A few weeks before I left Helsinki in June the director of the Helsinki City Museum, Tiina Merisalo, invited my husband and me over for dinner. In the middle of new potatoes and salmon smoked by her husband Matti, the subject of “soul landscapes” came up. This concept was new to me, but as Tiina explains it, your soul landscape is the one that hits you in the center of your chest, they one you always carry with you, the one that immediately feels like home. It is often the landscape of your childhood, but it doesn’t have to be.
Tiina’s family is from Oulu, on the western coast of Finland. She says her soul landscape is the sea at Oulu. Her husband Matti grew up in East Helsinki and has never lived anywhere else. This is his soul landscape—you can see it in his eyes when he talks about his neighborhood. For my husband Graham it’s the wooded lakes of New England, for which he found an excellent Finnish substitute, Kuusijarvi, a short bus ride from Helsinki centre:
And me? Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote a song that describes my soul landscape perfectly, called I Am a Town. It’s the rural American south of my childhood, in 5 o’clock sun, as seen from the local road—tobacco, corn, and cotton fields, decaying wooden barns, rusted-out cars. This will give you an idea:
Even though 3 out of 4 of the examples above have to do with countryside, I don’t mean to imply that cities can’t be soul landscapes—anyone who has ever watched a Woody Allen movie can see that’s not true. I know plenty of people whose cities hit them in their chest.
Ultimately soul landscapes are about personal memory and personal history, about an affinity for a place that develops slowly over time, based on a multitude of small interactions and visual impressions that pile up in the brain. As I consider new ways of creating public history for cities, I am particularly interested in the power of these personal histories, and the collective memory points at which many people’s personal histories intersect—Boston’s 1942 Cocoanut Grove fire or San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love, to give two random examples.
In 2006 the Museum of London launched an online project called Map My London that had the potential to be a really wonderful representation of this concept. Members of the public were invited to tag a Google map of the city with personal memories, creating what the museum called London’s “emotional memory bank.” Sometime this year Map My London was taken off the web—not sure if the museum didn’t feel it was achieving its goals, or if it’s being retooled, or what. You can see a screenshot of what it used to look like at the Google Maps Mania blog.
I’d like to see more cities try things like Map My London. Heck, I’d like to design a project like this myself. But in the meantime, I’d like to hear about your soul landscape. Mountains, rivers, fields or skyscrapers and sidewalks? What’s the landscape that calls to you?