Reading Responses: Mobile Media, Place, and Mapping

This week’s readings blended theoretical approaches to the study of space and place with the technological tools that have been developed over the last few decades. This blend of the theoretical and practical can help those within the fields of history, museum studies, anthropology, etc., better understand individual and communal relationships with their surrounding environs. The readings, though each had a distinct focus or a specified case study, informed each other in significant ways, allowing for a layering of information and comprehension on my part (although when anything too tech-y appeared, my comprehension flew out the window). Here, I will give a brief overview of the readings and then provide a few discussion questions for each work.

New App City–Durington & Collins

This article emphasizes an anthropological approach to studying place and space through the lens of the “Chongno Alleys” app. This app was created by the District Government of Chongno, in Seoul, Korea, with the hope of “highlighting lesser known places of interest in Chongno.” The app allows tourists to this region of Seoul to step away from the stereotypical tourists locations and leads them towards a more authentic tour of the region, focusing on significant trees, local coffee shops, smaller art galleries, and student murals. The project brought the stakeholders directly into its creation by collaborating with neighborhoods and local organizations to decide which spots should be highlighted in this app’s tours. The app, perhaps indirectly, emphasized this unique tour of Chongno through its imperfect mapping tools, which often led tourists astray from the original destination. The wandering and meandering that resulted from these minor mishaps led tourists to discover even more of the district than they were expecting to. Happy little accident, as Bob Ross would say.

Bob Ross GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Durington and Collins stress the significance of apps such as Chongno Alleys for anthropological studies, and they ponder why anthropology has not yet put more stock in studying apps. They write “apps show how institutions and other powerful agents are trying to structure the meaning of cities by combining mobile media and social media through organizing embodied narrative experiences.” We’ll see this in the other readings as well: studying cities through an increased use of mapping tools and technology provides an additional layer of information about individual and communal understandings of the cities they live in, and those they visit.

Questions for New App City

How might an app like this ensure that visitors are not only seeing these lesser known locations, but also being given the proper information and context to understand the locations in relation to the city as a whole?

How does an app like this change when it is being run by a government agency versus a historical society or a museum? What are the implications of this?

Should these apps fully replace monographs and articles, or be just another tool to contextualize the information from monographs and articles?

What is the Spatial Turn? and The Spatial Turn in History–Jo Guldi

Jo Guldi’s two articles explaining the history of the Spatial Turn, and how the Spatial Turn has been understood and used in history provide another remarkable look at how the modern technology of GIS has changed our perspective of place and space. Guldi defines a turn as retrospection, and defines the spatial turn as the moment, or moments, when “scholars in history, religion, and psychology reflected on our nature as beings in space.” What is the Spatial Turn is primarily an overview of this moment, and a brief description of the roles played by GIS and mapping tools since the 1960s. The Spatial Turn in History gets more specific to the issues regarding understanding the nation in history compared to understanding the city. Landscapes have power, and Guldi proclaims that “modern history started with a landscape.” Experiencing land and landscapes as more than just spaces in the world, but rather as definite proof of a nation, and thus a national identity, has informed our modern conception of nationalism. Guldi writes “such description of the nation as a landscape contributed to persuading their [19th and 20th century authors] readers that there was indeed a nation, unified and monolithic, that reflected the process of historical change, such that the history of that nation could be written.” The spatial turn in history was naturally exacerbated by the development of modern mapping tools which allowed for such a wider grasp of one’s own national landscape and relationship with space and place, as well as that of others outside of one’s community.

Questions for The Spatial Turn

In what other ways, apart from the validation of a national identity, can the spatial turn play a significant role?

How would the spatial turn have been different had mapping tools like GIS not been invented?

A Place for Everything: Museum Collections, Technology, and the Power of Place–John Russick

Russick’s article discusses his development of the Chicago 00 project, which had the goal of implementing “historical images of Chicago into the city’s central business district via an augmented reality (AR) mobile app.” Standing on a street corner, a tourist to Chicago in 2022 could potentially bring up images on this app of what that same corner looked like thirty, fifty, ninety years ago, bringing them as close to that particular history as possible, until we perfect time travel, at least. Russick discusses how each item in the Chicago History Museum’s collections has an intimate connection with space(s). All these items originated somewhere, moved through space, and ended up somewhere else, and now Russick must find a way to give meaning to these items whether inside or outside the museum. He is dealing with both the Digital Turn and the Spatial Turn, where those who may once have visited the physical museum are now expecting to learn the information digitally, while also desiring a connection to place, and to a place’s distinct identity. Because of this complex moment, Russick has to ponder what it means to have all these physical objects in the museum, far away from their places of origin, when so much learning “increasingly occurs in a digital format.” He grapples with being neither a “technophile” nor a “technophobe,” but he also recognizes the huge influence that striking a balance could have. Implementing digital technology in the form of Augmented Reality around Chicago can increase public engagement, but it can also show the museum where their collections and information are lacking, and where they need to rely on their communities to fill those gaps in knowledge.

The homepage of the Chicago 00 Project

Questions for A Place for Everything

Using Russick’s questions, whose job is it to make collections compelling? Is it the responsibility of the curator? And if they are not compelling, do they belong in a modern museum?

How can we center justice and activism through a project like Chicago 00? How might we tackle this project in areas where the available collections are minimal, but the stories are abundant?

Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era–Mark Tebeau

Mark Tebeau takes the city as his topic once again, this time looking into the Cleveland Historical Project, “a mobile interpretive project,” and its use of oral history and sound to invoke memory, nostalgia, informal learning, and interpretation in Cleveland, Ohio. The project has amassed a huge collection of stories, and each one has been built out on Cleveland Historical’s website to include text, images, videos, location, and metadata. Tebeau writes that Cleveland Historical focused on a “dynamic curatorial process” that brought community members into the project to help reinvigorate “understandings of place and community identity.” In addition to this communal practice, Tebeau also discusses how the. project relied on the use of mobile devices to record many of the sounds of these moments “in situ.” He gives the example of “listening to Rick Calabrese recount the story of his family’s produce stand in the West Side Market, while standing in that context” and says that this experience “underscores and evokes the sensory and experiential context of the market, which remains a vibrant commercial center for individual and commercial consumers in the region.” Sounds provide greater emotional context for any historical moment, but they become even more poignant when experienced in the same places where they would have first been created. Tebeau’s article does a lovely job explaining the importance of oral history and sound to excavate the history of Cleveland, while also exploring the increased use of mobile technologies to achieve the project’s goal.

A screenshot of some “Featured Stories” from the Cleveland Historical Project’s website.

Questions for Listening to the City

How do we choose worthwhile sounds for a project like this? What makes one sound more evocative of a place’s identity than another?

For a fun personal moment, what sounds from your hometown, or from a place that is important to you, would you want to be included in a project like this?

Mobile for Museums–Sharon Leon, Sheila Brennan, Dave Lester, Andrea Odiorne

This article from the Center for History and New Media continues to explore many of the topics we have been discussing throughout the class, and also connects to the other articles in this post. This is one of the older resources within this set of articles, which in some ways allows us to see how far the development of mobile technology within museums has come in the last thirteen years. The paper addresses some of the roadblocks that museums face when attempting to implement mobile technology to their exhibits, as well as provides some suggestions for the best ways to begin this implementation. One particularly noteworthy section of this paper focuses on how to track visitor engagement through social media platforms and digital spaces where visitors can comment on their experiences. They give the examples of The Mattress Factory and the National Air and Space Museum–both used mobile “to engage visitors in social networking” in order to provide quicker information to the visitors while also gaining information about the visitor experience. While perhaps outdated now, the article touches on problems that began with the introduction of digital technologies to the museums that will surely continue for years to come.

Questions for Mobile for Museums

How should museums address the issues of visitors being so attached to mobile phones that they do not engage with the exhibit, while also implementing programs and resources via mobile phones? How can museums keep visitors engaged on their phones when distractions like social media may be pulling visitors away from the museum content?

What cannot be made mobile? What are some limitations of mobile technology that museums might not be able to get around?

That’s the long and short of it. Looking forward to hearing all of your feedback and to some exciting discussions on Wednesday!

The Will to Adorn, the will to tell: Ethnography and an app meet at the Smithsonian

“The Will to Adorn” is both the name of an app and of an ongoing ethnographic study run by the Smithsonian Institution (SI). Though planning began before 2013, the app debuted at the SI annual Folklife Festival in the summer of 2013. This post will provide a summary of the project’s objectives and purpose, highlights of its user-friendly interface, and some connections to this week’s readings on the spatial turn and AR platforms for cultural institutions

About the project

“The Will to Adorn: African American Diversity, Style, and Identity” is a project that “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress, and adornment.” Aside from background research of various cultural traditions and styles and crafts that pertain to clothing, jewelry, and even tattoo art, much of the information collected are oral testimonies from individuals describing what they are wearing at that time, why they chose to wear it, what certain articles of clothing mean to them, and how it fits in with their communities, immediate or diasporic. The project also seeks to fill significant gaps in the SI collections where stylistic examples, collected from “African American ‘artisans of style,'” should be. The term ‘artisans of style’ refer to shoemakers, hatters, and other craftspeople who make clothing representative of African heritage.

While the project intends to fill gaps in our understanding of how diverse African American communities express identity and a sense of community through dress, it also carries with it deeper meaning. Its namesake is an observation made by Zora Neale Hurston, who was herself an anthropologist. According to the project website, Hurston once observed that ‘the will to adorn’ ranks among the most important manners in which African American communities express identity, ideas, and cultural knowledge. Such information transmitted through dress has been filtered through centuries-worth of experience, influenced in part by the legacy of slavery and of social, political, and cultural movements to claim agency and control in every aspect of daily life. In the spirit of Hurston’s observation, this project’s creators and supporters view every day dress as one such act in claiming identity. The project is therefore more than a tool; it is a platform on which individuals and communities can preserve the profundity that is woven, beaded, sewn, and threaded in one’s choice of dress.

The anthropological lens of “The Will to Adorn” bifurcates people’s dress into a reflection of contemporary culture and a link to the history of crafts and the craft of history, a craft that every person engages with whenever they reach into their wardrobe.

How to use “The Will to Adorn”

While the website contains significant detail about the project and purpose of the app, the app is relatively simple and, for lack of a better phrase, gets the job done. It is also free to download, which makes it accessible to anyone with access to a smartphone.

The welcome page provides two options. The first is to make and upload an up-to three minute recording about what you the user is wearing. Selecting this option will bring you to a set of four required questions: 1) What is your age range?; 2) What gender are you? (The options listed are male, female, trans, and other.); 3) What part of the U.S. are you from?. The fourth question asks you to select a prompt regarding your outfit that you would like to answer. This is a simple yet creative way for the SI staff to organize the data collected for research and user purposes (to be discussed in the section below on the “listen” option). The prompt options are as follows:

  • What is your inspiration for how you are dressed?
  • What do you consider to be the most important part of looking good?
  • Describe what you are wearing today.
  • What does what you are wearing say about who you are?
  • What would you never want to wear? Why?

Once finished, the app will provide an opportunity for you to make your recording, to listen to your recording, to re-record yourself speaking if you would like to change your recording, and to upload your recording.

Selecting the “Listen” option brings you to a page on which recordings collected since 2013 begin to play. Pressing “more” brings you to a series of criteria that allow you to limit the types of recordings that you would like to hear. For example, you can listen to recordings by individuals of ages between 20 and 29, by males and trans individuals, individuals from the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, and by individuals who chose to respond to the “What does what you are wearing say about who you are?” prompt. Selecting “apply” will make a playlist of recordings by individuals to whom those criteria apply. Note: no recordings fit all of the above criteria in my example, so if you fit those criteria, make a recording! The SI wants to hear what you have to say about the choices you make about what to wear and why you wear it.

Together, these features make it more likely that users and contributors will return more than once, perhaps even regularly if they are so inclined.

But therein lies a problem. Unless the user is particularly fond of the project or interested in its content, there is little chance that he, she, or they will continue to use the app or add further descriptions of their chosen outfit to those which have been collected since 2013. Nevertheless, the app does the job it was created to do.

“The Will to Adorn” and the Spatial Turn

“The Will to Adorn” sits at an odd but noteworthy intersection of sweeping trends in historical study such as the spatial turn and the digitization of museum collections. The app is unlike others by cultural institutions which are themselves intended to orient the user in spaces in ways they may never would have considered. As John Russick observes, most cultural museums using AR to share collections to wider audiences have relied on overlaying images of objects on maps relevant to those objects. “The Will to Adorn” has no maps. The closest it gets to orienting the user within a set space is by asking where he, she, or they is from, or by allowing listeners to hear recordings provided by contributors from specific regions in the U.S. The app combines the crowdsourcing method of collecting with methods in oral history that allow the user to place themselves within those broad geographies, which are spatial, as well as within space demarcated by a certain diasporic community, which is less concretely spatial yet spatial nonetheless. For researchers, the app’s recording feature may, however, allow for a greater understanding of African American cultural expression, through style, connects to specific localities.

Lastly, some food for thought: Given its simplicity, how might the app and project be further developed to translate people’s responses to prompts provided onto a map or other methods of displaying “space”? Or, is the app as functional as it needs to be?