research questions can be carefully and fully considered.

The project that I envision has two parts. The first examines the relationship Gallaudet University had to the city of Washington DC. I threw together a quick comparative image at the beginning of this post. The school was initially located on the outskirts of town, and as the comparison reveals, it the 99 acre campus has been swallowed up by the city. Second: I’m interested in the changes to the campus itself. How was the land was divided and organized? How were the buildings  constructed and what purpose did/do they serve?


[Contemporary photo of Chapel Hall, Gallaudet University I Chapel Hall, National Deaf Mute College, 1875 I Image with historical photograph overlaid]

Using a digitized catalog of photos available online by Gallaudet University, I’d like to create realistic comparisons that demonstrate these changes. It would be great if all of this could be compiled into a sort of historical walking tour of campus similar to the one created by the Missouri History Museum.

I’m still thinking about how the project would work, what tools I’d want to use and who my audience would be.. but this is where I’m at right now.

7 thoughts on “Spatial Histories – Gallaudet, a case study?”

  1. Wow, Jannelle! I think this project is a great idea and using spatial history methods can possibly open up even more questions to pursue. The walking tour application would showcase your research in new ways and increase public consumption. I can’t wait to see how this case study develops.

  2. One audience this might suit quite well is incoming students and their parents. I know at my undergraduate institution there were almost constantly tour groups out and about. From listening to some of them, the parents primarily want to know what the area is like, and the students want to know where all the cool hangout spots are. This might give them the opportunity to both explore campus and learn about these things from a historical perspective.

  3. Kasey – I agree and I think that might be a great argument to make with Gallaudet – A related question I’m wrestling with: In order to access and use images from Gallaudet Archives I would need permissions from the archive – I’m wondering about that process. It feels a bit like a catch-22. In order to convince them to approve their use, I would need to practice/mock up some images. But it would be horrible to invest time/energy and have them refuse permissions. How does one begin building a database/website without assuming a level of skill/success or permission?

  4. I really like this, and it’s given me encouragement to stick with my original idea, which is also spatial history and also a tool/project for a specific subject area rather than a more general tool.

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