The Power of Embodied Place: Mobile Media, Spatial Turn, and Sensory-Inscribed Users

To my fellow public historians: I know, I am totally unoriginal. And yes, I am very proud of ripping off Dolores Hayden’s brilliant The Power of Place in my title. I ask but one thing of you: please don’t be a copyright cop, okay? Speaking of cops, my quarantine streaming queue has dwindled to the extent that my Friday night consisted of a date with the 2009 classic: Paul Blart Mall Cop. Some highlights in GIF form:

To everyone reading: I hope that you are healthy, checking in with yourself regularly, and social distancing like the champs you are. I miss seeing you all very much. It has been really heartening to read everyone’s blog posts and comments; although we can no longer meet in person, carrying on with class restores some sense of normalcy in a world that is anything but.

This week, I am responsible for making sense of Farman’s Mobile Interface Theory and Durington & Collins’ “New App City.” From the outset, I have found that these two pieces–the former a book and the latter a brief article about an Android app–are wholly complimentary, so that will be helpful later on.

I mentioned Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place (and I may or may not have committed a copyright infringement in my title, oops) at the beginning, and I want to explain why. Hayden argues that we can learn a lot about public memory by negotiating the inclusive histories of diverse peoples & the vernacular landscapes they inhabit. Writing in the 1990s, her methodology for interpreting history was rooted in two fundamental concepts: people and place.

Farman, Durington, and Collins challenge us to update Hayden’s premise, to add a third consideration to her list: mobile media. In short, Mobile Interface Theory and “New App City” call for an iterative approach to the spatial turn movement–we are encouraged to think about the inseparable relationship between sensory-inscribed bodies, mobile media, & the digital and physical spaces they embody.

I would like to begin by summarizing Farman’s findings in Mobile Interface Theory, as this book is pretty foundational to all the readings and practicums we will be engaging with this week. I have divided this next bit into three primary sections: mobile media, people, and place.

Mobile Media

What do we mean by mobile media? Well, in addition to typical objects–mobile phones, smartphones, netbooks/laptop computers–associated with the digital age, we are also talking about print text, subway passes, and everyday objects that signify identity and create meaning in our lives.

For historical context, Farman challenges the notion that mobile technology is new; papyrus was mobile technology, for example, albeit rudimentary by our standards. Whether we are looking at the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 or the production of papyrus in the fourth millennium BCE, many mobile technologies share a distinctive feature: they often usher in fundamental changes in culture.

Utilizing mobile media tells us something about how spaces–both digital and physical–and the bodies that inhabit those spaces are related. Farman chiefly places focus on mobile media that is locative/location-aware, think radios or mobile phones that create a sense of intimacy between people that are far apart. Farman also concedes that some mobile media can have a cocooning quality–zoning out surrounding spaces/people with earbuds, for example.

Pervasive computing is, in part, represented by mobile media–such as smart phones–that has become ubiquitous and largely affordable to the masses. These devices serve as an interface, a conduit of sorts, through which we can transform/interpret ourselves, others, and lived spaces.


Farman’s treatment of place is not significantly different than Hayden’s: place creates meaning, it preserves and modifies memory. However, place is also more abstract in this context: place can be virtual or physical. In addition, there is an inescapable interplay between people, the mobile media they utilize, and the spaces they occupy.

A novel way that Farman explains place has to do with historical notions of progress over time. Typically, new technology is seen as a form of acceleration/speed/progress. Farman sees this thought process as flawed precisely because it forgets the importance of select spatial moments in history. By linking linking mobile media, location (dwelling), and people, we do not necessarily move towards progress & later obsolescence, but rather a new understanding of embodied space.


On the most basic level, Farman sees people as bodies who are utilizing mobile media and inhabiting space. In addition, people are “sensory-inscribed.” What the heck does that mean? My understanding is that users of mobile media are attuned to material AND digital landscapes–they embody multiple spaces (real and virtual) and multiple identities, sometimes simultaneously.

Farman also posits that each body–each person engaging with mobile media spatially–has distinctive socio-cultural implications that must be considered. Further, Farman is an advocate for using mobile media to visualize place, to serve as an interface useful to community insiders and outsiders. And finally, locative storytelling through voice recording, texting, and site specific engagement is an excellent medium for inclusive/democratized history. This dovetails nicely into a brief discussion of the article “New App City.”

In their article, Durlington & Collins transcend Farman’s theory and show how it can be applied in practice. They focus on an app called “Chongno Alleys,” a GPS/mapping platform that takes users on a tour of various tourist highlights and lesser known locations in the Chongno District of Seoul. The app is a collaboration between the South Koren government, local tour guides, community organizers, and neighborhood residents.

The key takeaway from their experience with the app is that mobile media presents a wonderful opportunity for public historians, cultural anthropologists, ethnologists, etc. to collaborate with local communities and document spatial memory. In addition, the app’s emphasis on bringing users to places/spaces that only community insiders know about is an experiment in locative storytelling. The app makes spatial history accessible and useful to both insiders and outsiders of a community.

Finally, the app embraces creative misuse: the android app is full of errors, the GPS tracking sometimes takes you to unexpected/unintended locales, and textual information in the app often presents contradictory notions of what these spaces mean to different members of the community. Creative misuse isn’t a bad thing; rather, it is actually a form of resistance to archival silence and white-washed histories. Experiences like “Chongno Alleys” tell us much about how people, places, and mobile media interfaces create new meanings.

Many of us are in the process of developing a digital mapping resource as our final project. Many of us are also emerging public historians. What does all of this mean for our projects and our futures in the field? Marrying the theories and practices proposed in The Power of Place, Mobile Interface Theory, and “New App City” leads us to something of an answer: studying embodied spaces & using mobile media to meet communities where they are opens the door to democratized, inclusive history. The power of embodied place is that it opens our eyes to new meanings, communities, identities, and narratives.

These readings also left me with many questions that I would love to discuss with you all in the comments below. Is mapping necessarily the only way that historians can utilize mobile interface theory? What about text messaging, calling patterns, games, apps, etc.? It is problematic to assume that all communities have equal access to/interest in mobile media, so how do we overcome the problem of access? At AU and in the professional world, we are faced with the problem of time and budget: how do we create experiences that utilize embodied spaces and represent community interests with these constraints? Why, and how, would we utilize creative misuse on purpose? Do public historians need to possess an understanding of a community’s virtual and physical identities, its virtual and physical spaces, before working with said community? How do we embrace the notion that the interaction between virtual spaces and material spaces can change our identity as interpreters of history, and likewise the community’s identity?

Until next time, be well and take care!

The World Is Your [Living Museum]: Spatial History and the Digital Age

Hi friends, hope you are staying well—body, mind, and soul—and safe at home! I don’t know about you, but the readings on place, space, and human connectivity for this week felt either particularly cruel or like a digital vacation (or, if you’re like me, oscillating between the two).


In any case, please join me in a discussion of space and why, starting about a century and a half ago, Western scholars of history, religion, psychology, etc. began to take up the topic of spatiality. In the readings this week, Jo Guldi and Mark Tebeau introduce us to both the origins and examples of the application of the spatial turn in the digital age

Jo Guldi’s “What is the Spatial Turn,” tells us—you guessed it—what exactly the spatial turn was (gotta love that sign-posting). According to Guldi, starting in ~1880 and lasting through the mid-twentieth century, Western scholars from multiple disciplines—particularly the arts and social sciences—began to consider the relationship between peoples/societies and the land. In fact, they considered not only the relationship between a person and the land, but how that land could and did facilitate connections to other people. He brings up the discussion of “the commons” (any student of history or poli-sci likely remembers a class lecture of the “Tragedy of the Commons”—essentially the “this is why we can’t have nice things” of the 1960s), using it to model how historians, in particular, began to conduct close-readings of sources on societal structure to glean information about the importance of the space societies inhabited. Guldi’s second article, “The Spatial Turn in History,” breaks the trajectory of historian’s explorations of spatiality more closely. According to Guldi that trajectory looked like the following:  

  • Land within the context of the nation (a top-down, elitist narrative) –>
  •  Land within the context of the “city” (which allowed historians to “foreground middle-class actors” –> 
  • “Imagined” or “Sensuous Landscapes,” such as leisure spaces, suburbia, or even the “home” (which facilitated the entry of a broad range of historic actors into the narrative) –> 
  • Space within the context of the “infrastructure state” or how the manipulation of territory results in new/different relationships between people and the land

Guldi notes in “What is the Spatial Turn,” that since the 1970s, questions of power in relation to space have been the focus of many social histories. Indeed, we would be hard pressed to get out of a seminar book discussion without identifying how the author treated those subjects. Yet, not until the Digital Age have scholars had the opportunity to interpret and represent these spatial histories in a manner that emphasizes their spatiality. Writing about events that occurred within a space is not nearly as impactful as seeing an image that captured the event within the space is not nearly as impactful as seeing both the narrative and image imposed on a geospatial representation of the space itself. Each layer of interpretation provides the scholar/public a more complicated and (arguably) “complete,” multi-sensory lens into history. 

The primary question I had after reading Guldi’s articles is about how spatiality has been represented in non-Western scholarship? Western spatiality is very much wrapped up in place—physical locations seen through a predominantly colonial lens. However, there are other ways of conceiving of space beyond the physical that not even the imagined/sensuous landscapes of Western scholarship seem to get at. I imagine that including conceptions of “space” outside of the Western tradition would challenge the physicality of place-ness of how we conceive of the spatial. 

 Mark Tebeau’s article, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” discusses a great example of how spatial history can be represented and interpreted using digital tools. Cleveland Historical, a “dynamic, layered, and contextual storytelling endeavor,” combines maps, multimedia (oral histories, music, images), and contextual text (felt redundant/wrong but left it) to “curate” Cleveland’s history. This project is collaborative in that multiple users can contribute “pins” to the map after being trained, and is intended to elevate aural interpretation to the same level as visual. Because this project is mobile, users can go on tours and stand in the “pinned” spaces while accessing contextual information online. As Tebeau refers to it, Cleveland Historical is a “living museum” the size of the city and its strength lie in both its collaborative nature of democratizing the historical interpretive process AND in its utility in presenting history in a multi-sensory, spatially-oriented way.

The “Cuyahoga River Fire” pin on the interactive map of Cleveland
Once you click on the pin, you get sent to that pin’s landing page
In addition to contextual text (wrote that again, still the worst), the pin has multimedia such as a video interview…
…and images of the event. Below the multimedia were tags, a bibliography of sources consulted, and space to comment.

I chose to use the “Cuyahoga River Fire” pin as an example because Tebeau addresses it, specifically in his text to make the point that it’s not totally clear “whether geolocation even provides the best way to contextualize historical stories.” He argues that, in the example of the burning of the Cuyahoga River, “placing the story at an abandoned railroad bridge along the Cuyahoga River (as we do now) may be physically accurate but remote from a location where its interpretive connections are richer.” However, I believe it is worth arguing that sites of experience—regardless of whether or not the site is one of many or, alternately, the physical site itself no longer exists–have memory and experience embedded within them. Ultimately, spaces themselves can facilitate the interpretation, and rather than shifting the location away from the space in which an event occurred, we might challenge ourselves to attempt more creative interpretation before considering relocation. For instance, the Cuyahoga River Fire page could be used to prompt deep thinking about the impact of pollution in Cleveland’s history. It could be connected to other locations where pollution runs unchecked, introduce the narratives of those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental racism or discrimination (thus ensuring class, race, gender, and other categories of experience and analysis are elevated). What is so encouraging about a borne-digital project like Cleveland Historical is that it is ultimately iterative—constantly evolving, growing, becoming (ideally) more representative—and has the capacity to incorporate a many connected, overlapping, layered histories interpreted in myriad ways. 

I’m interested to hear if, especially in the process of drafting our projects—particularly those who are doing digital projects—you have come across any multifaceted digital history projects that incorporate the spatial and narrative in engaging ways?

Histories of the National Mall

For those unacquainted with, Histories of the National Mall is dedicated to the history of D.C.’s National Mall. It provides a variety of interactive ways to learn about the history of the Mall, including the development of the space, the events that occurred there, and the people associated with it. The project is funded by the Roy Rosenzweig Institute for History and New Media and the National Endowment for Humanities

The site starts out with a very colorful, visually appealing homepage. The layout is simple and intuitive.

Despite its apparent simplicity though, there’s a significant amount of information available and organized in helpful ways. Not only are there the four initial options (Maps, Explorations, People, and Past Events) but the site also includes a search bar, so you can quickly find information on whatever interests you.

At the bottom of the homepage, there’s also a very helpful guide to using the site, and a featured article – this article is randomized every time you refresh the homepage, meaning users are exposed to different topics and information every time.

Clicking on “Using the Site” brings you directly to their “About” page. It provides detailed information about the information and content the site contains, and also information on how to use the site. They specifically include how to use the site while the user is on the Mall, encouraging users to connect this digital project even more to the physical space.

Let’s move on to the four categories the site provides!

If you click on Maps, you are, unsurprisingly, directed to a map of the Mall. The map allows you to move around, zoom in and out, and to get a look at the space. Featured on the map are a number of location markers, but there are also color coded circles with numbers. These indicate close groupings of location markers, and clicking on them zooms the map into that area.

However, this map is a lot more interactive than it first appears. If you click the filter setting at the top right corner, you find even more interesting features.

The map allows you to filter the different types of items, but it also lets you choose what era map you want to look at! This is definitely my favorite feature.

On the bottom right corner, it gives you the information on the cartographer and the year it was made.

Selecting a different era not only features a map from that time period, but it also changes the items you can select and take a look at. All of these items are available on the default “All Map Eras” map, so you aren’t missing content if you don’t flip through every map option.

Pivoting from the more interactive element, the site also offers articles on the Mall’s history through its “Exploration” section. These articles are presented in a FAQ-style form, answering popular questions asked about the Mall. There’s only 5 pages of results, so it’s not an inexhaustible wealth of information, but there is a significant amount.

The articles also support the information with images, videos, and oral history. The multimedia elements do give the articles a boost and makes the information more accessible to more audiovisual learners.

On the side, there are also links to related questions, prompting users to dig deeper into topics that interest them and to engage more with the site.

The last two categories, “People” and “Past Events,” are also worth a look.

The People section includes 89 profiles and mini biographies on people associated with the Mall, its development, and its going-ons.

Taking a look at Benjamin Banneker, who helped map out the boundaries of the D.C., we can see the site actually offers a lot of information on each person.

In addition to the information and metadata, you can also download the information in several different formats.

Not only do you get biographical information on the person, but you also get source and citation information, and the site lets you know what map coverage the person can be found on.

The Past Events section offers similar information.

Just like the Persons section, each event is associated with a photo. There’s a description of the event, a date, source and citation information, and different output formats. It also gives information on what map coverage it can be found on, and–for events featured on the interactive maps–it provides a geolocation as well, where the item can be found on the maps.

One question that comes to mind with this site though is communication and how users can ask questions and interact with the creators. The option to contact the site or ask questions is buried in the “About” page, which is only accessible through the homepage and not in the menu bar. At the very bottom, there’s a “Connect” section.

The “send feedback and questions” link directs the user to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media though, instead of a form dedicated to Histories of the National Mall, which could be confusing to some. The other options are to go through Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter. It is worth pointing out that icons for these three social media pages are available at the bottom or side of each page, but they’re subtle and I know that not every user might notice them or think to follow those links.

All in all, Histories of the National Mall is a cool site! There’s a lot to look through, but not an overwhelming amount. I think the interactive map and FAQ-style exploration pages are the highlights of the project, but the People and Past Events also provide a lot of interesting information. The site is useful for those casually looking through the Mall’s history, but could also be a good diving off point for researchers.

Collaborative Cultural Heritage Preservation

This week I took a look at two tools — Museum on Main Street (MoMS) and The Will to Adorn — for collecting and preserving stories and cultural practices from people across the U.S. Both of these (MoMS’ “Stories from Main Street is not longer an app) are part of Smithsonian programming. Each facilitates co-facilitation by community members and has some ability to connect the stories that participants submit to place.

Museum on Main Street is a Smithsonian program that sends traveling exhibits into small, rural communities across the United States. The program has visited over 1,600 communities of 500 to 25,000 people since 1994. MoMS has a “Stories from Main Street” (SfMS) feature to “enable participatory collecting” of experiences of people who attended a traveling MoMS exhibit and beyond.

The SfMS is currently collecting stories from folks on three campaigns (see above). I thought that it was interesting that the project is aiming to include stories both from people who visited an exhibit and those who had not.

They also include guidance for stories, formats, and inspiration to those who wish to submit. To contribute, you first need to create an account, then the website walks you through the submission process. Notice that “location” is a feature of the submission form.

This is the second page of stories included in the “Life in Our Town” collection.

On the other end, there is a repository of stories which you can filter by topic or theme. You can also use the search function, but it malfunctioned a few times when I attempted to use it. One last feature I found interesting was that there are lesson plans and ways that teachers can have classes contribute or use stories collected as part of this project.

I also took a look at The Will to Adorn (which is still an app!) which is a product of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The project primarily consists of an app that allows cultural preservationists to share and explore “the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress, and adornment.” Unlike MoMS, the website for this was really buggy — it’s definitely all about the app. The website does contain a pretty comprehensive research guide that contains tons of helpful guidance about different methods of data collection. Here’s the link: I read in the research guide that the name of the project comes from a Zora Neale Hurston observation “that ‘the will to adorn’ is one of the primary characteristics of African American expression.”

The app is pretty simple – you first select whether you want to share a story or listen.

When I chose to listen, it started playing a random selection. By clicking “more” you can filter by question, region, gender, or age of the storyteller.

It’s pretty easy to share a story too. You decide which question to answer and include information about location, gender, and age. (I didn’t actually share one).

These are the questions you chose from.

These are both really interesting examples of digital platforms for collaborative cultural preservation. I thought it was interesting that the Stories from Main Street grew out of physical traveling exhibits and The Will to Adorn website mentioned that traveling physical exhibits might be in the project’s future.

Do you know of any other apps or platforms that cultural heritage organizations use to co-collaborate? Questions about how this works? Do you think you would use either of these for leisure? Would these be useful for researchers?

ARIS Games and HistoryPin

Hello everyone I hope you’re all doing well. This post will cover my tinkering with the apps ARIS games and HistoryPin which were met with varying amounts of success. We’ve covered HistoryPin before in this class so I’ll try to talk a little bit more about ARIS Games although due to some difficulties it will be a bit more conceptual than most practicums.

I’ll start with HistoryPin as I had a lot more success with that and we’ve already discussed it before in class. HistoryPin is a program where users can place a pin on the map at a certain location to mark and share the story of some event, location, or person in history. For example on AU’s campus you can find pins for the the different buildings that make up campus, marking the dates that they were constructed as well as pins that mark certain occasions such as the times that Presidents Kennedy and Clinton spoke at the school, with details about what they discussed in their respective appearances.

HIstoryPin is very easy to use and navigate. You can search by area and find pins of different historical topics in that area or you can navigate through the various collections compiled on site. These collections are based on locations, so in theory a collection of pins on AU’s campus, or based on themes so you could explore a collection titled the First World War Centenary which compiles pins that discuss the First World War and the ways people are remembering it. Within one collection you may also find other collections related to that topic. So for example in the First World War Centenary collection, there is another collection being compiled about how people with Learning Disabilities contributed to the war effort. So exploring one topic could lead you to discovering a new but related topic.

HistoryPin is very easy to use and very easy to go down the rabbit hole in. You can just start by searching for one topic or one location and each pin or collection that you click on will provide you with related content for you to explore as well. And all of this can be done on your computer, in your home, so you can explore historical locations and stories from around the world from the comfort of your homes.

Let’s move on to ARIS Games. The concept of this app is really interesting. The app uses GPS programs so that you can create interactive games in your surrounding area. For anyone who was or perhaps still is caught up in that craze, think of a mobile game like Pokemon Go. ARIS Games provides a similar concept only the games could be about virtually anything. But the whole point is that you walk around different locations, interact with pins or objects that the creator of the game placed on the map. The games can be remarkably varied. In my time with the app I saw games designed to accompany exhibits in museums, games that provided a nature tour on walking trails, and a game designed to teach you about recycling starring a sentient grilled cheese sandwich with super powers. So there’s a lot of variety there.

Creating a game is not the most user friendly. The easiest form of game to make seems to be on where you just place plaques on the map that you can put media and descriptions on that when people approach that pin or tap on it on their app, the media will play or they will be able to read the information that you wrote in which I would imagine would work quite well for a game meant to be played while inside a museum’s exhibit. But more can be done with the app by people who are better with this type of program than I am. You can generate characters and lines of dialogue so that the user can have conversations with characters inside your game. You can also create objects and place them on the map so that players can pick them up in the game and carry them to different places, giving them a set of objectives they need to go through that could guide their tour of the area.

The potential with this program is really interesting. I could definitely see providing digital media on museum or art gallery tours to be a really good use of this program. Or potentially one could create an interactive, day-in-the-life-of game for a historic site where users could choose different paths to explore historic sites and interact with objects, locations, or characters in the game to get immersed in a historical experience.

I did run into a few problems with ARIS Games though. The first comes with the current state of the world. This app really relies on you going to different locations to use this app such as museums or campuses, or around town and given the pandemic I really didn’t have a lot of opportunity to walk around and explore with these games. The second problem I ran into is more about the program itself. The usefulness of this program relies on the quality of the game and by extension the skill set of whoever made it. If a game is poorly made then there is really not a lot of use to the app. And a lot of the games I saw seemed to be student projects of some sort which is certainly not a bad thing but did mean they seemed to be only developed to the point they could demonstrate it in a classroom. On top of that, the app itself crashed for me a lot. So even when I was able to find something I could safely try out, the app usually just crashed. So while the concept and the potential behind this program is great, I would say that app itself needs to be made more stable and there needs to be more committed creators on it.