The power of Place

Place attachment

I have an incredible attachment to place; but what is place attachment, and what is this to do with history?

  • How do we relate to it?
  • Interact with it?
  • Experience it?
  • Understand place?

How (if at all) is the relationship we develop with place unique by comparison to other physical objects?

Two of the reasons that place is so powerful is that it is simultaneously experienced through all of the senses, and also experienced through the spatial dimension. Research on perception has shown the link between the engagement of several senses and orientation or path finding. Children, for example, identify with place from ages 2-3.

Environmental psychologists argue that as a psychological process ‘place attachment’ is similar to an infant’s attachment to parental figures. They also suggest that place attachment can develop social dimensions, as individuals develop ties to community, own land, and participate in the public life of a community.

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Owing to the spatial and multi-sensory way in which we experience ‘place’, it seems that it can instantly transport us back in time and space. I have experience this on several occasion. The smell of certain plants or trees can transport us back in time to grandma’s garden. Similarly, if we go to a ‘place’ we often find that memories otherwise forgotten come flooding back. The immersion of ‘place’ acts as a trigger – a powerful mnemonic device. I have deliberately used this technique when conducting oral interviews. Because there is a strong association between place and memory the mnemonic effect often brings memories flooding back.

Places remain a part of us long after we stop being a part of them, in fact we don’t even have to have to actually have a personal experience of a place to have an attachment to it. Why, what does this mean?

Even simple intellectual immersion can produce a sense of place attachment. Through our fascination with genealogy, for example, we can come to know our ‘ancestral villages’ in infinite detail, and they can thus hold a special place for us, even though we have no physical attachment to them. My wife is currently researching Dewsbury Victorian Families, and has developed a strong pace attachment, despite the fact she has never lived or even visited this area prior to the commencement of her research. Her knowledge of Dewsbury is so detailed that she can navigate the town and navigate them quite successfully through imagination alone.

I have also experienced this with my older brother when visiting Cornwall and the tin mines.

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An individual’s sense of place is both a biological response to the physical environment, and a cultural creation, with the strongest attachments being to those places that are critical to our wellbeing. So therefore, when it comes to the strength of these attachments, proximity need not be a consideration, we don’t have to have an actual history with these places.

While place is always hybrid, our attachment to it is often fixed. Individuals ‘experience’ a given place in uniquely ways, even if they are experiencing it from the same time and space location. So as historical ‘documents’ why are places and buildings useful or important?

Principally because of the spatial dimension. Because of the multi-dimensional interaction, we have with them, they can tell us things that documents don’t and quite often never do.

For example, we can ‘see’ the lay of the land; we can ‘experience’ how difficult the collection of water, or how rough the road; we can ‘feel’ how cold it was in winter, etc. I can often see the signs of industrial activity in the landscape that other cannot.

This is the idea that places ‘speak to us’ – please immersion. Thus place is seen as bringing additional dimensions to our understanding of past events for example, going on visits to WWII battle fields can help our understanding of events.

The power of place can also act as a mnemonic device, so victims going back to place can remember more, experience also traumatic for same ‘immersive’ reasons. Written history demarcates the past from the present, but buildings and places bridge both simultaneously.

Historic ‘Places’

Place attachment is also a core factor in the perceived value of ‘historic places’; the ability to connect with both the built and natural environment intertwined in cultural landscapes is the key. Heritage does not stand alone, it is an idealism, a concept and therefore is not sufficient.

From a heritage perspective, when we visit them, we feel that they somehow speak to us, that through visiting them we confront the past in a tangible, immediate way. In part this again is because of the multi-sensory way in which we experience place, and in part because of the emotional and intellectual weight we give to the tangible fragments of history.

Not necessarily logical or tangibility that is important. As Robin Hood Historian J. C. Holt, for example notes, the myths and stories of Robin Hood now form not only a significant part of Nottingham and the surrounding shires’ history and identity, but have also contributed to the preservation of Sherwood forest.

As a society, why do we preserve historic places (particularly those seen to be of national, regional, or community significance)?

  • tell us stories about past events and people felt to be important;
  • record technological/architectural change;
  • reflect cultural shifts;
  • beauty;
  • profit (including tourism).

As the Gentry and Hayden chapters hopefully highlighted, however, the ‘historical’ is but one of many layers to the landscape. These include the social, cultural, political and economic history, contested layers of the present (. i.e. colonisation), geological history, ecological history, personal history and community history.

Yet historic places also serve less tangible social and personal roles. What roles do advocates of historic preservation feel historic places can play in society. Why are these things we’ve just listed seen as being important?

It is because place help people define their own public pasts, triggering memories for insiders who have shared a common past, while at the same time representing shared pasts to outsiders. It is quite significant in industrial heritage sites. People find a sense of identity thought their work place and will often relate to the places that they or their parents, grandparents worked.

So, at a social level, the focus on the local and personal historic place can renew personal/family/community pride in connection to the larger community (i.e. military service/sacrifice in war, the story of clean water, the Severn Valley Railway), which in turn widens support for public memory.

While nostalgia can certainly play a part in our attachment to historic places, people also value local historic places because they see them as continuing to enhance the quality of life and relationship people have with the places around them today. Similarly, the historic landscape is seen to give greater depth to places – presenting evidence of continued adaptations and social change that have taken place, and offering a basis for diversity today.

The act of preservation is an autobiographical undertaking, dependent upon the belief that the past is of value to the present.

Interpreting place

What are the complexities/costs/trade-offs surrounding preservation?

All of our landscapes are made up of layer upon layer of human activity, be these social, productive, creative, or destructive forces. There is no landscape untouched by human beings. In more densely inhabited areas, the economic and social forces thus become more complex – change becomes more rapid, there are more layers to a given landscape that humans have ties to. Therefore, we have to decide what to preserve is as much debated as how to preserve.

Archaeology, and site preservation/interpretation are both creative and destructive process, there is a ‘cost’ to presenting any dominant interpretation of site. For example, is interpretation static and what are the implications of this?

Also the idea of photo restoration. What can we lose when we restore? I will argue that it can be a win win. Wes still have the original, and the restored copy.

Because place occupies geographical space, it is difficult for two layers of the past to exist at the same time. This is further complicated by the weight we place on ‘historical fabric’ Dislocation of place from its space is also often seen to degrade place; but not always. We can’t anticipate what will be of value in the future, yet site preservation/ and or interpretation is often a one-way street.

How do we manage other interpretations (individual and collective) of ‘place’ when dominant interpretations make this difficult?

Do we even need to bother preserving say the hulks at the ships graveyard in Purton Gloucester or the pumping station at Sandfields?

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  • What do we preserve?
  • Who decides?

Owing to the nature of place attachment, the relationship the individual has to historic places is unique. Places seen as ‘national shrines’ are perhaps the best example. For the outsider, the broader historical narrative forms the basis to their understanding of place, while for the insider, this may be something completely different. The same can be said for sites of contested history.

What happens when one layer of history is dominant in relation to a site? How do we even judge if a layer is dominant? Does it have to be dominant for all groups with a claim to that space, and if not, how do we judge whose claims are valid. Who has the right to have a say in how these site are managed?

Multiple meanings of some places.

Place attachment is also a core factor in the perceived value of ‘historic places’ – the ability to connect with both the built and natural environment intertwined in cultural landscapes is the key. From a heritage perspective, when we visit them, we feel that they somehow speak to us, that through visiting them we confront the past in a tangible, immediate way. In part this again is because of the multi-sensory way in which we experience place, and in part because of the emotional and intellectual weight we give to the tangible fragments of history.

It is not necessarily logical or tangibility that is important. As Robin Hood Historian J. C. Holt, for example notes, the myths and stories of Robin Hood now form not only a significant part of Nottingham and the surrounding shires’ history and identity, but have also contributed to the preservation of Sherwood forest.

So, as a society, why do we preserve historic places (particularly those seen to be of national, regional, or community significance)?

  • tell us stories about past events and people felt to be important;
  • record technological/architectural change;
  • reflect cultural shifts;
  • beauty;
  • profit (including tourism).

As the Gentry and Hayden chapters hopefully highlighted, however, the ‘historical’ is but one of many layers to the landscape. These include the social, cultural, political and economic history, contested layers of the present (. i.e. colonisation), geological history, ecological history, personal history and community history.

It is important to understand that historic places also serve less tangible social and personal roles. What roles do advocates of historic preservation feel historic places can play in society. Why are these things we’ve just listed seen as being important?

Place help people define their own public pasts, triggering memories for insiders who have shared a common past, while at the same time representing shared pasts to outsiders. Also at a social level, the focus on the local and personal historic place can renew personal or family community pride in connection to the larger community, which in turn widens support for public memory.

While nostalgia can certainly play a part in our attachment to historic places, people also value local historic places because they see them as continuing to enhance the quality of life and relationship people have with the places around them today. Similarly, the historic landscape is seen to give greater depth to places – presenting evidence of continued adaptations and social change that have taken place, and offering a basis for diversity today.

 

Source;

 

Notes taken from a lecture on place attachment at Ruskin College.

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