Hidden histories: embedding past in present

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Hidden histories: embedding past in present

History Moves. I had always thought of this project’s movement as a journey through time, but of course it’s also intrinsically linked to movement in space. The current exhibit in Chicago is deeply grounded in its interaction with the city as place, engaging with the community as history-makers and illustrating through their stories the ways in which Chicago’s past has shaped its present. The idea of history as a journey through space as well as time is actively embodied in one way by the project’s mobile museum, which the project’s leaders say “will move this history around the city, serving as a site for community engagement with ideas about the past and present.”

By mobilizing history and bringing its stories to the community rather than making the community come to it, History Moves is embedding itself directly into the space of the city. Where other history projects remain detached from their subjects, both by physically setting themselves apart in a museum space as well as mentally separating themselves from the “objects” of their study, History Moves collaborates with those who have stories to contribute, empowering them to share their histories and engage with them as part of the community space.

Geospatial visualization tools provide a way to extend this mobilization of history and engagement with place even further, but any data-centered visualization must also be careful not to lose sight of the individuals who make up the data. I am very wary of using any mapping tool that creates the kind of separation-from-subject that is so common in other history projects, and the lack of which I think is one of the most unique things about History Moves. Mapping tools place stories in a spatial context, but they can also easily reduce those stories into a series of homogenized lines or points, stripping them of their individual meaning.

The idea of the mobile museum and its site-specific work with history prompted me to consider WallaMe as a potential tool that could extend this type of experience. WallaMe’s use of augmented reality would keep its users engaged directly with the spaces of Brooklyn and Chicago, ensuring that the histories presented through the app remained firmly planted in their physical roots. By including as part of its exhibit the physical spaces where these stories take place, History Moves would add another dimension to the work that “mobilizes people as much as it mobilized the media it produces,” as it states in their project abstract. It continues, “our exhibitions

[…] demand a physical presence.” WallaMe would encourage that physical presence at the actual sites where these histories took place.

There are several ways that this app could be used to supplement the stories told by the women of WIHS. Locations that are central to the stories could be augmented with pictures of the space as it looked at the time the women experienced them, linking past and present. Many of these have already been collected for the project’s book. Pictures that might not physically represent the space, but which the history-makers associate with certain locations could also be used. If it is possible to use WallaMe to channel sound, the women could even tag certain locations with relevant interview excerpts.

This app also allows for a unique blend of public engagement and personal privacy. The messages would be in public locations, but only visible to those granted access by History Moves. Not only does this protect the storytellers’ privacy, it also highlights the ways that the history of a place can go unnoticed or unrecognized, even though what we see today is a result of its effects.The connections are only made by those who actively engage in the work of linking past and present. WallaMe would also allow users to enter into individual stories at will as they moved through specific neighborhoods, moving through history geographically rather than through the eyes of one person at a time. App users would have the freedom to explore either specific stories or specific sites, removing any curatorial aspect from the exhibit and allowing them to engage with city and history on their own terms.

One final way that the use of WallaMe could be enhanced even further might be through its combination with the mapping tools History Moves already has in place to chart concentrations of AIDS/HIV by neighborhood:

Borrowing the logic of GPS-enabled site specificity available in most smartphone apps, this exhibition also knows where you are (by virtue of being there, wherever there is) and uses location to offer you site specific information. Within a section of analog approaches to data visualizations, students produced an easily modifiable system of maps articulating quantities and rates of HIV-infections nationally and then within the state and city where the exhibit is currently displayed. This location-specific sensibility makes it possible for the exhibition to highlight those neighborhoods in your city that are dealing with large or dense populations of HIV-positive persons — in hopes of putting local awareness and pressure on the attendant social issues.


If this element of the exhibition could be combined with the use of WallaMe, it would integrate the elements of personal stories encoded as WallaMe messages with a larger context of HIV/AIDS cases at that site. This could make for a very powerful blend of the personal and public issues at stake in these histories.

The History Moves abstract states, “[m]obility is central to the work both theoretically and pragmatically. Transforming humanities-based skills into actionable, collaborative activities suggests a leaving (or leaving behind) of the traditional site of the historical work.” WallaMe could assist History Moves to literally leave the traditional site of the museum behind, as it embeds the past into our present experience of the city.

By | 2018-01-04T16:07:57-05:00 May 2nd, 2017|Categories: Geospatial, History Moves, Jane|0 Comments

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