Tracing Colonialism-Maps and Conversations

Whilst working on the project, we spent an extensive amount of time at the Lapworth Museum at the University of Birmingham. Given the nature of the workshops, students were encouraged to investigate the space and engage with the various toys and games on display. This included the opportunity to take a selfie with a life size cast of a dinosaur’s skeleton, and to engage with a giant, interactive light up globe of the world.

However, the game which attracted the most attention was that of a large floor puzzle depicting a map of the world. The puzzle itself prompted a number of in-depth and poignant conversations between the students and staff and amongst the students themselves.

Jake (real name anonymised) and I had an interesting conversation, sparked by the fact that he could easily name all of the Caribbean Islands; he explained that the source of this knowledge came from his familial and ethnic background. He mentioned that he was particularly interested in the Middle East, specifically Syria, Qatar and Lebanon as he had seen a lot about these countries in the news.
When the map had been fully pieced together, he stood over it, pointed at Britain and said “but I don’t understand, how did this little country take over the whole world?”

Umair, who was stood nearby explained that “Britain took over the world because it was more technologically advanced and the rest of the world was primitive”. Jake shook his head fervently and a number of alternative perspectives were provided, including the role of colonialism and the subsequent imperialism that controls the Global South to this day.

The initial conversation shifted its focus towards the migrant crisis and the role of borders when migrating across land. The students used their fingers to trace an outline of the best and worst routes into Europe, followed by a further discussion regarding why the UK was such a desirable location. The consensus was that crossing the sea was too dangerous, despite there being less borders to cross and that land routes would be safer, given that there was little risk of drowning and that Fortnite-esque fortifications could be built on land.

The conversations about migration and race were carried through into the following week’s lesson, which began at the school and consisted of a walk around the area in order to take in key local sites of energy interest. Whilst on the walk, I found myself conversing with Jake again about the puzzle activity last week. He explained how the activity really resonated with him on a personal level due to the racism that he, his family and friends had experienced in the past. “It makes sense, I didn’t realise the history behind it, if it’s taken hundreds of years for racism to develop, then it’s going to take hundreds of years to remove it, right?”

Currently, British schools use and teach the Mercator projection map, initially created in 1569-the same map that was present on the giant jigsaw. The map was created at a time when Europe was seeking to establish dominance, thus holding a strong imperialist agenda. The map was literally drawn along the colonial trade routes and as a result of this bias, European countries were depicted significantly larger than they physically are. For instance, Canada and Russia appear to take up approximately 25% of the Earth’s landmass, when in reality they occupy a mere 5%, and countries in the Asia and Africa are presented as considerably smaller than their actual size (The Economist, 2015). Furthermore, Britain is aptly placed as the centre of the world, to appear more intimidating, a placement that was emphasised when Jake traced the routes that colonising ships would have taken to various parts of the world, manifesting itself into spider legs emerging from the British Isles. Interestingly, the origins of jigsaw puzzles are inherently linked to maps, given that in the 1760s, European mapmakers would paste maps onto wood and cut them into small pieces.

When reflecting on students’ interactions with the map jigsaw, and our conversations, Donna Haraway’s seminal work ‘Situated Knowledges’ (1988) comes into play, especially in relation to the avid questioning of the map and all that it represents. In ‘Situated Knowledges’, Haraway describes the perspective of objectivity as impartiality and a “view from above, from nowhere” (1988:589), as a perspective which hides a universalised male, white, heterosexual and human perspective which sits at odds with the students who were predominantly young people of colour. This renders all other positions invalid and denies subjectivity, voice, and presence.

Haraway (1988) also uses the metaphor of seeing and visions within her work on ‘modest witnesses’, which in turn is particularly fitting given that the map in the Lapworth provided a very specific viewpoint of the world. The map puzzle serves as a tool to enact a “conquering gaze from nowhere” and “to represent while escaping representation” (1988:581), acting as omnipotent and immaterial, but materialising everything that its gaze obstructs – absent countries, contested border lines, escape routes out of conflict zones, mythical country sizes and the like.

What was interesting throughout the interactions with the floor map and the follow-up conversations were the critical visualisations made by the students. Perhaps due to previous conversations regarding similar topics, coupled with a gut-feeling that the map was just plain wrong, the students were able to question the proportionality of the map, the absence of certain countries, the flows of migration and how colonialism came to be.

The conversations held were wrapped up in wider discussions with the students about rocks, energy technologies and climate change. This foray into maps, colonialism and imperialism was an important line of flight, given that it is inherently connected and disconnected to the concept of energy. These conversations are important as it reminds us that discussions about climate change are not universal but are instead patterned by different forms of social difference).
The critical questioning skills displayed by the students, initiated through the practise of a floor puzzle activity served as an interesting tool for the students to question the violence implicit in visualising practices, thus prompting them to ask themselves, consciously or subconsciously: “with whose blood were my eyes crafted?” (Haraway, 1988: 585).

By Peter Kraftl and Arooj Khan


G.D. (2015) Why World Maps Are Misleading. Available at: [Last accessed: 16/07/2019]

Harraway, D. (1988) Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Available at: [Last accessed: 16/07/2019]

McCann, G. (1988) Master Pieces: The Art History of Puzzles. London: Collectors Press

About St Paul’s Community Development Trust

St. Paul’s Community Development Trust was founded in 1973 through a series of community groups working together to engage with the diverse community of Balsall Heath, an inner city area in Birmingham.

The Trust aims to work with and alongside the people of Balsall Heath in Birmingham and the wider neighbourhood to promote education, recreation and life-long learning. Their programmes often work across the generations with children, young people and adults. Thus proving suitable for the research.

Today, St. Paul’s facilitates an independent school for pupils aged 11-16; an out of school service for children aged 5-11; three nursery sites; and early years service for children aged 0-5; a city farm; and a canal boat. The project itself facilitated a number of activities, play tables and workshops at the out of school service, the nursery site and the school.

Balsall Heath – the past, present and future

Balsall Heath is an inner-city, predominantly working class area of Birmingham. It is incredibly diverse, being the central location of the Balti Triangle (a cultural landmark glorifying the balti restaurants along three roads within Balsall Heath).

Historically the area has undergone a number of industrial and urban shifts. In the nineteenth century, the area was predominantly agricultural. It then experienced a significant border shift, moving the area from the county of Worcestershire to Birmingham.

The local area has a number of notable landmarks. For example the Balsall Heath baths, which opened up in 1907; Ladypool Road, named after a small lake that was filled in to create a park in 1900; and the former Balsall Heath Carlton Cinema which now functions as a car park.

During the nineteenth century, Balsall Heath had a reasonably affluent population, demonstrable within the grandeur of some of the larger houses along Clifton Road. At the same time, the development of a large railway station on Brighton Road led to further expansion of the town, resulting in the end of the 19th century seeing a proliferation of high-density terraced houses.

Fast forward to the 1980s, the local council had embarked on an urban renewal project which involved regenerating the Victorian housing in the area, adding indoor toilets and central heating. Social housing also emerged which provides the area with is characteristic juxtapositioning of older and newer buildings.  

The 1990s brought about a change in the local demographic – which in turn had been predominantly local, working class and diverse – with a number of young, transient university students choosing to reside in the area.

In July 2005, Balsall Heath was hit by a tornado, which devastated many buildings around Church Road and Ladypool Road. Birmingham City Council offered loans to those who would otherwise be unable to repair their properties, and the area has now made a full recovery. However, the link between the tornado and climate change sparked off a number of community-led responses, most notably in the form of Balsall Heath is Our Planet, a community initiative that aims to reduce the environmental impact of our inner city neighbourhood

Balsall Heath and the wider Birmingham area is intrinsically linked to energy consumption. The surrounding areas of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire still contain active coalfields, which in turn are preserved through an affiliated research organisation and a historical society. At its peak, Birmingham had around 170 miles of waterways and canals, this has reduced to around 35 miles (still larger than the amount in Venice). During the Industrial Revolution the canals were busy waterways transporting coal, iron and other heavy goods. They in turn played a crucial role in the development of Birmingham and the Black Country.

Nowadays, community organisations within Balsall Heath have taken ownership of their relationship with local sources of energy. Organisations are working together to address some of the key issues within the area through re-thinking how they use energy. For example, tackling unemployment by training individuals to install solar and water panels; encouraging schools to become areas of environmental best practise to set an example for future generations; as well as a successful campaign to re-open the Balsall Heath to Kings Norton railway line in order to address current car use.

Given its diverse and resilience local population, and the area’s close brushes with the negative impact of climate change, as well as its long and multifaceted relationship to energy consumption, Balsall Heath proved to be a good match with the premise of the research.