Experiencing Place

by Sharon Macdonald

Chapters in this section explore some of the implications of the city’s current material culture and cityscape by looking at the ways in which various different groups perceive and live the place. It begins with Bridgette Wessels’ First impressions: arriving and reading the city – a photo-essay that might be read as a first introduction to the city, especially for those who have not yet visited or are new to it. Informed by ideas from sociology, anthropology and cultural studies – as well as by her experience of other cities – Bridgette Wessels reflects upon her own first impressions of the city. Her chapter does not simply show how the city might appear to somebody on first viewing – though in the conference at which many of these articles were originally presented her observations certainly struck a chord with many – but takes us beyond this into local city myths, comparisons with other places, and consideration of the way in which ‘place’ itself is imbued with significance. In the essay, we accompany Bridgette on an insightful viewing of the city that highlights its multiplicity and lack of a ‘single narrative’, as well as particular features that might be further developed by city authorities. This is a chapter that will also make those who thought they already knew the city reflect on their own perceptions and experiences of it.

Highlighting different ways of seeing a place is, we suggest here, itself an important ‘identity activity’. People’s identification with a place is not a once-and-for-all fixed and static matter. Rather, affirmation needs to be constantly made anew. To be experienced as vibrant, a place needs to be experienced as in movement – as changing. This may include experiencing its history and heritage in new ways: there is no contradiction between highlighting the rich past of a place and provoking fresh ways of seeing and experiencing it. Art works in and of the city are crucial for the cultural work of refreshing the gaze – of prompting people to pay attention, and to see the place again. One example in Sheffield has been the Quarterlight festival in which art works were projected onto buildings in the Cultural Industries Quarter in the evenings.

Various continental European cities, some drawing explicitly on sociological theorizing of place and identity, have likewise devised lively programmes of festivals and events designed specifically to ‘re-vision’ the city. In Germany, for example, the City of Nuremberg, whose image-making has been the study of some of my own research, has drawn on ideas about the significance of the experience of place and of ‘event culture’ to devise events such as ‘Blue Night’ in which the city is bathed in blue light and trapeze artists balance on high wires between buildings, all of which draws the eye to new angles and perspectives on the city, as well as creating a magical atmosphere. Elsewhere, art works – such as Shimon Attie’s Sites Unseen, which involved projecting of former Jewish life onto buildings from which Jews had been evicted – have been deployed to evoke forgotten pasts and provoke new ways of seeing city streets. Such artistic interventions need not necessarily be visual. Janet Cardiff’s audiowalks , for example, have provided new perspectives – and awakened sometimes forgotten pasts – in many cities across the world.

Here, Cathy Dee’s Found landscape, Sheffield’s Rivers is provides another form of artistic prompt to notice aspects of the city anew – in this case, areas in the vicinity of Sheffield’s rivers. Although rivers have been central to Sheffield’s history and identity, as other articles here show, they are relatively hidden in the contemporary city-scape: hence, Cathy’s quest to retrieve them. But that very attempt at retrieval is shot through with disenchantment. The depictions here are of river landscapes riddled with the detritus of consumer culture. But ambiguity and ambivalence are multiplied, for even while the images speak of loss, decay and corruption, they remain at the same time curiously beautiful.

This volume also seeks to make a contribution to an active revisioning of the city by highlighting how various different communities perceive and experience the city.

Cathrine Degnen takes us just beyond the city’s boundaries, but still within South Yorkshire, to Dodworth in Barnsley , to show us how identities there are both subtly bound up with those of Sheffield but also distinctive: some of those living in Dodworth distinguish themselves from Sheffield even while simultaneously identifying with films such as The Full Monty – a film that has introduced many throughout the world to Sheffield (as Bridgette Wessels also notes) and that is as often resented by Sheffielders as it is embraced. In Commemorating coal mining in the home: material culture and domestic space in Dodworth, Cathrine explores questions of identity, belonging and memory not only through public sites – such as mining memorials – but also in domestic spaces. Like Joan Unwin, she focuses on a particular type of object – plates commemorating events connected with mining that people display on the walls of their homes. These are often about loss – for example, pit closures – but perhaps also events of resistance, such as the 1984-5 miner’s strike, which involved the “Battle of Orgreave”, which has in turn led to public memorialising. Her sensitive analysis shows well how concepts such as ‘nostalagia’ are inadequate to capturing the complex processes of remembering and commemorating experiences of disruption and connection that may be materialised in people’s everyday practices of decorating their homes.

Clare Rishbeth’s Rwanda in Sheffield: the global/local distinctiveness of greenspace also considers themes of memory, place, disruption and connection. She introduces concepts such as the ‘legibility of place’ – how it might be read – and describes a methodologically innovative project that she ran involving refugees’ perceptions of Sheffield. The Viewfinder project, as it was called, involved refugees in taking photographs and discussing them – and led to an accredited photography qualification in the process. Among the findings from this fascinating project were generally positive perceptions of Sheffield compared with other cities, as well as – like Cathrine’s findings in Dodworth – the way that objects might serve to trigger memories and senses of connection, in this case not only with the past but also with other places. In some cases, these connections might initially seem surprising. However, the work shows vividly how place – and especially green spaces, including Sheffield’s botanical gardens and Winter Garden – may be mapped onto other places in creative and sometimes poignant ways. Moreover, those institutions (such as the botanical gardens) that gather up material culture (including plants) from other parts of the world may have an important role to play in multicultural cities in indicating the worth of objects – and, perhaps by implication, people? – from other places.

Chris Spencer’s Place, culture and identity: A view from environmental psychology also addresses questions of place and meaning, and includes some consideration of ethnic minorities, in his wide-ranging review of the field of environmental psychology. He illustrates how the discipline has employed concepts such as ‘place attachment’ and ‘cognitive maps’ – people’s understandings of, for example, where the boundaries around particular places lie or their subjective perception of distances between them. He looks in particular (though not only) at those he calls ‘new citizens’, that is, children, and presents studies that examine children’s views of Sheffield, as well as of other places. Rather than simply showing great variety in how the city is perceived, these studies interestingly show a good deal of commonality in what are considered to be pleasant environments, and in what might be done to improve the environment. There are a good many useful suggestions here about what might be done to improve the city, though Chris also notes that children in particular rarely feel that their views are likely to be heard and acted upon. Nevertheless, the opportunity is there and, as he also describes, there is a growing number of examples of innovative projects of citizen – including ‘new citizen’ – involvement in planning processes.