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Student Showcase Archive

Dr James Ryan


  • Dr James Ryan
  • Area

    School of Arts & Humanities


    Head of Programme (V&A)

  • Based in the Research Department of the V&A, Dr James Ryan is Head of Programme (V&A) for the MA History of Design. He works closely with Dr Sarah Teasley, the RCA Head of Programme. He is also Associate Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter, UK.

  • Biography

  • James undertook his academic training in the disciplines of history and geography, completing a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London in 1995. Since then he has taught historical and cultural geography in a number of universities in the UK, including Oxford, Queen’s Belfast, Leicester and Exeter – where he is Associate Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography. 

  • External collaborations

  • Together with Professor Christopher Breward, I am series editor of Histories of Design and Material Culture published by Manchester University Press. I am also a member of the AHRC Peer Review College and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. 

  • Publications, exhibitions and other outcomes

  • James R. Ryan, ‘Introduction: Colonialism and Vision’, in Filippa Lowndes Vicente (Ed), O Império Da Visão: Fotografia No Contexto Colonial Português (1860–1960), Lisbon, Grupo Almedina, 2015

    James R. Ryan, ‘Photography and Empire’, in John M. MacKenzie (Ed) The Encyclopedia of Empire, London, Wiley, 2015

    James R. Ryan, Photography and Exploration, Reaktion Books, London & University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2013

    Caitlin DeSilvey and James R. Ryan, photographs by Steven Bond, ‘21 Stories’, Cultural Geographies, 2014, 21, pp. 657–672, first published on Oct 8, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1474474013500358

    James R. Ryan, ‘Mrs Harris Photographing in the Forest’, in Penny Tinkler, Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research, London, Sage, 2013, pp. 47–49

    Caitlin DeSilvey and James R. Ryan, with photographs by Steven Bond, Visible Mending: Everyday repairs in the South West, Uniform books, Axminster, 2013

    D. Cullen, James R. Ryan and J. Winders, ‘Postcolonialism’ in J. S. Duncan, N. C. Johnson and R. S. Schein (Eds) The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, pp. 508–523

    James R. Ryan, ‘Introductory Essay’, in Charlotte Fiell and James R. Ryan, Memories of a Lost World: Travels through the Magic Lantern, Goodman Fiell, London, 2013

    James R. Ryan and Nicola Thomas, ‘Durbars, spectacle and landscapes of performance’ in J. Codell (Ed) Power and Dominion: Photography and the Imperial Durbars of British India, Alkazi Books, New York, 2012

    Simon Naylor and James R. Ryan, eds, New Spaces of Exploration: Geographies of Discovery in the Twentieth Century, I.B. Tauris, London, 2010

    Simon Naylor and James R. Ryan, ‘Exploration in the Twentieth Century’ in S. Naylor and J.R. Ryan (Eds) New Spaces of Exploration: Geographies of Discovery in the Twentieth Century, I.B. Tauris, London, 2010.
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  • Awards and Grants

  • AHRC 10th Anniversary Cultural Engagement Fund, £12,500, postdoctoral project: ‘Creative interpretation of granite building conservation and restoration methods at Godolphin House, Cornwall’. Feb-May 2016

    ‘Place and Popular Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Work and World of Robert Hunt (1807–1887)’, British Academy-Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship, 1 Sept 2014 – 31 Aug 2015

     ‘Designing Lantern Slide Magic: Reconnecting Image-Objects with Audiences’ Hands, Eyes and Imaginations’, AHRC REACT (Research and Enterprise in Arts and Creative Technology), Feasibility Funding with industry partners KIN, London, 2014

    ‘Geographical Projections: Lantern Slides, Science and Popular Geographies 1860-1960’, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award with Royal Geographical Society, London, 2011–14

     ‘Small is Beautiful? Visual and Material Cultures of Making and Mending’, AHRC, Co-I with Caitlin DeSilvey (PI) 2010–12


Research interests

Dr James Ryan's research interests lie in the historical and cultural geography of modernity and concern three overlapping fields, which are broadly connected with histories of design and material culture: histories of photography, visual and material culture; British colonialism and imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; and Anglo-American geographical knowledge, technology and science.

Much of his research concerns the contested meaning and practice of photographic representation and the power of photographs – as visual and material culture –  to shape human understandings of the world. Previous work has explored the ways in which photography was used within projects of British imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth century (see Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualisation of the British Empire 1997), as well as the evolving relationship between photography and the geographical imagination (see, for example, Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, 2003, co-edited with Joan M. Schwartz).

James' research is based mostly on historical collections of images and objects in UK libraries, archives and museums. Drawing on interdisciplinary approaches, particularly with regard to photography and material culture, he seeks to contribute to debates across a range of disciplines, including cultural and historical geography, design history, art history, anthropology, nineteenth-century studies and visual culture studies.

James has received research funding from a range of organisations including the British Academy, the Leverhulme Trust and the Royal Geographical Society. He has given invited presentations on his research to several international research institutions including Harvard University Art Museums and the Yale Center for British Art. In 2014–15 he was awarded a British Academy-Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship for research on the work of the Victorian Cornish photographer, geologist and folklorist Robert Hunt.

James has extensive experience supervising doctoral students (including Collaborative Doctoral Award holders and practice-based researchers) on a range of research topics. He welcomes approaches from prospective PhD students in fields relevant to his broad research interests.

Current and recent research

Place and Popular Science in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Work and World of Robert Hunt (1807–1887)

Supported by a British Academy-Leverhulme Senior Research Fellowship in 2014–15, this on-going research examines the connections between place and popular science, particularly early photography, in nineteenth-century Britain through the significant but often overlooked work of the Cornish chemist, photographer, geologist and folklorist Robert Hunt (1807–1887). A number of articles in refereed international journals are underway to further disseminate this research to scholars in geography, history and Victorian studies.

Photography and Exploration

This research investigates historical and contemporary uses of photography in exploration, from Victorian voyages into the landscapes of ‘Darkest Africa’ to modern space travel. Drawing on a range of recent, interdisciplinary scholarship I examine how photography has been associated with the human conquest of space as well as how the meanings of exploration photographs has changed in response to dynamic currents of history, culture and geography. This research was supported by a Small Research Grant from the British Academy. See Photography and Exploration, Reaktion Books, London and University of Chicago Press, Chicago, in press, 2013.

UK Publisher link
US Publisher link

Small is Beautiful?

This project, with Caitlin DeSilvey (PI) and photographer Steve Bond, investigates the material cultures associated with the making and mending of everyday objects in the South West of England. The research was funded through a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2012 and created a Blog (Small is Beautiful? Visual and material cultures of making and mending), a website (, and a book (Visible mending: Everyday repairs in the South West).    

Research students