Urban Memory and Active Nostalgia
June 29th, 2010

Prof. Alastair Bonnett. Professor of Social Geography, Dr Catherine Alexander and Dane Whitehurst

Memories of Place

The research project focuses on urban memory, nostalgia and use of the city amongst ex-residents of Tyneside. The research is premised on the idea that, in an era marked by the large-scale movement of people away from the city, it is necessary to connect memory, place and migration. How do memories of the place we once called ‘home’ shape the way we use that place today? Do we feel connected to the places we have left and how do those connections matter? The project investigates how memory and nostalgia shape both the representation of the city and the way it is accessed and used by ex-residents.

Recent years have witnessed a re-orientation in debates about migration and memory. A new openness to the complexities and chronic nature of emotions of loss, especially as applied to loss of place, has emerged to challenge the orthodoxy that nostalgia is necessarily uncreative, conservative and/or ephemeral. At the same time, issues of migration and ethnicity have begun to be discussed in ways that allow the plurality and intimate histories of the topic to be explored. These two research trajectories are relatively new and the proposed research is designed to facilitate this interaction.
In-depth interviews and mind mapping techniques will be used to gather empirically deep and historically rich data. Mental mapping has traditionally been used to develop a better understanding of the differences between official cartographic space and how people actually perceive and use the city. The proposed research takes this approach further by asking respondents to mentally map the city of the present and of the past. Alastair and Catherine are particularly interested to uncover whether ex-residents see themselves as having a continued stake in the city, and whether they approach it with mixed emotions. The research will generate material that will be publicly archived at the Regional Resource Centre at Beamish Museum.

Seeing the Past in the Present

Alastair, Catherine and Dane’s design brief for the found object was very much based upon the premise of active nostalgia – that nostalgia is something that actively impacts on how we perceive and interpret the city. In this way, we wanted to materialise the idea that nostalgia is something that is very much ‘carried’ with people in their everyday lives.

As such, we wanted to design something based upon explaining, encouraging and enabling participants in the research project – and other ex-residents of Tyneside – to explore the geography of their own nostalgia. Our design brief, then, was to produce a ‘tool kit’ which will allow people to explore the city in a new way: one that takes full account of their history and past memories of living in the city.

The explorers’ kit comprises of several objects commonly associated with the activity of exploring. These objects have each been mutated in some way so as to narrate their additional functionality as means to discuss people’s perceptions of nostalgia, memory and place. The binoculars have been reworked to incorporate a slide-viewer into the left eye-piece. This allows people to insert historical images of specific sites within the city and overlay them against the view of the modern day. We like the idea that people will revisit these sites and project their own histories, memories and stories and make comparisons between the past and present. The compass is designed not to point north as would usually be expected: but as an emotional aid to enable people to explore the geography of their own nostalgia, by indicating the direction of the places they feel the most emotionally attached to. Thus it is weighted towards the specific ‘hotspots’ of the city as revealed by the empirical research.
We are also exploring the potential of compiling the ‘mind maps’ of individuals into an ‘emotional intensity’ map of the region. This, again, is emotionally ‘weighted’ to represent ‘hotspots’ of the area. In this way sites of particular nostalgia will be disproportionally enlarged, rather than geographically representative.

Photos by Nick Ballon

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