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

Rocks, minerals and speculative fabulations

During our work with the secondary school, we spent time at a number of local museums. One being the Lapworth Museum of Geology, located on the main campus at the University of Birmingham. Recently renovated, it has a number of displays, including a large dinosaur skeleton and cabinets full of hundreds of rock and mineral specimens.

The sessions at the museum incorporated a period of free time, whereby the students could look around and interact with the exhibits as they wished, as well as more structured activities (led by colleagues from the Birmingham Energy Institute) which aimed to explore the many different versions of energy.

We focus here on some of the students’ experiences of the museum during their free time. We draw attention to what drew their attention. In particular, we want to highlight how this museum – dedicated to the science of geology – led students to make connections and generate (sometimes stuttering) stories, games, and ‘fictions’.

The first floor of the museum (which contains many of the cabinets displaying rock and mineral specimens) attracted a considerable amount of attention, with the students spending at least half an hour going from cabinet to cabinet pointing out their favourite gemstones and minerals. In some ways this was surprising to us given that the rocks are displayed very simply, a label with the rocks’ name and no other contextual information. They were particularly engaged in a game of trying to spot the diamonds in the case; they were disappointed to find that they were in fact smaller than they had anticipated. A couple joked about how much force and what tools they would need to pull the cabinet apart in order to extract the diamond. This led onto a conversation about the value of diamonds, how diamonds were made and the amount of pressure required. We mentioned that there were companies who were offering to take the cremated remains of loved ones and could turn them into diamonds. They seemed positively repulsed by this idea!

Parallels were also drawn between the popular video game Fortnite and the minerals found at the Lapworth. Within the online game, weapons could be crafted through sourcing specific materials, a number of them being different types of quartz minerals. This led to moments of intense excitement whereby a mineral was identified, pictures were taken and its worth in Fortnite currency was identified.

The fossils display in the Lapworth also drew some interest as well as confusion from the students. Is it a dead animal? No, it’s the imprint of an animal. Oh… But if it’s underground, wouldn’t the shell get crushed? How did it stay in that shape?

Another student, James (all names anonymised) told us how his whole house is made of gold with a gold sofa, gold TV and a gold bed; he also explained how he has a lot of jewellery upstairs in his house. Sam also explained how his Nan gave him a diamond necklace to wear just before she passed away. One display in particular showed cut and polished gemstones; the students took it in turns to pick out the gems that they would steal if they had the chance, with James attempting to pick the lock of the display cabinet with a rolled up KitKat wrapper!

Our experiences have prompted two sets of reflections. First, we were taken by the fictions and games generated by the boys. We can well imagine that some readers might be dismayed to see them making connections between the rocks and the (at the time) popular game Fortnite, which has become embroiled in controversy in the UK for its possible role in promoting violence amongst children, and especially children playing the game who are younger than the age recommendation for the game. How, then, might we work with these games and stories, and with their entanglement with/in popular cultures? To what extent are these generative small stories (Taylor, 2019) or speculative fabulations (Haraway, 2011) that challenge the grand narratives of the Anthropocene and imagine other ways of living life? To what extent could or should they be? How could we make more of these encounters without either exaggerating or colonising their for-the-moment mattering to the students?

Second, we want to acknowledge the modes in which the boys interacted with rocks. As Gallagher (2019) writes, in a striking exposition of the geology of media, there is simply more to do when it comes to articulating how children and young people are engaged with media (beyond, specifically, questions of mis/use, identity and popular cultures). In his case, Gallagher explores children’s role in mining the cobalt and other minerals that go into our digital devices. We wonder whether the interactions of the students with rocks in the Lapworth Museum are different again; whether, as Bryant (2014) has it, the rocks became ‘media’, not in a Heideggerian sense of their ‘given-ness’ (as tools, for human use), but as, Bryant has it, as components of a media ‘machine’. In this machinic ontology, the rocks constitute and are constitutive of, mediate and are mediated by, a brief assemblage of students, fictions, games and popular media (Fortnite). This is neither an example of a long-term, visceral engagement with rocks (since most [but not all] were in display cases, the boys could not touch or be touched by many of the rocks, as in Gallagher’s example of young miners), but nor is it simply an example of their engagements with a computer game. The two were, momentarily, stitched together in short-lived (as far as we know) utterances of speculative fabulation, which may, or may not, challenge us to think in different ways about our co-implication with the geological record. Indeed, what would it mean to draw games like Fortnite – and the multi-million dollar industries that propagate them – into attempts to tell stories about our engagements with the earth, with young people?

By Peter Kraftl and Arooj Khan


Bryant, L.R., 2014. Onto-cartography. Edinburgh University Press.

Gallagher, M., 2019. Childhood and the geology of media. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp.1-19.

Haraway, D., 2011. Speculative fabulations for technoculture’s generations: Taking care of unexpected country. Australian Humanities Review, 50(5), pp.1-18.

Taylor, A., 2019 (online early). Countering the conceits of the Anthropos: scaling down and researching with minor players. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, pp.1-19.

Splattering paint, embodying energies

At St Paul’s, we have been thinking about how to explode common conceptions of energy – literally. We have been working with paints and other materials to explore children’s embodied energies.

For one activity, we had a large sheet of paper, with different types of balls, which they could cover in paint and throw at the paper. The idea was to demonstrate the embodied energy of different balls – creating different ‘splats’, shapes, etcetera. They could also roll the balls.

For the second, there was again a large sheet of paper. We squeezed out blobs of paint, on top of which we placed cotton wool pads. The children could then hit the pads with plastic hammers to see how the paint splattered outwards under pressure. As Rautio (2014) writes in her account of doing research with a group of children, we did not provide much scaffolding for the task, wanting instead to allow for emerging intra-actions.

The children came in two groups. What was fascinating to us was to see how the two groups of children worked with each other, with us, with the paints, and with the other material objects we had provided, in rather different ways.

Group one came decked out in their red aprons, which were very clean. We didn’t say much about the first task, other than that they should cover the balls in paint and throw them at the paper. This group was very reticent, even though the nursery workers told us afterwards that they were the more boisterous and confident group. One of the boys only had a brief go at rolling the ball in the paint and then walked off. The other two children (a boy and a girl) played with the balls but not for very long. They were not particularly energetic in throwing the balls – staying seated, they dropped the balls, making only a very few splats of colour on the paper.

The second activity was more successful, but again this group was fairly calm. We only had two hammers (for three children) so quite a bit of time was spent ensuring that the children shared the hammer. Again they did not hit the cotton pads very hard. In fact, they seemed to gain most enjoyment from lifting the pads up and looking underneath, saying ‘woooohhhh’ loudly, and giggling, each time they lifted up the pads. They only made small splats and so didn’t expend that much bodily energy in the whole process. The end product of their play was a rather neat (and conservative) looking sheet of paper!

Group two came out and were immediately more engaged with the first task. In fact, they engaged deeply with the game, although one of the girls (there were two girls and one boy) was more hesitant and she and the boy seemed initially uncomfortable at getting their hands covered in paint. Soon, though – especially once they saw us and one of the nursery workers getting covered in paint, they were picking up the balls, rubbing in the paint, rubbing the balls on their hands, and then throwing the balls at the paper with increasing violence. Quickly, there was paint everywhere, with paint not only in large splatters on the paper, but up the sides of the tray, on our trousers, on their aprons, coats, faces and hands! The nursery teacher really encouraged the children to get messy, accidentally covering one of the girl’s faces in blue paint! As the task continued, the game became more and more energetic, with the children standing up to really see the effects of gravity on the size of the splatters. We then decided to put a huge pool of paint on the paper to see what would happened…one of the boys ‘helped’ us with this and probably put out far more of the deep red paint than we would have done, but had great fun squeezing it out. Then we dropped the balls into the paint, which went everywhere.

We then moved to the hammer task. Again, they got into this very quickly. The boy in particular hit the pads very hard, and the paint again splattered everywhere. They really got the sense that hitting the pads harder would create bigger splats. They also succeeded in mushing the pads into the paper so that we created a complicated, mixed up collage of paint, paper and cotton, which they further enjoyed massaging and mixing with their fingers and hands. The paint also splattered out onto the grass around the trays, leaving traces of orange, dark blue and red. The paint also travelled with our clothes, on the nursery teacher’s coat, and into the classroom, where it was washed down the sink, with small remnants remaining on the children’s hands and faces.

It was interesting to us that our time with the second group led to much more discussion. We had much more of a discussion with the children, than with Group 1, talking about their favourite colours and why the paint was splatting further when they hit it harder. There were also lots of games as we shared the paint – clapping hands together, moving fingers through paint, and seeing how the paint moved on the paper (and moved us to act in certain ways).

Our experiences made us reflect on why the second group were not only more active – in terms of the embodied energy they invested into and expended in the task – but also more verbose in verbalising their experiences. Or, rather, it made us attuned to the different kinds of utterances that accompany and articulate (with and as) bodily-material intra-actions. Group 1’s restrained ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ were different from but, we would argue, no less meaning-full than Group 2’s more easily ‘read-able’ reflections on what happened when the paint was hit harder.

We also place our reflections in the context of nearly two decades of nonrepresentational thinking in human geography and elsewhere. Contrary to some readings of these theories, they are not against representation or the rendering of the world open to formal cognitive processes. Rather, nonrepresentational theories seek to witness the multiple ways in which different registers of doing and feeling the world are assembled and disassembled – especially those that have been marginalised in social-scientific accounts that prioritise the practiced, discursive utterances of majority groups. Thus, in the context of our work, we want to think further about how working-with-paints gave rise to a range of emergent practices, affects and artefacts, which are both ‘representational’ and ‘nonrepresentational’ (if that duality can be taken seriously). We attend to the beaten cotton-wool balls, covered in paint; to the different pieces of paper, bearing traces of children’s embodied energies and their interactions with paint, which the nursery has placed on the walls as ‘artwork’; to the utterances and discussions during the activities; and to more, which we may have missed – perhaps children’s unspoken reflections on the feeling of hitting paints with hammers and the muscular efforts required to do so.

And: working with paints was a lot of fun.


Rautio, P., 2014. Mingling and imitating in producing spaces for knowing and being: Insights from a Finnish study of child–matter intra-action. Childhood, 21(4), pp.461-474.

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.