ABOUT THE PROJECT

Material Cultures of Energy is a research project that examines how energy has transformed daily life in the twentieth century. We investigate how energy transitions played themselves out in people’s lives in the past; how networks and grids changed space and communities; how energy futures were imagined and contested; and how societies lived with shortages and disruption.

We explore the lived, material and imagined worlds of energy. Energy transition is a major challenge for sustainable development today. But energy transitions are nothing new. Societies went through major transformations in the past, moving from wood and coal to gas and electricity. These were not only technological accomplishments: energy use is more than just the result of supply and big technology. Demand is made up of many energy-hungry daily practices and customs. Transitions from coal to gas and electricity were not effortless. They were historical processes shaped by people and communities as well as experts.

Woman in a kitchen full of appliances, c 1956. Image No. 10432135 Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
Woman in a kitchen full of appliances, c 1956. Image No. 10432135 Daily Herald Archive/National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Material Cultures of Energy is a four-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and one of the large grants in its ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past’ initiative.

We are four historians and a geographer, working with a range of sources, including material objects, film and fiction, company and local archives, consumer manuals and oral history. In our themes we compare developments in Britain, North America, Germany and Japan. We also have an applied interest in bringing historical knowledge to bear on today’s challenges of changing energy habits, such as the reform of cook stoves in India.

 

Material Cultures of Energy seeks to understand better how culture and energy have shaped each other in the past in order to advance the debate about the role of consumers in energy transitions in the present and future. In addition to academic research and publications, this project collaborates with several bodies in the arts and society, in government and the energy sector. These include the Science Museum and British Film Institute, Defra (UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), the World Energy Council, EDF, the Japanese city of Saijo and its schools.

The project is based at Birkbeck College, University of London, and consists of Prof Frank Trentmann (Principal Investigator), Dr Hiroki Shin (Co-Investigator), Dr Vanessa Taylor (University of Greenwich), Dr Heather Chappells (University of British Columbia, Canada) and Rebecca Wright (University of Sussex). The project runs from April 2014 until December 2017.