Archive for April, 2010

Earlier this week I blogged about my interest in combining GPS and city history.  A colleague recently sent me a link to a project launched by the Powerhouse, Sydney’s  museum of science and design. Today I had a chance to sit down and explore. It uses Layar, an augmented reality tool. If you’re saying to yourself, “Hunh?” then here’s what it means. If you have an IPhone or an Android phone, Layar registers your location and will pull up GPS-encoded information—for example, the closest café, any public events currently taking place, nearby “Tweeters”—as you walk around. In other words it augments your experience of a real place.

The Powerhouse has loaded historic photographs of Sydney into Layar. The photos are geo-tagged with coordinates as close as possible to the photographer’s original viewpoint. That means you can pull out your phone in the central business district and pull up what Sydney would have looked like from that same spot in, say, 1926. (more…)

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Digging around in Helsinki&aposs past

In 2007 the Helsinki City Museum published a comic book detailing its archaeological research in downtown Helsinki. The book was so successful that last year the museum was able to publish a version in English, which thankfully means I had a chance to read it myself. It’s called Digging Around in Helsinki’s Past and I love it. So do all the Americans who have come to visit me—they keep on picking it up off the coffee table in my apartment. Not only does it describe various archaeological digs around the city and what they have uncovered about 17th and 18th-century life, it also explains how archaeologists do their work.

The idea for the book was more or less organic. The museum happened to have on its staff an archaeologist, Jaana Mellanen, who is also a cartoonist.  She did a few cartoons in the museum newsletter and they were well-received. So they put her to work. The result is informative, easy to understand, visually rich, and even funny at times. It’s a great example of public history because it distills a rather complex topic into something a lay person can understand, without losing all the interesting details. Bravo to HCM for taking a creative risk, and for recognizing Mellanen’s talents, even if they fell quite far outside her job description.

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There’s a new collection of essays about city museums that just came out in paperback: City Museums and City Development, ed. by Ian Jones, Robert R. Macdonald, and Darryl McIntyre (AltaMira Press, 2010). In the coming weeks I intend to blog about several of these essays. Let’s start today with a statement made by Chet Orloff in “Museums of Cities and the Future of Cities.” Orloff is a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University in Oregon, and from 1991-2001 was the director of the Oregon Historical Society. In his essay he writes:

The nineteenth century was, broadly speaking, the century of the history and the natural history museum, an era of exploration and a fitting time for the growth and popularity of ‘cabinets of curiosities.’ The twentieth century was very much the century of the art museum, a time of building deep collections and great buildings, with far-ranging advances in the visual arts. The twenty-first century—when cities will be, even more, the places where people live and where so much will happen—ought to be the moment of the city museum. (p.27)


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Sniff, Sniff

I spent Sunday afternoon at Kiasma, Helsinki’s contemporary art museum. There was a lot to love there. One installation in particular, by Hilda Kozári, was appropriate for this blog. It’s called Air. Kozari created three acrylic bubbles, each representing a different city: Helsinki, Budapest, Paris. She worked with Parisian perfume designer Bertrand Duchaufour to develop a scent for each city, which is then piped into the bubbles. You stand underneath and take in the smell. Film footage is projected onto the acrylic, creating ghost-like images that you can barely discern to go along with the wafting aroma. Kozári seemed to be making the point that sometimes we need our eyes to take a back seat and let our other senses lead. (more…)

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City Branding

A tagline on the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau website reads: “America’s birthplace. History’s showcase. The past is present in Boston.” Meanwhile, Frommers.com calls Boston “relentlessly historic.” And Fodors.com says “to Bostonians, living in a city that blends yesterday and today is just another day in their beloved Beantown.” History is the core of Boston’s brand.

Consequently, I have found it interesting to move to a city that doesn’t particularly consider itself historic. Turku maybe, but not Helsinki. (more…)

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This post may leave me open for a lot of ribbing because it will sound so dorky, but I’m going to do it anyway. About ten years ago, my college mates and I came up with a concept that to us is quite sticky. It’s called Friendville, and it’s the imaginary city of our dreams. Friendville is exactly an hour from every place we care about: the mountains, the sea, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, London, Barcelona—you get the idea. Moreover, every person we care about lives there (or at least keeps a pied à terre). And our families are as close—or as far—as each of us wants them to be. That amazing Vietnamese noodle shop in Minneapolis? It’s there.  So is the yummy brunch spot from Providence, and the hole-in-the-wall Atlanta BBQ joint. Friendville has a whole slew of jobs in each of our chosen fields, no matter how obscure they are. And there’s something new to discover—an interesting building, a flea market, a park with giant old trees, a public concert—around every corner.

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to imagine city history in Friendville. (more…)

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My Approach

When I describe my project here in Helsinki, I’ve had a few people make the assumption that I spend my days doing research in various archives around the city. It’s happened enough times that I feel I should clarify my approach.

I want to start by emphasizing that I am not an academic historian; I am a public historian. That means my job is to take the research academic historians produce and translate it into something that is not only easy for the general public to understand, but that also is meaningful, unexpected, captivating, or even entertaining. (more…)

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It will come as no surprise that I’ve visited a lot of city museums lately, both in the US and in Europe. Patterns are emerging. Today I want to discuss one in particular: the permanent city history exhibition. Almost every city museum has one, and they are remarkably similar. They are almost always chronological in nature, starting with prehistory and native communities, and winding up somewhere around 2000. The following topics are covered, more or less in the following order: (more…)

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In mid-March I spent a week in Berlin, at a conference for Fulbright fellows from all over Europe. In between sessions I did some exploring: the city museum, the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate, the Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie, and a strange, edutainment site called “The Story of Berlin.”

What that week showed me is that for Berlin history, there is only one game in town: the Wall. (more…)

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The Helsinki City Museum

While I am here I am working informally with the Helsinki City Museum, exchanging information and ideas. So far I have visited three of their ten sites, met with the senior staff, and toured two storage facilities. I will write much more about their work in coming days, but for now, a want to give a few first impressions.

I can’t help but start with the fact that the Helsinki City Museum is considerably larger than its Boston counterpart, in every way: (more…)

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