Intangible Presences: Relocating archives for heritage interpretation using mobile media


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Keynote Presentation to the Museums & Galleries QLD State Conference, Mackay QLD, August 2011

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  • Speaking today about some of the projects I’ve developed over the past few years, which explore the uses of new media – specifically mobile and other site-specific media, to engage with archive collections. It’s an area I’ve been excited by for a few years now, and it feels like all those hyperbolic predictions being made in the early 2000s, about how the mobile web would transform our experience of the world are in fact now coming true . Coming up to 8 years. Back in 2003 at ABC New Media, started wondering about applications of mobile 3G. At the time people were interested in how TV could make its way onto mobiles. Also, sharing video. Having a history bent I immediately began to wonder about how these mobile technologies could be used to ‘listen in’ to the history of a site. Working at the ABC and thinking about the opportunities to explore the ABC archives using mobiles. Since that time I’ve had the opportunity work on a number of projects which explore this idea of exploring archive collections in a site-specific way. In 2008 I had the opportunity to at least partially realise that idea working on a project with the ABC called Sydney Sidetracks. Since then I’ve seen a lot change in the technology field, even over the past 3 years, changes which suggest to me this is only going to become a more important area for museums and galleries to engage with. Here on the slide we have an image from one of the better known initiatives in this area – Street Museum from the City of London. Enables people to use their smartphones to explore the collection of the Museum of London out on the streets. Today I want to run through a few ways of engaging with this area today, based on my own experience of developing mobile projects for museums and other cultural institutions.
  • Start off by addressing some of these hyperbolic predictions that come from the world of technology futurism. On of the big claims being made right now is that the ‘future of the web is mobile’. World is drowning in Apps. Predictions that we’ll be spending more time looking at mobile screens in the future than PCs. The expectation that PCs are going to become redundant is probably a little optimistic – but certainly our mobile screen time is on the up. As one observer has put it – it’s not really about the devices, it’s about the ubiquity of access to information and connectivity.
  • As technologies such as wireless broadband, smartphones, geo-interfaces like Google Maps, and sensor networks all proliferate, we have this different idea of the internet emerging. The idea of pervasive, always on internet, has implications for the way we access and connect to information. Increasingly, there is this sense that our environments are becoming ‘searchscapes’. Idea that it’s something you ‘go to’ is quaint and simplistic. Instead a much more integrated, embedded experience of an environment. Increasingly this sense that our environments are part physical, part data. This is the basic premise of the pervasive of ubiquitous internet Dan Hill coined the phrase ‘the street as platform’ in 2008 – the idea that the street is in a sense it’s own publishing platform. I ncludes the electromagnetic sensors which monitor the health of street trees, to traffic lights which respond to the presence of cars, to the Eftpos machines, to mobile media. “ In a sense, the entire street itself can now be thought of as having an API, conveying its overall behaviour to the world, each aspect of it increasingly beginning to generate and recombine data.” Here we’re seeing this quite evangelical idea that we can now collect data anywhere and everywhere we desire. At any given moment we can transform the world around us into a sort of media hybrid, or 'augmented reality'.
  • If you think about the city as a datascape, or the street as a platform, – this presents a lot of exciting possbilities for museums, libraries and galleries, those who hold collections of archives of an area, whether of photographs, oral histories, maps, paintings and so forth. Libraries and galleries can re-use their digitized collection and republish it within this new publishing environment of the street. If we think of archival resources as part of this informational universe we can connect to, we start to encounter some interesting propositions about how to engage with the historical environment using new, mobile media platforms. The question becomes: how might historical topographies be activated in this emerging technology environment? How might we render the past within the present within this emerging datascape? I like to think of this as opening up these new interfaces for interaction. Not only the ‘interface’ of the small mobile screen, we also have the ‘interface’ of the past in the present, creating new interactions between the built and recorded history of a site. What remains, and what is now. This slide is an artist’s impression of Rowe St, in Sydney. A demolished laneway superimposed onto the new environment today (Theate Royal). This hasn’t been created – just yet.
  • These technology developments have some interesting implications for the way in which we might thinking about narrating the history of a place. When the average punter thinks about the place of ‘history’ in the city, they will often think about particular landmarks or uses. Someone visiting Sydney might like a historic tour of the Rocks, perhaps, or visit Hyde Park. Essentially we’re recognising the historical environment only through that which remains in the built fabric. We might, if we like, start with these historical landmarks and locating what recordings exist about them. But if we think about places as being hybrid data spaces, we can also think about the geographies of archival collections. Exploring an archive through its geographies, or exploring a space through its recorded documentation, means we might encounter some quite different spaces to those often highlighted in the tourist guides.
  • Talk briefly about my own methodology which I use to develop projects in this arra. I’ve had a particular interest in how we can combine different media archives within a contemporary experience of a site to offer more imaginative encounters with a site’s history. There ’s a degree of speculative imagination involved in the exercise I’ve been undertaking. And a definite and deliberate resistance to more traditional representations or maps of urban environments. This map is from the SI – working in Paris in the 1960s – which sought to disrupt the idea of the city as a rational grid, by instead focusing on alternative trajectories, in this instance the perspective of more marginalised communities in Paris. While my projects haven ’t been closely aligned to SI practice, it is similar in teasing out different ways of navigating urban spaces that work against more functionalist approaches – to work, to the pub, to the shop, home again.
  • Sense of digging up, in a very site-specific way, the different ways a place has been documented in the past. Media archaeology of place. Mobiles – specifically smartphones - here in a sense become the interface between the site and the archival documentation. Often not about what is visible today, but what places have been demolished, lost. In Australia, where we haven’t done much to protect built heritage, lost places provide a very fruitful area of enquiry!
  • Archaeology is usually a physical process of unearthing physical remnants that capture former uses of a site. My way of working with the historical topography of a site is different in that it’s trying to engage the specificity of the site not only through its physical traces, but also through its recorded traces. A n archaeology of recorded action, not surviving artefact. The intention then is to experiment with ways to re-cast these recordings back into these spaces, thus creating a sense of time as being layered, rather than linear. There’s perhaps a sense that there are different time-spaces overlapping and intermingling with our own…
  • Talk through some of the projects now. I’ll run through these relatively quickly. You can peruse at your leisure. Sydney Sidetracks was created in 2008. Developed out of a residency I had with the National Film and Sound Archive. Resulted in interest from the ABC to work in a similar way. They have radio recordings going back to the 1930s. Had the oportunity to build this project. Sidetracks. Material can either be viewed via a map online, or can be downloaded to mobile phone or iPod, which enables users to take the material with them while out and about in Sydney. The site was launched in 2008, it uses old mobile tech – pre iPhone – which is a shame. However I’ve been working with the ABC to get all the material released through open access licences. Ultimately a lot of video but also sound.
  • Not only sound, there’s a lot of video and a lot of images. Now and then. You can visit well known places like the Sydney Opera House to listen in to recordings about its construction – hear the sounds of all the ships blowing their horns in celebration. But you can also visit lesser known places, like 115 Victoria st. Home to Mick Fowler, resident activist who led the protest movement against high rise buildings there in the 1970s. Some basic recordings, some more complex compositions. Website used the google maps map interface.
  • Hotel Australia
  • Also had the phone component, explore the maps on your phone. You can load a selection of content to your phone as a separate application and walk around the city exploring this content through this interface. No GPS at this point, worried about data charges.
  • Also developed longer recordings which explored with compositional practices. Longer sound walk of Victoria St. Overlays recordings from the past and the present into one experience. This is an interesting approach because it takes the user out of the screen experience, lets the sounds of the past frame the present visual experience.  
  • Using a collection like the ABCs enables some incredible recordings to be used. Not always of interest – the dancing man footage is well known, this one less so. This recording I’m about to play captures the sounds of Martin Place on August 15 1945 , when all of downtown Sydney poured into Martin Place to celebrate the end of the War. Recorded by Talbot Duckmanton. Play VP Day. This is a special recording I think, in that it really captures a sense of what it was like being there. Taking a sound recorder out to the street was pretty novel then – so Duckmanton is keen to explain to his listeners at home what he can see around him. That works very well for us, separated by Duckmanton not by space but by time. This was one of the qualities of working with the ABCs collection – being able to return to these events and moments as they were originally recorded – no sound effects here. There’s plenty of other examples of these kinds of recordings – many of which haven’t seen the light of day for many years – which you can explore at
  • Sidetracks was a very early intervention in this field and a lot didn’t work. Too heavy mobile app meant people didn’t actually utilise the mobile site. Just became a geo-interface for archives. Another of the failures of Sidetracks didn’t do well was engage with social media. Since that time a lot of the interfaces have become social, networked, and open publishing model. This is a project I worked on with the PHM. Commissioned by NSW Govt, One of the NBN Suburb Lab projects Mapping archives – in a hyper local way Using openly available interfaces Point here is to demonstrate to the Museum and Libraries sector that a lot of the interfaces are now freely available. Use of Trove important to this site.
  • Use of street view + archives
  • MyTours – don’t even need to pay for an iPhone app!
  • We also have new channels like Layar – presenting the work of the Powerhouse Museum, actively pursuing technology developments in this space.
  • The area is developing. One of the important ways this is changing is that many tools are becoming more freely available. Not just street view, but also white label mobile devices. A couple of digital tours coming up – working with HHT and PHM. An upcoming project with the City of Sydney in Sept will also include a mobile application. Workers in Millers Point. Hoping to develop a hyperlocal archive with the community as part of this project.
  • The area is developing. One of the important ways this is changing is that many tools are becoming more freely available. Not just street view, but also white label mobile devices. A couple of digital tours coming up – working with HHT and PHM. An upcoming project with the City of Sydney in Sept will also include a mobile application. Workers in Millers Point. Hoping to develop a hyperlocal archive with the community as part of this project. Central to this is the use of Flickr Commons images.
  • Since Sidetracks – working to enable the recordings to be made available for re-use
  • To summarise: New platforms offer exiting new ways to interact with historical environments, moving behind built heritage to recorded heritage. We’re also seeing new platforms which allow for inexpensive publishing solutions.
  • While the platforms may be proliferating, and the tools becoming cheaper, perhaps we can focus our attention on the stories our places and spaces can tell. Hopefully I’ve inspired you today to explore your collections with new eyes and ears.
  • Intangible Presences: Relocating archives for heritage interpretation using mobile media

    1. 1. <ul><li>Sarah Barns </li></ul><ul><li>Intangible presences </li></ul><ul><li>Re-locating archives for heritage interpretation using mobile media </li></ul><ul><li>Museums & Galleries </li></ul><ul><li>QLD State Conference </li></ul><ul><li>August 2011 </li></ul>
    2. 2. “ The future of the web is mobile” “ The Internet used to be something that you kept in one place. It sat idly by in your office while you lived out your life with only the occasional need to fire up the connection through your phone line and check an email address that no one ever sent anything to.” “ The future of the web is not mobile, it is ubiquitous.”
    3. 3. “ the way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye ” – Dan Hill ‘ The Street As Platform’
    4. 4. Interaction between the built and recorded history of a site
    5. 5. Implications for heritage?
    6. 6. SI: Mapping ambiences & marginalised routes
    7. 7. Excavating historical topographies
    8. 9. Partners : ABC Archives, ABC Local Radio 702, National Film and Sound Archives, the Dictionary of Sydney, the City of Sydney, the State Library of NSW, the Powerhouse Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art
    9. 10. Copy goes here for each slide ……………………………………… . Copy goes here for each slide ……………………………………… . put some more copy to ewxplain the slide here
    10. 11. The Hotel Australia – Now MLC Centre
    11. 12. Sydney Sidetracks
    12. 13. Victoria St Soundwalk This piece experiments, loosely, with the format of the soundwalk, and is intended to accompany a stroll down Victoria St. It is composed entirely of recordings made on, or about, Victoria St, including those made around the time of the protests and my own field recordings from 2007. It draws extensively from recordings used by permission from the documentary maker Pat Fiske.
    13. 14. Listening to a contemporary space through its auditory past Martin Place, VP Day 1945 Martin Place 2008 Martin Place 1945 Now and Then Martin Place Sydney
    14. 17. White label iPhone apps
    15. 18. Layar – Augmented Reality
    16. 21. STREET LIFE - ABC Past Forward
    17. 22. STREET LIFE - ABC Past Forward
    18. 23. Key trends From closed publishing models to an open, shareable, social environment where connections matter. Engage in conversations! From custom applications to cheap/free applications – spend the money on the content! Platforms: Word Press – City Themes with posts embedded in maps and Street View Flickr Slideshows embedded into site Importance of Flickr Commons / Creative Commons, helping to drive users to your collection MyTours for free/very cheap i-Phone apps.
    19. 24. Not to find yourself in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different kind of schooling Walter Benjamin Thank you Sarah Barns Sitelines Media [email_address]