Beyond the building: Creating and supporting communities based on place

Rebecca Hawcroft, University of Canberra, Australia

Abstract

How can we recognise place as it functions in the digital space, and what does it mean for museum engagement? The digital sector has seen an explosion in locational technology, mapping applications, and social-media platforms capturing and sharing interactions with places. Attachment to place has been explored in sociology and cultural studies for decades and is recognised as a key part of identity creation. As digital communities based on place connections emerge across the Web, what is the place of the museum within these conversations? This paper finds that place plays a key part in individual and community identity within digital culture. What place does the museum occupy within this context? Due to transient and amorphous digital communities, competing with the task of identifying and connecting to an audience is increasingly challenging. The strengthening of place attachment can be seen as a key strategy in supporting the collective identity of a visiting community. Equally, with social-media programs and digitised collections, museums are able to create and connect to multiple communities in dispersed locations. Place remains a potent force for museum engagement as well, as a number of recent initiatives that position the museum at the centre of a place-based community demonstrate. With a focus on digitised collections, the paper also identifies the potential to make multiple and dispersed connections based on place. The inclusion of location in collection management approaches, walks, storytelling, and memory projects, are identified as mechanisms that link place connections back to the museum.

Keywords: place, digital communities, engagement

1. Introduction

The concept of place is far from straightforward in the digital age. Mobility, global economics, virtual worlds, and fluid connections to locations would suggest that “place” is an increasingly contested concept. Place would seem irrelevant to the networked society suggested by Castell (1996), whereby the key social structures and activities are organised around digital information networks rather than locations. Indeed, we may ask what value is the museum’s physical location when visitors to their website are far greater than those coming through the door? (Bautista, 2014, 133) Similarly, following the last decade of mass digitisation, collection items are themselves increasingly involved in dispersed exchanges across networked communities. As digital forms of interaction spread, what are the implications for how we understand “place” as it relates to the modern museum and by extension the terms audience and community?

This paper proposes that engaging with place and place attachment can be a key strategy in building the collective identity of the museum community. Equally, the potential for digitised collections, as networked objects, to make greater and more varied connections to places is proposed as a means of expanding engagement beyond the physical boundaries of the collection repository. A review of a range of current approaches makes clear that many museums are evoking place values as they position themselves at the centre of a supportive community. In exploring these approaches and those reconnecting digitised collections to dispersed networks, this paper proposes that place remains a potent concept for museum engagement. 

2. What do we mean by place?

Place is one of the foundational concepts in the social sciences. Expressed as “sense of place,” “place attachment,” and “place values,” “place” denotes an emotional connection to a location. Contemporary notions of place gained particular attention in the 1970s through the writings of humanist and phenomenological geographers Yi-Fu Tuan and Edward Relph (Tuan, 1974, 1977; Ralph, 1976). With a focus on the interplay of humans and the environment, these authors identified “place” in relationship with the more neutral concept of “space.” For Tuan (1977), “space” is an undifferentiated location. As we interact with locations and endow them with value, “space” becomes “place.” The two concepts are of course linked, with each “place” distinguished as such by the “space” around it.

Studies of place and place attachment provide a way of understanding the ideologically loaded contexts within which human activity is undertaken. French Philosopher Michel De Certeau (1988) contributed to the development of how place and place values are understood by identifying that space is enlivened into place through actions. De Certeau noted that places are enacted spaces with walking (and other everyday practices) the ongoing articulation of a place’s meaning (1988, 98). As understood today, concepts of place are closely aligned with memory, identity, attachment, and belonging. Ramkissoon (2012, 12) notes that “places offer an individual the opportunity to both express and affirm his/her identity.”

There is a strong social element in the attribution and experience of place values. This point is clearly made by Low and Altman (1992, 7) when they note, “Places are repositories and contexts within which interpersonal, community, and cultural relationships occur, and it is to those social relationships, not just to place qua place, to which people are attached.” Because the values and memories related to places are often shared there is a direct connection between collective notions of place and community.

In 2009, English Heritage published results from a study exploring the connection between a shared sense of place and social capital, or the bonds that connect groups and individuals into communities. The study showed a positive and significant link between knowledge of and active engagement with the historic environment and communities with higher levels of social capital both between and within social groups. Additionally, place attachment has been identified as an agent of pro-environmental behaviour. Ramkissoon (2012, 12) notes that “individuals who strongly identify with rural landscapes exhibit high tendencies to support and engage in conservation initiatives to protect them.”

Of interest in the context of this paper’s focus on place and digital practice is that the values and meanings attached to places are not fixed. As Hay (2006, 33) notes, “The construction of place meaning … (arises) from a perpetual dialogue between the physicality of place and the interactions of people with it, and there is nothing intrinsic to this process that mandates one ‘essential’ place meaning.” Both a place’s meaning and the community associated with it are not fixed, and can be seen as always evolving in conjunction with events and activities centred around them. As will be discussed below, place attachment remains a social value that is constantly circulated within networked communities, making and sharing memories, practices, and meanings associated with locations.

Museums and other institutions that hold our cultural heritage collections are closely tied to the creation and circulation of notions of place and shared community identities. Museums are also looking for the engaged and informed audiences that will provide supportive communities. How then does contemporary digital culture’s use of place figure for the museum, or other collection-holding institution?

3. Place in the digital landscape

Much contemporary culture can be seen as focused on recording and sharing the activities and narratives that cohere around locations, demonstrating that place remains a potent force for identity creation and community building. These exchanges are supported by the widespread availability of locational technology, mapping applications, and social-media platforms capturing and sharing interactions with places. The ubiquitous availability of GPS technology means that individuals, social exchanges, images, and other multiple forms of data are locatable. The widespread use of this technology can be seen as demonstrating a social desire to locate ourselves in space, as well as in relation to information and our networks (Gordon, 2011, 3).

Contextualizing communication by geographical coordinates remains a key feature of social-networking platforms. Foursquare pioneered the “check in” as means of ordering a social network around location. As the social element of Foursquare evolves into Swarm, its “neighborhood” facility remains a feature (Protalinski, 2014). The trend continues with Twitter focusing on further narrowing its location information and developing “hyperlocal” streams (Eaton, 2010). The vast array of applications like Tweets Nearby, GeoChirp, and Geofeedia make visible the conversations that occur around locations and support the formation of location-based networks.

The mapping platforms History Pin and Findery also demonstrate a popular desire to contextualize personal memories and narratives in relation to both locations and a community of others. In fact, maps are now more easily made, modified, and shared than ever before. Supported by the release of the Google Maps API, maps have become a standard form of Web communication. A site like Wikimapia (http://wikimapia.org), with its byline “let’s describe the world,” demonstrates the proliferation of citizen mapping projects. Easy to create and allowing collaborative tagging and commenting, the map has been transformed online. No longer a flat record of location, the online map is an active document, modified by its users, and able to record and circulate the ephemeral connections, stories, and memories of place.

Similarly location-aware mobile technologies are changing the way we experience both physical and digital spaces (Gordon, 2011, 56).  Smartphone technology is increasingly making information related to places, such as their history, accessible at the location. An application like Google Field Trip, delivering aggregated information about places as you pass them, becomes a filter, collapsing the physical and digital into a single experience. Equally, location-based messaging applications such as Geonotes support the construction of specific dialogues between people and places. Digital spaces can increasingly be seen as hybrid spaces, composed of a mix of digital information and physical localities.

Place as a shared identity, value, or experience, rather than a location, can be seen in many of the networked communities of the digital space. The crowd-sourced annotation programs of libraries and archives support highly engaged online communities. The National Library of Australia’s Trove website (http://trove.nla.gov.au ) has notched over four-hundred million annotations from an active community of some eighteen-thousand members. Members connect remotely to pursue their own research interests while contributing to the Library’s digital resources. The place value of the Library remains strong within the community, yet its activities do not require physical proximity.

Being the friend of a Facebook page such as City of New York (https://www.facebook.com/nycgov) can be seen as the same kind of activity, whereby users connect to a place that forms a part of their identity, but with no fixed relationship to their location.

The digital sphere is increasingly where we create our identities, share our values, and make connections. As place is a key aspect of identity creation and socialisation, it should not be surprising that the location capabilities of digital devices are employed in the networked communities of the digital space. The diffusion of digital has allowed people to engage with the proximate and remote simultaneously, and for place-based communities to exist in dispersed locations. Place in the digital age is open to new relationships and reconstructions. As place becomes a key method of information navigation and identity creation, how are museums approaching both their own place in networked communities and the place of their collections?

4. Place as it relates to the contemporary museum

The “place” of the museum was once strongly rooted in its building. The very concept of a museum is closely linked to the image of an imposing structure centrally located within an urban community. By engaging with digital technologies museums and other collection holders are circulating more information to increasingly diverse audiences and allowing for new forms of participation. Additionally, the widespread and large-scale digitisation projects of the last decade mean collections are operating in new contexts, with new opportunities to reconnect to the locations and communities from which they came or that they are associated with. In this context, the idea of the place of the museum, along with notions of community and audience, are undergoing considerable change. Bautista (2014, 5) notes that “the institution of museums is once again (re)defining its social role, its authority, and its popularity as it responds and adapts to a changing society.”

A review of recent examples of museum engagement approaches demonstrates that, for many, place remains an important element in how they communicate and interact with their audience. While the physical location of the typical collection-holding institution (the building) remains a dominant element, interactions with online networked communities are also being utilised by some institutions to transcend the limitations of place and engage with global audiences. Recognising the importance of a visiting community, other institutions are using digital networks to strengthen their connections to place. With a varying combination of site-based and online initiatives, the approaches outlined below demonstrate the complex relationship between location and place in the digital age.

Placelessness/Roads

In order to understand how place operates in museum practice, it is useful to look at an example of an approach that negates place. Anand Giridharadas (2014) identifies that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is using digital platforms to reach a global audience, the majority of whom will never visit the museum. This approach is perhaps not surprising when considering that the Metropolitan Museum draws about six million physical visitors a year, but some twenty-nine million visits to its website and ninety-two million people connecting through its Facebook page (Giridharadas, 2014). Giridharadas notes this approach “suggest(s) a common way of seeing the Internet: as a thing that annihilates place, making it possible to be here, there and everywhere.”

Place can be seen as absent from the Metropolitan Museum’s approach, in that its digital activities are detached from the Museum’s local environment and tell us nothing about the particular context or community in which the institution is situated. The digital presence of the Metropolitan Museum is placeless (Relph, 1976) in that it negates its location to connect to a dislocated network linked broadly by an interest in art. This approach provides access to a large numbers of people, yet few opportunities for deep engagement.

The mass communication capabilities of the Internet reflect the railways and highways of the physical world that have also been identified as spreading placelessness (Relph, 1976, 90). Taking inspiration from Charles Marohn’s (2011) identification of the difference between a road and a street (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XRjatW_N9M), I would suggest that the Metropolitan Museum’s approach can be characterised as a road. Marohn describes a road as a solution to link centres, transporting many people over long distances, quickly. Yet for Marohn these are economically dead places that but provide nothing for the places they pass. The global approach adopted by the Metropolitan Museum similarly connects to many people but provides few opportunities for interaction, is not able to be personalised and does not host a community’s shared values.

Place-specific/Streets

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum is identified by Giridharadas (2014) as taking an alternative approach that engages with the community centred around its physical location. In April 2014 Shelley Bernstein, Vice Director of Digital Engagement and Technology at the Museum, detailed that after having a close look at the museum’s various social-media and digital platforms, the museum was realigning its focus to its “in-building audience” (Bernstein, 2014a). Although once an enthusiastic participant in multiple Web platforms, Bernstein (2014a) noted that in the future “we are spending our energies elsewhere in places where we are seeing deeper engagement.”

Analysis of the Brooklyn Museum’s digital programs had identified that the vast majority of users were locals (Bernstein, 2014b). The museum was already engaged in strong local programming, with projects that fostered connections between the museum and local communities. The successful 2012-2013 GO: a community-curated open studio project (“a borough-wide initiative designed to foster personal exchange between Brooklyn-based artists, their communities, and the Brooklyn Museum”) has been followed up by 2014–2015’s Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org ). Bernstein (2014b) noted:

We’ve started to see a clearer picture here about how much local participation matters and if we are going for “engagement” as a strategy, we’re finding these users should be at the forefront of our minds.

The Brooklyn Museum’s approach can be seen as strongly based in place. By both nurturing the sense of place of its surrounding community and positioning itself within those conversations, the museum is cultivating a strong and supportive community that aligns the institution within individual and collective identity. Unlike the Metropolitan Museum, the Brooklyn Museum is using its digital resources to support a mode of engagement that, following Marohn, can be characterised as a street. As Marohn (2011) identifies, a street moves less traffic than a road, but provides a network of activity; you can stop on a street, meet a friend make a purchase and you might return.

Rather than conceiving the approaches of the Metropolitan Museum and the Brooklyn Museum as digital/global versus physical/local, it is more accurate to identify that one supports connections that can be seen as place values, while the other does not. The road and the street approaches reflect the different goals, contexts, and audiences of the two museums. Yet the desire for the civic engagement represented by the street metaphor can be seen in how many museums are approaching their relationship with communities.

Place-makers/town squares

In 2004 the Walker Art Center launched the Art and Civic Engagement program centred around exploring how a contemporary art center could become a forum for civic engagement (Walker 2004). The museum was encouraging “a communal atmosphere where participants feel connected to their values and interests” and “active involvement… with the social issues raised by Walker programs” (Walker 2004). Kathy Halbreich, then Director of the Walker Art Center, noted: “The metaphor for the museum is no longer a church or temple, but a lively forum or town square.” (Walker 2015) For the Walker, this entailed the cultivation of “a communal atmosphere where participants feel connected to their values and interests.” (Walker 2015) It is interesting to note that the town-square model as expressed by the Walker extends to online activities. Indeed, the Walker’s strong Web presence, including the collation of external content within the Art News from Elsewhere pages, extends the museum’s community beyond those that visit its building (http://www.walkerart.org).

The town square is a potent symbol of community engagement and participation. In casting itself in this role, the Walker can be seen as engaging in a form of place making, whereby an engaged community’s identity is linked to the institution. A version of the town square approach can also be seen in the Dallas Museum of Art DMA Friends program. In 2012 the Dallas Museum dropped its previous $10 entry fee and offered free membership to the DMA Friends program. The program incentivizes visitation and active involvement throughout the gallery by providing “points” accrued for different kinds of interaction within the museum. The program’s rewards include free parking, discounts at the shop, and behind-the-scenes visits, all of which can be seen as deepening contact with the institution (https://www.dma.org/visit/dma-friends). DMA Friends encourages the kind of engaged participation closely aligned with a sense of place.

The shared social act of visitation is at the core of the program. As Stein and Wyman (2013) note, the program is “pursuing a vibrant community of engaged participation” with “one of the underlying goals… (being) to create long-term relationships with visitors…” A notion similar to the town square is invoked by Jason Farago in his 2012 The Guardian article celebrating the program’s free admission: “It’s no longer just a fortress or an amusement: it’s a civic platform…”(Farago, 2012). Whether idealised or a reality, being a DMA friend involves participation in a place-based community, with the museum positioned at its centre.

Another example of the use of place engagement can be seen in Portland Art Museum’s recent Parklandia initiative. Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden was a travelling exhibition reflecting “the art, design, evolution, and experience of Paris’s most famous garden” (http://portlandartmuseum.org/exhibitions/tuileriesgarden ). Parklandia was the Portland Art Museum’s own social-media photography project associated with the exhibition. The project encouraged people to share images of Portland’s parks on Instagram with the tag #captureParklandia (Murawski, 2014). The images were then shown on the Museum’s website and incorporated into an annex of the exhibition space. Over 1,500 tagged images were posted, capturing interactions with Portland’s parks. Interestingly, images continue to be tagged and posted after the exhibition has concluded. The strategy drew some criticism for having only a casual link to the exhibition content, and the question was asked: “Why are museums doing things like this, and why do they think they would get people interested in art?” (Dobrzynski, 2014).

The project’s developers defended Parklandia as a legitimate “platform for public engagement and community dialogue around issues relevant to the life of our city and its region” (Murawski, 2014). If we acknowledge that place values are captured and circulated though social-media networks, then the project can be seen as inviting the personal meanings attached to place into the space of the museum. Parklandia utilises a social-media network (formed within Instagram) to connect the museum to the wider context of Portland, and its residents’ lived experiences. In this way, Parklandia is firmly engaged with the place values that circulate around the museum and its community. This strategy may not get people interested in art, per say, but it may help them recognise things relevant to their own lives in the exhibition content. When the museum is engaged in this kind of a dialogue, it is again operating as a town square and positioning itself at the centre of a networked community based on place.

Running in conjunction with museums seeking deeper relationships with communities linked to their locations is the potential for digitised collections to connect to diverse and dispersed places. As Creswell (2004, 11) notes:

When we look at the world as a world of places we see different things. We see attachments and connections between people and place. We see worlds of meaning and experience.

How is the great potential of digitisation to connect collections to places being addressed by collection holders?

5. How are digitised collections connecting with place?

Collection-holding institutions occupy a unique position as repositories of the documents and objects that enliven places. Typically, collection items are drawn from many locations and are connected to the events, memories, and shared identities of dispersed communities. Yet the restrictions of centralised collections and preservation requirements mean most are inaccessible. The rapid expansion of digitisation programs and open-access initiatives has changed the context of museum objects. Collections can now be seen as hyper-complex, networked objects with the potential for inclusion in multiple digital networks and social and cultural exchanges (Cameron, 2009).

The fluid way collections now interact with locations is demonstrated by the Museum of London’s Street Museum augmented reality mobile application (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Resources/app/you-are-here-app/home.html), allowing users to layer a historic photograph over a contemporary view of a location. A number of projection and paste-up installation projects approach mixing historical documents and locations in very analogue ways. The Thinking Spaces project, held in March 2013 in Canberra’s Australian National University campus, projected archival images onto the University’s buildings (http://anuthinkingspace.com). In 2014 images of South Australia’s cycling history were pasted up in Adelaide’s city streets as part of the Riding Past Again street exhibition (http://www.naa.gov.au/visit-us/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/riding-past-again/index.aspx). Not unlike the numerous smartphone walking app tours museums are developing, these projects explore the way historical documents bring new understanding to location and support the complex associations and meanings that enliven space into place.

The Museum of Copenhagen’s the WALL project utilises a 12-meter-long, interactive, outdoor multi-touch screen to display images of the city over time. Allowing for the inclusion of users’ own stories and images, the project positions the museum’s collection in a dialogue with individual and collective memories. As noted on the project’s blog, “the Museum would like to recreate an exchange platform along the lines of that facilitated by the market-square of former times” (http://www.copenhagen.dk/en/whats_on/the_wall/what_is_the_wall). Able to be moved to multiple locations and use varied content, it provides a unique form of shared physical interaction with collection material related to place.

Digitisation has allowed for an increase in the richness of collection metadata, which for many collections now includes GIS coordinates associated with the item. The Harvard Art Museum collection browser’s use of place as a search category is one recent example (http://www.harvardartmuseums.org/collections).  However, few digitised collection interfaces support more nuanced forms of spatialised search. In response to changing community expectations around access, it has been proposed that institutions “put the complexity back into collection records in a way that resonates with the complex and multi-dimensional lived realities to which collections now connect” (Cameron, 2009, 193). Yet responding to complex values like place is not a straightforward procedure.

A number of institutions are approaching these challenges in creative ways. TATE Art Maps is a noteworthy example, assigning a location to a significant portion of the TATE’s collection and displaying it on an interactive Google map (http://www.tate.org.uk/about/projects/art-maps). More comprehensively, the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa offers place as a category for searching its entire digitised collection (http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz). Place also functions within the interface as an ordering system, with links between places and associated people, related objects, and topics. These kinds of interfaces allow people to directly connect to the collection items related to places important to them and can be a powerful tool for collection surfacing, reinterpretation, and engaging with dispersed audiences.

Yet place, as a fluid and shifting set of values with only a loose reference to a physical location, is not easily reflected by systems based on GPS coordinates. The difficulty of aligning mapped locations with lived reality is nicely expressed by artist Aram Bartholl in his public installation series “Map.” Uncomfortably locating a giant replica of a Google pin in a physical location, Bartholl “questions the relation of the digital information space to every day life public city space” (Bartholl, 2014). There are similar questions to be asked in relation to using Google Map pins to make connections between collection items and locations. Although the democratisation of mapping technology is opening collection items up to new connections with locations it is important to remember that location does not equate to place.

It is in fact walking, stories and collective memory projects that are best recording the ephemeral nature of place attachments. Able to incorporate multiple sources and rich media, these kind of digital projects are perfectly suited to conveying complex and intangible values. Indeed, we can see digital platforms allowing narrative and location to mix in increasingly rich formats. The City of Memory (http://www.cityofmemory.org) application maps curated and user-generated stories throughout New York. Google’s storytelling project Night Walk in Marseille (https://nightwalk.withgoogle.com) allows users to virtually navigate the city of Marseille combining maps, music, narration, YouTube videos, and images. The iPad novel Silent History (http://thesilenthistory.com) provides a serialised narrative linked to locations. There are hundreds of location-based stories (Field Reports) within the application that can be read only when your device’s GPS matches the coordinates of the specified location.

More ephemeral in focus is the Singapore Memory Portal (http://www.singaporememory.sg ). Identified as a whole-of-nation movement, the Portal aims to capture and document moments and memories related to Singapore: “memories of key Singapore events, personalities and places.” To date, over four-hundred-thousand memories have been added. A project like this, that collates and shares the history, memories, and meanings related to place, demonstrates the power of digital technology to make tangible formerly invisible and ephemeral place and community connections. There is considerable potential for digitised collections to engage with these kinds of projects and for collection holding institutions to open their collections for these kinds of interactions.

The Textile Museum of Canada’s TXTilecity project (http://txtilecity.ca/intro.html) is an example of how collections can be combined with location and narration to reflect complex place values associated with a neighbourhood. The project locates audio stories and short video sequences onto a navigable Google map. The content is provided for exploration in place and users own contributions invited. As networked objects open up re-use and circulation it is likely collection items will increasingly operate within these kinds of contexts. While connecting collection items with ephemeral and user-generated values, like place, remains a challenge, the open access and collaborative approaches of TXTilecity demonstrate the potential of digitised collections to make deep and rich connections to places.

6. Conclusion

In the digital era, museums and collection holders find themselves within a new, shifting context for understanding place as it relates to engagement, community, and audience. Despite the ability of digital technology to create globalised networks place remains a key form of identity creation within digital culture. For Relph (1976, 49), place connection equates with insideness, and “to be inside a place is to belong to it and identify with it, and the more profoundly inside you are the stronger is the identity with the place.” It should not surprise us, then, that as museums seek more engaged communities and audiences demand increasingly authentic interactions, museums are evoking place as a means of connecting.

The place of the museum remains important despite the seemingly increased disengagement with physical proximity. When operating as a platform for the sharing of values, the contemporary museum is inviting audiences inside in a way that connects with community and individual identity. Additionally, museums and collection-holding institutions that acknowledge that their collections make multiple and fluid connections to other places can strengthen the networks within which they operate and the relevance of their collection. By identifying that place operates on two equally important levels for a museum and its collection, it is proposed that engagement with place can provide new insight into understanding the communities with whom they, and their collections, resonate.

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Cite as:
. "Beyond the building: Creating and supporting communities based on place." MW2015: Museums and the Web 2015. Published January 31, 2015. Consulted .
https://mw2015.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/beyond-the-building-creating-and-supporting-communities-based-on-place/