Report on the Third Conference of the ESEH, Florence, 16-19 February 2005
Fred Milton, Post-graduate research student, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
The third international meeting of ESEH in Florence, Italy, was hosted by the University of Florence and organised by the regional Tuscan government at the Palaffari conference centre in central Florence. Approximately two hundred and sixty delegates, from thirty countries, attended the conference. There was a strong representation from northern Europe, with Germany and the UK having the largest contingent, although there were also delegates from Eastern Europe, the Americas, Australia and Africa. A truly international event! The format of the conference was structured so that each day there was four ʻparallelʼ sessions of five different themed lectures, discussions or poster plenary sessions. The theme of the conference was ʻhistory and sustainabilityʼ and speakers interpreted this premise very broadly, covering broad time eras and with an extensive geographical coverage.
The most difficult decision facing many delegates was which session to attend, given that many lectures promised intriguing papers, followed by lively discussion. From my own perspective, I settled upon a tactic of choosing sessions that would have a direct relationship to my own current research field, a tactic I suspect followed by many other attendees. Therefore I tended to seek out sessions that would cover nineteenth and early twentieth century attitudes towards natural history, conservation and wildlife in Europe. These included an account of municipal waste incineration in nineteenth century Torquay, Devon, by John Clark, who drew some of his evidence from the provincial press and showed how a middle-class oppositional movement to the scheme slowly developed. Nicholas Goddardʼs paper on the use of Victorian sewage farm waste for agricultural use also had many parallel themes to Clarkʼs interpretation. Charles Mathais illustrated that the developing Victorian conservationist movement was endeavouring to present an idealistic picture of ʻMerry Englandʼ based upon countryside landscape, but was hindered by the growing industrial landscape on the 1800s. Food for thought was provided by Bernd Herrmannʼs report from the ESEH research group into historical species abundance. A lively group discussion followed on the intricacies of using evidence to substantiate historical species population levels and whether anecdotal accounts of species previously thought of as ʻsuper-abundantʼ should be accepted.
The subject of hunting, particularly gamekeepering and African big game hunts is a recurring historical theme. Three papers covered these themes from a German and Swedish perspective, giving fresh analysis to a subject that has been largely viewed from a British perspective. In particular, Bernhard Gissiblʼs lecture on the development of wildlife conservation under German colonial Africa illustrated a completely opposite attitude to wildlife taken by the Germans to that projected by British Edwardians. Those sessions that had a common linking theme probably were the most successful. In particular, the German research papers from an academic group investigating Kulturlandschaft that focused upon the development of the German tourist trade in the 1800s, the growth of natural history as a middle class ʻrecreationʼ and an amateur Berlin historical society, had an almost seamless quality.
The poster plenary session of twenty-one displays provided a good method of presenting research projects that were ʻongoingʼ and a tool to stimulate constructive debate. It is my opinion that this method of presenting research results, notably by postgraduates, gave researchers an excellent chance to informally discuss their results with interested delegates. In particular the poster by Nina Kruglikova, that examined historical environmental posters, which promoted sustainability messages in the form of recycling and energy saving programmes, was particularly appropriate, given the theme of the conference. The overall strength of the conference was its informality, which led to stimulating discussion with delegates. These discussions were held over the superb lunches provided by the Regional Agency for the Development and Innovation in Agriculture and Forestry, and allowing delegates to generously sample the superb wines of the region, which probably stimulated further rich discussions! The venue for the conference dinner on the Thursday night was the sumptuously decorated Villa Montalto, where in this grandiose setting we enjoyed another fantastic culinary experience and more superb wines, whilst being entertained by local Tuscan traditional dancing.
The field trips to various historical sites around Florence also gave delegates the chance to mingle and explore sites in and around the city. The guided tour of the Museum of the History of Science was particularly enjoyable. In particular the display of maps and medical equipment, along with several of Galileoʼs instruments and a glass case containing the remains of his index finger was particularly intriguing. The ESEH award dinner on the Saturday evening was a fitting climax to the conference, with several ESEH members being recognised for their unstinting work, and the proprietors of White Horse Press were also honoured for their superb efforts in producing the journal Environment and History.
I believe the Florence conference to have been a great success, and it gave me the opportunity to broaden and deepen my understanding of environmental history and to discover how the discipline readily encompasses diverse academic fields, from science to the humanities. As a student who was acquainted with only one of the delegates before I arrived, I was naturally very apprehensive about the event, but the informality of the conference was such that these fears were quickly allayed. Therefore I would very much encourage other researchers and students to attend the Amsterdam conference in 2007. Mauro Agnoletti, chair of the Florence conference committee and his colleagues are to be congratulated for arranging and hosting this first-class event.
See you in Amsterdam in 2007!