07/2010: Coming to a Street Corner Near You

One of the topics I have been studying this spring is new trends in the presentation of urban history to the public. Consequently, I have been following the recent development in several cities of IPhone apps with geo-tagged urban history content. This means linking geographic coordinates to images, film footage, audio files, etc. so that you can stand on any street corner and connect to history—in the spot where it happened—through your mobile device.

In May the Museum of London launched an IPhone app called StreetMuseum that allows users to pull up geo-tagged photos and paintings from the museum’s collection, all over the city. There are a few images to illustrate StreetMuseum available here to give you a sense of how it might work. The photographs of blocks bombed during WWII, now rebuilt, are particularly poignant.

Meanwhile the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney rolled out a similar project earlier this spring. Photographs of Sydney’s central business district have been geo-tagged based on the vantage point of the photographer, so that you can experience what Sydney would have looked like from that same spot in, say, 1926 or 1894.

The Sydney project was built using Layar, an “augmented reality” software. Layar registers your location and sends geo-tagged information to your mobile device—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. Layar has been used by two developers in Germany to create a virtual version of the Berlin Wall, where the real wall used to stand.

I’ve been thinking about other ways urban historians might use this technology. For example, if we can remake the Berlin Wall (thankfully only virtually), what other bulldozed landmarks might we also reinsert into the landscape? In my home city of Boston, residents have never quite gotten over the 1960s urban renewal project that razed the West End neighborhood to make way for a new city hall. In 2002 a community arts organization drew the blocks and landmarks of the old neighborhood in chalk on the plaza surrounding City Hall to remind passersby of what had once been. Imagine if the West End, or the old Wooden Pasila, for that matter, were recreated in an IPhone app.

Here’s another example from Boston. The 1736 Hancock House, where the American founding father John Hancock lived, was torn down in 1863 to make room for the expansion of the Massachusetts State House. But in this case it’s not just images that survive: Bostonians pulled all sorts of architectural fragments from the rubble of the Hancock House, so much so that the city’s collecting institutions joke they have enough individual pieces saved to resurrect the house whole-cloth. So why not use these artifacts to rebuild the house in Layar, right down to the doorknocker, which the famous poet Oliver Wendell Holmes himself salvaged from the front door?

Geo-tagging doesn’t always have to mean recreation. Imagine if each of us chose ten special places in Helsinki or Turku or Viipuri and recorded historical vignettes that were then linked in an IPhone app. Could we create a more dynamic kind of walking tour that combines expert knowledge of the city with images, historical music, and even film footage? (I am imagining Mannerheim’s victory parade on the Esplanade, for instance.)

Every urban block is a mixture of past, present, and future. As urban historians, when we walk around the city we recognize and understand these many layers in concert. But for members of the general public, without specialized knowledge, the city’s past is often obscured. Therefore I am excited about the new possibilities that are emerging to expose history on every corner to anyone with a mobile device and an interest. I invite you to envision your own uses for this technology. Which historical moment would you pull to the surface?

Rainey Tisdale