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Imagining the Oceans

The oceans cover three-quarters of the globe. They sustain life on land and shape societies across history and culture. The ocean environment at the same time is forbidding and remote, hostile to human physiology and beyond the lived experience of most people, even today.  Representations... ... more

The oceans cover three-quarters of the globe. They sustain life on land and shape societies across history and culture. The ocean environment at the same time is forbidding and remote, hostile to human physiology and beyond the lived experience of most people, even today. 

Representations have thus played a vital role in communicating practical information about the oceans for millennia. At the same time, the simultaneously remote yet influential quality of this area of the planet has made it a particularly fertile reservoir for the arts across history, yielding influential aesthetics, works and forms.  

The ways in which the oceans have been represented and imagined has become the focus of the interdisciplinary field of the marine and maritime humanities, which emerged at the end of the twentieth century, and is expanding in the twenty-first century. The field is constitutively interdisciplinary because many different kinds of expertise are needed to understand human interactions with the ocean environment, and how these interactions have shapes the imagination. Knowledge about the environment, technology, war, science, adventure, diplomacy, commerce, spectacle, and the arts, are, for example, just a few areas touched on in the marine and maritime humanities. Oceans connect as well as divide, and maritime humanities are constitutively trans and supranational in their reach as well. What records exist of humans’ practical relation to the sea in fishing, transport, ritual and leisure? How have the seas brought differing societies into contact, and what has been the substance of these encounters? How have the seas been represented and imagined according to specific practical and cultural needs, and norms? What is the relation of these expressions to the reality of work at sea, maritime travel and transport, and the highly differentiated features of different areas of the environment itself? These are just a few examples of the kinds of questions asked by scholars in the marine and maritime humanities.

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the field, university venues for sustained conversations are comparatively scarce. They generally take the form of conferences, bringing together specialists for a few days. Unfortunately, these brief meetings often provide little opportunity for follow-up dialogue, print dissemination of research is slow, and there are few outlets allowing the conversations of specialists to reach a broader public.

The goal of the colloquy “Imagining the Oceans” is to provide a forum for disseminating current research in the marine and maritime humanities, using the multi-media possibilities of web publication and enabling conversations with different levels of formality. 

Margaret Cohen's picture
Curator Margaret Cohen

Imagining Oceans

by Melissa Langer and Catharine AxleyVideo
The ocean is not just one thing. How have we imagined the oceans? How have we represented them? more

Logging-In: The Ship's Log as Medium

by Janet SorensonEssay
Attention to the material cultures of the eighteenth-century log-book and journal reveal that media of navigation, through which to imagine distant, and not proximal, relations, might not be as remote as we would like to think. more

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

by Jonathan LambEssay
Why did the failure to discover a cure for scurvy not seriously impede the work of territorial discovery of those involved in reconnoitering the unknown lands of the South Seas? more