Musing on Maps

I’m listening to this programme on this sunny afternoon as I work in my turret in Leicester – and thinking about place. (More interesting stuff about memory, place and sound from this brilliant man, Chris Watson, sound recordist here)

I’ve just finished a research proposal assignment for the Research Design and Practice module I took last semester – and it’s forced me to really think about:

a) what am I actually doing this research on?

b) what will it look like?

Although there is still much work (and reading, yes there is that) to be done, and although I need to maintain flexibility and fluidity in this process if things don’t work or things fall through, there is always a need to be able to adapt to change, but as I’ve thought about the design of this project, the themes, ideas and connections explored within this short piece, I’ve become more and more drawn to the ways in which place-making practices through everyday participation change across first and second / third generation immigrant groups in Glasgow.

In the second thing I linked to at the top, we hear an interview with Chris Watson in which he muses on the relationship between sound, memory and place. Thinking about whether the memory of place can be attached to the fabric environment, he talks about intangible ‘atmospheres’ of place. He describes a trip to Venezuela, in which he talks to Wahiro indians about places they regard as special – discovering through this trip and many travels through recording wildlife sounds – the connections that people have universally to landscapes, often, he argues, represented by the acoustics of a place.

Each person’s soundscape of place will be informed by the places they go, the activities they partake in, the languages they speak, their embodied experience of being in place, and the privileging of sight over every other sense means that these soundscapes which illustrate our existence are mostly overlooked, and rarely consciously thought about. Watson advocates more careful listening, so that we can build a picture of the environment we live in, be more aware of the sounds that swirl around our heads, what sounds get swept away beneath the traffic and chatter. Indeed, paying attention is one of the New Economic Foundations’ 5 Ways to Wellbeing

Reflecting my thoughts about interpretation, representation and presenting information to a variety of audiences, as I’m eating lunch Watson stops me in my tracks as I listen saying:

“in order to get people to listen and engage with it, it needs to presented properly…if you want people to listen to it…you need to present it properly, and then people get it. You don’t need any great artistic justification” Chris Watson

Prior to this, I thought I should probably engage in a bit of place-based play myself, in advance of more in-depth methodological experimentation, with fellow researchers and participants in the project itself.

So I pulled out a map of Bradford and Leeds that I’d bought just before christmas in my local brilliant Age Uk charity bookshop / cafe that is filled to the rafters with gems of all genres.

Pleased in the first place to find a map of my hometown in my current home, I open it up and spread it out on my living room floor. Lying on my belly, I let my eyes be led by first one yellow line, then the next, down small white lines of streets near my home, and up thick red scars of ring roads and A roads that circle Bradford in a crescent moon with lines extended from it like one of those magic science balls that move their tentacles of electricity depending on where you put your fingers (see below)


(actually, they do rather look like cities on a map don’t they? The core with arms spreading to suburbs and beyond… I hadn’t thought about them in that way before…)

Gazing around at this collection of colours, shapes and lines, supposedly organised to reflect the real world, I am firstly completely disoriented by where my house is in relation to the city centre. Not that this is a terribly important aspect of the making place process, but 2D layout of a map seldom reflects the embodied experience of moving from place to place. I am going uphill, and walking down the road, though it all seems rather difficult to imagine and place as my eyes wander round each square on the grid.

I circle places I spent a lot of time in over the years; Bingley (school), Undercliffe (band practice), Saltaire (days out), and begin to see as my network of activity and places spread out. It gets me thinking about networks – a subject I don’t know much about theoretically, and I can only speculate about what other people’s maps would look like –

Methodologically an activity like this could reveal where different groups of people spent time, with further conversation throughout the mapping process of why they spent time in these places, thinking about boundaries, barriers, desires to go to other places perhaps, that kind of thing.


I feel though, and I have felt in various other places – when I was travelling round South America for example, I didn’t want to look at pictures of places before I visited them so had to instead rely on descriptions and maps – that a map, although I think quite a beautiful object – I can understand the sensations of a cartophile – is essentially purely geographic and useless as a means to really understand what a place is like. Yes, it can tell us about patterns, boundaries, geographic aspects of the character of a town, for quantitative representation of data they are an excellent source, however it is only in conjunction with qualitative understanding of place that it makes any sort of sense.

bradford balloon

This is a map of Bradford as made from a hot air balloon in 1889 and I think it’s glorious – still looks like a sprawling mass of mayhem and confusion – but then so do most cities I think.

We cannot look at an area and know what it feels to walk its streets, more than that, we cannot know how different people inhabiting that area experience the act of walking through these places – do they feel safe? At home? Self-conscious? Are they remembering where they used to live? Maps are great, but I think only as a tool (in this sense, for orienteering purposes, the human, embodied element is not so important perhaps) used alongside the qualitative, human act of talking about the places mapped out in coloured squiggles and lines.

IMG_1126  IMG_1131 IMG_1132


My Mum gave me these when I moved to Leicester – old maps from some kind of walking guide… They’re a great example of the kinds of things tourist boards think people ‘should’ see when they visit a city, as well as the kinds of routes they think they should take. I intend to follow this route and take photographs of the kinds of things I am directed to look for, and then again taking pictures of the kinds of things that catch my eye. I have always been interested in how many different ways we can experience place, depending on what we are looking for…

IMG_1134 IMG_1135

(Future walks – !)

Anyway. I have mused long enough. Back to the books…

Please feel free to muse right back at me – any thoughts, ideas, maps welcome.


Also this guy is amazing – he is doing what we do every day by way of the paths we do and don’t take, the places we do and don’t go, creating our own unique maps of the places we inhabit through everyday participation and place-making practices.

Just perhaps on a much bigger, slightly more obsessive and very much conscious scale…


2 thoughts on “Musing on Maps

  1. You’re exploring some great stuff Ruth. I’m jealous of your Glasgow based activities (my spiritual home) but I look forward to following your discoveries.. One day we’ll get that pint!


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