A rejoinder: Hello Historypin

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Yes, it’s true, Historypin is becoming a much-loved entity in Australia. With many organisations already so active in using their channels –  Museum Victoria having recently pinned over 9000 pieces of content through the new bulk uploader, the Benevolent Society showcasing its amazing archives in the lead up to a 200 year anniversary, The State Library of Queensland working on ‘pinathons’ with local volunteers and others, The Powerhouse Museum in exhibition planning mode and many other organisations working on special events and exhibition ideas – there’s certainly no shortage of excitement about the potential applications of Historypin.

I’ll be posting regularly here over the coming months to keep you updated on the progress of Australian activities, but to start with I thought it worth briefly running through my own journeys mapping archives, here in Sydney, over the past few years.

Ever since hearing about this emerging space of the geo-web I’ve been wondering what this means for the way we might engage with historical environments. The great appeal of interactive maps, location-aware mobile phones, and other digital publishing tools to me lies in their potential to help us experience recordings of past events and situations in-situ. People talk about ‘augmented reality’ a bit these days – I’ve been thinking more along the lines of ‘augmented histories’.

I first started down this path back in 2003, when I was working on R&D projects for the New Media Division of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This was around the time when we used to scratch our heads trying to work out how people might use something called ‘broadband’, and futuristic devices called 3G mobile phones.  I recall various techno-futurist pundits getting very excited about the idea of snack TV on mobiles – the idea that phones could extend the TV-watching experience from lounge to train and beyond.  The concept held rather limited appeal, not only because I don’t watch TV, but also because this approach seemed to under-appreciate the potential new uses of wireless broadband.

One feature of smartphones in particular caught my attention: ‘location-awareness’. Imagine being able to use your phone to find out about the environment you’re in? Crazy. Armed with a history degree and a fascination with the possible futures of digital media, I became rather enchanted with a fanciful notion, that perhaps one day these futuristic mobile phones might act as homing devices to the history of a place.

The idea set me off on a series of investigations and projects – in between day jobs – which have experimented with different ideas about how we might interact with a site’s history using new digital tools.  Imagine if you could listen to what this place sounded like in the 1940s, I wondered, wandering home through Kings Cross, Sydney.  With new ipods hitting the stores, and white earbud headphones popping out of everyone’s ears like a contagious disease, I got to thinking a lot about historical sound recordings, and about a kind of interaction experience that wasn’t simply about the small screen, but also used ambient historical recordings recorded right here, thus taking a listener into another time just as they remained in the present. Could I find a recording made at one of the old nightclubs in the ‘Cross during WW2 , when American GIs filled the streets on R&R leave? What did cars sound like back in the 1950s? What events took place here – the protests of the 1960s and 1970s to save historic parts of Sydney – and could they be experienced on location to tell a story about the role of urban activism in shaping the city of today?

Riffing further on this idea of the phone as homing device, I started to wonder about what collections might exist, and started exploring a number of existing historical collections in much the same way one might wander the streets – looking out for familiar landscapes and events, and organising my findings by place. I started to wonder whether the millions of moments of recorded action held in our cultural collections could be enlisted as archaeologies of recorded action. Rather than relying surviving artefacts to give us insights into past environs, I wondered if we might also engage historical recordings in some way. Our cities have witnessed so much change during the twentieth century – oftentimes, in Australia, and in Australian cities in particular, the past is invisible. Could we explore this ‘lost history’, our invisible cities, using archival recordings?

Living in Sydney, Australia, and putting these fanciful ideas into action, I took up a residency with the National Film and Sound Archive in 2007 for a project called Jaywalking Sydney. I returned to the ABC in 2008 to explore their incredible collection of television and radio collections, and created a new platform for interacting with Sydney’s history using the collection materials of the ABC, the Powerhouse Museum, the State Library of NSW, the Dictionary of Sydney and the National Film and Sound Archive. The website, called Sydney Sidetracks, presented collections of curated film, sound, television and photographic materials organised by over 50 ‘points of interest’ around the central city, which could be accessed via Google Maps and smartphones (pre iPhone!).

I composed sound walks, and ‘sound marks’, capturing resonant moments in time, drawing from contemporary and historical recordings.  I started thinking about how these recordings might find their way out of the ether and onto the physical surfaces of buildings, and ended up working with large-scale projections relating to one of Australia’s oldest wharves (Unguarded Moments).

Many of these projects have been documented on my Sites & Sounds blog. I did so much wondering (and wandering), digging and delving, curating and composing, I ended up with a PhD.

Oh, and a new job!

What’s the Australian role all about?

Australians are well known as early up-takers of new technology, so it’s perhaps no surprise that many Australian institutions and individuals have been actively contributing materials to Historypin. Partly in recognition of this support, Historypin have set out with an ambitious goal to create a unique Australian presence on Historypin, to be realised as a series of events and activities taking place throughout 2013, creating what is hoped will be the opportunity for millions of Australians to contribute to and explore a new map of Australian historical moments, memories and milestones. Ultimately, via a broad, inclusive network of partners that currently includes Historypin and The Powerhouse Museum but with many more soon to be confirmed, the project will aim to establish an experience that will continue to grow over many generations to come, to be accessed, enjoyed and debated as a free, open and collaborative part of Australian life.

Get in touch with me if you’d like to stay up to date with this collaborative project – or have a special project you’d like Historypin to help you with. In the coming months we’ll be setting up a unique space for the project, as a base from which to grow some new ideas. As I said, I’ll also be posting here regularly with updates on local developments, showcasing local collections, projects and so forth. I’m looking forward to the journey ahead.