Professor Nicola Thomas
Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography
Amory Building, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RJ , UK
Office hours: Spring Term Nicola is on research leave in Spring Term 2022. She is available for student consultation each week. Please drop Nicola an email to make an appointment.
Nicola is on research leave in Spring Term 2022. She is available for student consultation each week. Please drop Nicola an email to make an appointment.
Nicola Thomas is Professor of Historical and Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter. She has developed a body of work around craft geographies, situating contemporary and 20th century craft practice within the broader creative economy. Her approach addresses the intersection of material, historical, cultural, social, political and economic contexts through an exploration of craft makers livelihoods and the spatial dimension of their labour. Her research always attends to the historicity of cultural production and consumption, bringing a historical sensitivity to critical understandings of the cultural and creative economy.
Nicola has worked on a number of research projects funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that have interrogated the form and practice of the craft sector. She has recently completed a study of UK regional craft guilds and their role in supporting the livelihoods of designer makers and rural craft ecologies. As part of her research practice Nicola supports the professional development of craft practitioners through collaborative practice interventions and by sitting on the UK Crafts Council’s Talent and Development Advisory Board. Nicola co-curated a professional development collaborative craft project with Miranda Leonard and the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen. The associated exhibition 'Two Make' toured in 2016-2017.
Nicola sits as a Trustee and Director of two arts organisations, Kaleider and Double Elephant, enabling her to take her research back into the sector. Her own passion for engaged research has led her to develop a strong co-design methodology within her research practice, working in partnership with organisations like the Devon Guild of Craftsmen, Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen and the UK Crafts Council.
Nicola has authored many book chapters, peer-reviewed journal articles and reports on regional creative economies and the craft sector. She is co-editor of Craft Economies (Bloomsbury 2018), Craft Communities (Bloomsbury 2018).
Nicola is interested in digital humanities, exploring digital storytelling and ways to connect to audiences through digital marketing in the craft sector. Recent work includes the design of a digital biography app using the research around the life of Mary Curzon, working with Software developers at Bow Software under and AHRC REACT and HEIF Open Innovation Platform grant. This work has developed into a new app, Craft Shelf, developed for the Devon Guild of Craftsmen.
Films about Nicola's research by R&A Collaborations:
A short introduction to craft geographies: https://vimeo.com/200385456
A film about my craft geographies research process: https://vimeo.com/204397645
A film about my research on craft guilds: https://vimeo.com/200847646
Film about Craft Shelf, an online marketing tool with the Devon Guild of Craftsmen:
Nicola has two further areas of research which she has pursued throughout her career. This includes:
- postcolonial geographies of gender, race and empire; gender, race and class in Colonial India; exploring relational colonial encounters through biographical methodologies; travel writing and empire embodied and material colonial histories; histories of geography and science; historical geographical methodologies and archival approaches
- gendered labour practices and career progression in higher education; equality in the workplace.
Broad research specialisms:
- Cultural Historical Geography
- Historical Cultural Georgaphies of the Creative Economy
- Colonial and Postcolonial Geographies
- Biography and life writing
- Histories of Geographical Knowledge
MA (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Nicola Thomas developed her interest in historical and cultural geography during her undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford. She pursued this through an MA in Cultural Geography (Research) at Royal Holloway, University of London before returning to the University of Oxford to develop her doctoral research. Nicola was appointed as Research Associate on the ESRC funded project ‘South Asian Transnationality and Commodity Culture’ in 2001, based at Royal Holloway, University of London working with Prof Peter Jackson, Prof Phil Crang and Dr Claire Dwyer. She joined Exeter University as a Lecturer in Human Geography in September 2002. During her time at Exeter Nicola has gained research council funding from the British Academy and the AHRC. She is was co- investigator (2007-2010) on a large AHRC-funded research project entitled Negotiating the Cultural Politics and Poetics of Identity within the Creative Industries of South West Britain. Her recent funding includes an AHRC Connected Communities projects, AHRC Early Career Grant titled 'Situating Craft Guilds in the Creative Economy: Histories, Politics and Practices'.
Nicola has served for many years on the RGS-IBG research groups and has represented the RGS-IBG research groups on the RGS-IBG Research Committee. She is Honorary Secretary of the Reearch adn Higher Education Division of the Royal Goegrpahical Society, and sits as a Trustee and Member of Council on the RGS-IBG.
Research group links
Nicola is a cultural and historical geographer who has developed several strands to her research, united by her interests in biographical approaches.
- Cultural and humanities perspectives on the creative economy
- Postcolonial geographies of gender, race and empire
- Histories of geography and science
- Gendered labour practices and career progression in higher education; equality in the workplace.
1. Cultural and humanities perspectives on the creative economy
Situating Craft Guilds in the Creative Economy: Histories, Politics and Practices (AHRC Early Career grant)
This research interrogates the contemporary relevance of craft guilds in the wider development of the UK creative economy through an analysis of policy and practice. Working with the Devon Guild of Craftsman and Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen alongside organisations that support the craft sector in the UK the research has considered the specificities of guilds as an organisational model within the craft sector and broader creative economy. The research addresses past and present Craft Guilds, situating contemporary Guilds within the longer history of craft sector development. The project has addressed the activities that craft guilds have traditionally organised, recognizing that such practices are precisely those now being aspired to in support of the new creative economy.
Connecting Craft and Communities (AHRC Network):
The ‘Connecting Craft and Communities’ research network is funded through the cross Research Council sponsored Connected Communities programme. The network brought together academics, researcher-practitioners, professional and amateur practitioners, activists, creative organisations, intermediaries and policy makers to examine the changing cultures, politics, practices and skills of Craft in the 21st century. The network will enable us to focus on the key themes of the broader ‘Connected Communities’ programme and develop our understanding of the role of Craft in developing self-reliance, economic regeneration, health and well-being within communities.
Crafting Communities of Practice and Interest: Connecting ‘Online‘ and ‘Offline‘ Making Practices (AHRC Scoping Study)
This research, sponsored by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, brings together the expertise and knowledge from three sets of discussions that have occurred through the Connected Communities Programme that the project researchers have been involved with: the discussions in the Connecting Craft and Communities network of practitioners, stakeholders and academics as well as the work undertaken through the Community Media Sphere and the Creative Citizen and Complexity and the Creative Economy research projects.
The rationale for this study stems from a concern expressed in these projects that contemporary readings of online/offline communities in the creative economy are in need of closer scrutiny. In this scoping study we focus on the craft sector and the ways in which online practices impact creative sectors, both practitioners’ daily lives and wider economic activities. We also looked at the way online technologies have been used by craft organisations as well as how crafting practices are deeply embedded in everyday material practices of making (Williams 2011).
Negotiating the cultural politics and poetics of identity within the creative industries of South West Britain (AHRC standard grant)
The ‘South West’ incorporates a diverse geographical area (from Gloucestershire, to Cornwall, to Dorset), which has no distinctive territorial identity, yet encompasses many strong place-based local identities. These identities are often represented through the creative industries, some of which have deeply embedded roots and continue to exert a powerful imaginary, influencing the production and consumption of creative work and attracting makers to the area. The aim of this project is to configure a new relational understanding of place that stresses the spatial connections and the relational identities that are practiced by makers within the creative industries, and the broader institutional context they are increasingly cast in. By moving the focus away from the policy driven demands of the creative economy towards a focus on understanding the acts of creativity undertaken, we aim to understand how creative makers negotiate their place in the ‘becoming’ of the region of SW Britain
2. Postcolonial geographies of gender, race and empire
Mary Curzon: Biography
Nicola’s interests in gender, colonial discourse and postcolonial theory have led her to explore the range of possibilities that biographical encounters present for writing critical histories of empire. Principal research to date has centered on the life of Mary Curzon (1870 – 1906). On becoming Vicereine of India (1898 – 1905) Mary’s life became a web that was spun over the spaces of the British empire. While Mary Curzon can be seen as an ‘imperial‘ and ‘domestic‘ subject par excellence, studies of her personal narratives indicates that such identities were never uncontested. This research has explored the spatiality of political and corporeal concerns and has sought to understand the complexities of colonial subjectivities. This work has drawn heavily of a variety of archival sources from letters to dress and has intervened in the following interdisciplinary debates: practices of biography; travel, gender and imperialism; feminist histories of political imperial cultures; corporal geographies; dress and embodiment; material cultures; spectacle and colonial power.
This research is currently being developed as a digital biography, receiving funding from AHRC REACT and HEIF Open Innovation Platform.
3. Histories of geography and science
Knowing the Desert: Cultures and Practices of fieldwork in the explorations of W.J. Harding King (British Academy funded project with Dr Jude Hill):
Through the lens of W.J.Harding-King (1869–1933), this project addresses the history of arid zone geomorphology in the context of European cultures of science and imperialism. Between 1900 and 1914 Harding-King undertook a series of expeditions in the western Sahara desert. Within his work we see the initial imperial drives that promoted early survey expeditions augmented by a culture of fieldwork that prioritised the scientific understanding of arid zone processes. Drawing on his anthropological, survey and scientific fieldwork Harding-King positioned himself as an ‘authority’ on the region, contributing to the geopolitical and geomorphological debates circulating in the inter-war period. Harding-King’s position was contested, and the rifts that emerge are indicative of the tensions within the newly institutionalised British geographical community of the early twentieth century (Livingstone, 1992). Following recent studies we contextualise Harding-King’s work within the broad cultures of exploration and science, and to understand the situated and relational nature of the geographical knowledge he produced (Driver, 2001). The following key themes are addressed in the context of current debates in the history of science and the philosophy, nature and practice of geography: cultures and networks of knowledge; challenging hierarchies of knowledge; geographies of arid zone science and visual cultures of fieldwork.
4. Gendered labour practices and career progression in higher education; equality in the workplace.
40 years on: gender, career progression in British Geography Higher Education (WGSG/RHED RGS-IBG funded research):
Working with Avril Maddrell, Stephanie Wyse and Kendra Strauss this project links to a Women and Geography Study Group national survey of men and women studying and working in Geography Higher Education undertaken in 2010. Addressing the politics of work place environments and themes such as caring, work/life balance, career progression, discrimination the findings from this survey are a clear picture of the experiences of those working in the sector. We are now in the process of analysing the many hundreds of long form survey responses we received and are writting up the findings for papers for Area and Transactions of the IBG.
2013 £5,600, AHRC, Cultural Engagement Fund
Crafting public engagement: 80 years of the Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen
2013 £50,000 AHRC REACT, PI TBC
Digital Biography: Digitising the Dollar Princess. Knowledge partnership grant with Bow Software
2012-13 £159,908 AHRC, PI, Early Career AH/I001778/1
Situating Craft Guilds in the Creative Economy: Histories, Politics and Practices
2012 £40,000 AHRC, PI Connecting online and offline craft communities of practice and interest.
2010-11 £32,214 AHRC, Co-I AH/E008887/1
Connecting Craft and Communities Research Network, Connected Communities Programme
2007 – 10 £313,546 RGS-IBG, PI
Negotiating the cultural politics and poetics of identity within the creative industries of SW Britain
2009 £2400 30th International Geographical Congress
Career Progression in Higher Education Geography, with the Women and Geography Study Group
2009 £730 The British Academy, PI Small Research Grant
Conference travel grant: 14th International Conference of Historical Geographers, Kyoto
Knowing the Desert: Cultures and Practices of Fieldwork in the Explorations of W.J.Harding-King
2009-2014 AHRC CDA (Co-I) 3 studentships An extended programme of three studentships in collaboration with the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum
2010-2015 AHRC CDA (Co-I) 3 studentships An extended programme of three studentships in collaboration with the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
2011-2014 AHRC CDA (Co-I) 1 studentships A single studentship in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum
2012 AHRC CDA (Co-I) 1 studentship A single studentship in collaboration with Arts for Health Cornwall (based at University College Falmouth)
Internally funded reserach
2013 £15,000 HEIF Open Innovation Platform Proof of Concept:
From prototype to Commercialisation: Digitising the Dollar Princess (pending)
2012 £5000 Outward Mobility Fellowship, University of North Carolina, USA
2012 £1000 Link Fund: Creative Coast, Jurassic Coast Arts Programme Workshop
2011-2012 £2920 Humanities-LES Pump Priming Fund:
‘Making links with SW stakeholders for the humanities: maximising existing connections, coordinating interdisciplinary engagements’ knowledge exchange workshops and pump priming activities
2010 £10, 000 University of Exeter's Arts and Culture Programme Event:
‘Creativity and Place: Geographies of South West Art, 1902-2008’ exhibition and podcast
Research and Knowledge Pump Prime Funding: ‘Understanding partnerships between Chinese and British digital media companies’
Externally funded teaching grant income
2012 £14, 846 GEES (PI)
Creating an open access learning and teaching resource for Historical Geography (on behalf of Historical Geography Research Group)
2011 £10,723 GEES (PI)
Teaching Historical Geographies Workshop: Practice and Pedagogy (on behalf of Historical Geography Research Group)
2008-2009 £77049 JISC GVQB0434
Creating Heritage Artefacts for Research and teaching in an E-Repository (Academic Collaborator)
AHRC Connecting Craft and Communities network
Creative Coasts - Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site Arts Programme
Historical Geography Research Group - RGS-IBG
Publications by category
Publications by year
External Engagement and Impact
2012 - 2015 Member of UK organising committee (with Felix Driver, Charles Withers and Catherine Souch) to convene the International Conference of Historical Geographers in the UK, 2015
2013 Researcher in residence: American Crafts Council, Think Tank on US Craft Guilds, October 17th – 19th October 2013
2008-2010 Research Committee, Royal Geographical Society with IBG (RGS-IBG)
2009-2012 Chair, Historical Geography Research Group, RGS-IBG
2004-2009 Secretary, Historical Geography Research Group, RGS-IBG
2002-2004 Newsletter Secretary, Historical Geography Research Group, RGS-IBG
2004-2010 Secretary, Women and Geography Study Group, RGS-IBG
Invited lectures & workshops
Invited lecture: Placing Cultural Work: (New) Intersections of Location, Craft and Creativity, ESRC symposium, 15th November 2013
Invited Lecture: ‘Crafting modernitities: Geographies of skilled labour, practice and policy, Department of Geography, University of North Carolina
GEES/WGSG, Mentoring and establishing your career workshop for new and emerging scholars
Plenary Lecture: ‘Teaching Historical Geographies’, Geography, Earth and Environmental Science Annual Workshop, July 2011
Invited Lecture: ‘Island Creativity’, AHRC Urban Laboratory Workshop
Invited Seminar: ‘Visual Cultures of Fieldwork: Harding King and the Libyan Desert’, Department of Geography Seminar Series, Bristol University
AHRC Crafting Communities Network, Connected Communities programme, PI Nicola Thomas, Co-I Fiona Hackney and Katie Bunnell
Workshop 1 - Crafting Communities
Workshop 2 - Crafting Futures
Workshop 3 - Crafting Sustainability
Creativity and Place: An interdisciplinary conference, University of Exeter, 23rd – 25th June
Organised by David C Harvey, Nicola Thomas and Harriet Hawkins
‘Knowing the Desert: WJ Harding King’, Seminar, Department of Geography, University of Exeter
'Creative Industries in South West Britain' Geographical Association, Annual Conference, Manchester
Invited Seminar: ‘Hearsay, myth and science: indigenous knowledge and the desert explorations of W.J. Harding King’, University of Leicester, Postcolonial Research Series
Emerging Geographies of Belief: An interdisciplinary conference. Organised by Historical Cultural Geography Research Group, University of Exeter
‘Revealing the biographical subject: Mary Curzon through the archives’, London Group of Historical Geographers Research Seminar Series, Institute of Historical Research, University of London
Craft sector engagement:
2010-2013: Devon Guild of Craftsmen and Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsman – partner stakeholders in AHRC Craft Guilds in the Creative Economy research project
2013: Exhibition essay Devon Guild of Craftsmen, Design for Living at High Cross House, Dartington
2013: AHRC Cultural Engagement project in partnership with Gloucestershire Guild of Craftsmen to support the development of the online history of the Guild.
2012: Crafts Council, Craftspace and Leach Pottery formal project partners in AHRC Connected Communities pilot project: ‘Connecting online and offline craft communities of practice and interest’.
2011: AHRC Connected Communities: Crafing Communities Network: 70 stakeholders from the crafts organisations and practitioners joined the AHRC Connecting Craft and Communities network to address the nexus between craft and communities.
Creative Industries sector engagement:
2010: Critical Creative Connections, 16th September 2010, organisation and delivery of stakeholder event linked to AHRC creative industries research for 80 participants.
2010: Invited as researchers on UKTI Trade Mission to China
2013: Working with software company Bow Software to develop new digital architecture for biography (funded through AHRC REACT and HEIF Open Innovation Platform)
2012-2013: Exeter Global Centre, Heritage Lottery Funded Project, ‘Telling our Stories’
Public Engagement with Geography
South West Regional committee of the RGS-IBG
2010-2013: SW regional Committee of the RGS-IBG steering group organises the public programme of activities in the SW.
Creative Coast 2012, animating the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site
2012: Working with arts company Proboscis as part of the Exploratory Laboratory to investigating the earth science and coastal processes revealed along the Jurassic Coast through the imaginative insight of visual artists.
2013: Royal Geographical Society, SW Region
2010: Public lecture and archive display at the Royal Geographical Society to highlight their archival holdings linked to the explorer W.J. Harding King
2003: ‘Material Threads: Tracing the production and consumption of the Vicereine of India’s wardrobe’ (With Rosemary Harden, Museum of Costume, Bath) Fashion and the British Empire, Courtauld History of Dress Association Annual Conference
School based learning: AHRC Creative Industries research
2009-2010: AHRC funded creative industries research has been disseminated through a Geography Association teacher conference, in a Geography magazine article aimed at 16 – 18 year old audiences and at a workshop for a School level audience at the RGS-IBG
2009: Exhibition presented the material from the British Academy Grant for a public audience. The exhibition was launched with a public lecture.
1999-2000: ‘Women of Style’ exhibition, Museum of Bath, Spring 1999 – Autumn 2000 including a joint conference presentation at the Courtauld History of Dress Association Conference 2004 and public lectures to local societies.
Principal Fellow Higher Education Academy
DPhil, University of Oxford
MA, University of London
BA (Hons), University of Oxford
- GEO2133 - Global Lives: Multicultural Geographies
- GEOM130 - Geographies of Culture, Creativity and Practice
Supervision / Group
- Kathryn Harriman 2012, AHRC Online/Offline Craft
- Harriet Hawkins 2007-2010, AHRC SW Creative Industries
- Doreen Jakob From 2012, AHRC Situating Craft Guilds Research Fellow
- Kevin Milburn 2013, AHRC REACT and Creative Engagement projects
- Simon Moreton 2011-2012, AHRC: Craft Network and AHRC Online/Offline Craft
- Daniel Carpenter Current: HRC South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership
- Jon Crosse Current: AHRC CDA, Practices of Carnival, Jurassic Coast WHS Arts Programme
- Sarah Desmarais Current: AHRC CDA, Crafts, Health and Practice, Arts for Health Cornwall, based at University of Falmouth, Penryn
- Ben Oldcorn Current: AHRC CDA Porthcurno Telegraph Museum
- Louise Rutt Completed: Departmental Scholarship, New practices of giving
- James Wallis Current: AHRC CDA Imperial War Museum
- Lynne Wyness Completed: Departmental Scholarship
- Francis Rylands AHRC CDA, Arts Science Practice and Policy, Jurassic Coast WHS Arts Programme
- Vanessa Stevens (PhD 2010)(ESRC)'Governing education: The ethical spaces of citizenship education in primary schools.'