'Hear here': Unearth London's history -- with your cellphone

It’s like a do-it-yourself audio tour. Call in, get the story.

UnearthingLondon’s history, and the tales behind it, could soon be as easy as aquick phone call - writes MEGAN STACEY in lfpress.com

All it takes is a cellphone to tap into theHear, Here network soonto be built in London, a program thatlinksbite-size audio clips to historical and cultural sites around the city.

“A lot of people say ‘history is boring,’ but I think they’re looking at it the wrong way. It’s about stories,” said Michelle Hamilton, a public history professor at Western University.

“And people are also very interested in where they live.”

Western University students and researchers are partnering with the city to create the program, starting with a pilot in the St. George-Grosvenor-Piccadilly neighbourhood this summer, and expanding to SoHo next year.

A Hear, Here sign lets visitors know they can tap into a do-it-yourself audio tour and hear stories of London’s historical and cultural sites – like this one outside the Sir Adam Beck estate at Richmond and Sydenham streets – just by calling a phone number. (MARK TOVEY photo)

Hear, Here signs will be put up near monuments, buildings or landmarks and offer a phone number to tap into the audio clip.

Hamilton hopes the program eventually will boast a website, like the award-winning effort it’s based on in Wisconsin. People from 48 states have called to hear the stories associated with dozens of sites in La Crosse, Wis., Hamilton said.

“This is a really neat idea and we want to try something new,” said Robin Armistead, the city’s manager of culture. “It’s our first foray into this.”

A different kind of history — women’s history or African-Canadian history or Jewish history or working-class history — it’s not well known in London.

Michelle Hamilton

It’s a form of “cultural interpretation,” she said, essentially history told through mini-podcasts. Those audio clips give a sense of context about a neighbourhood, using personal anecdotes that engage people, Armistead said.

The first two phases of the project, about 30 cultural sites, come with a $14,000 price tag that can be covered by the culture office, according to a staff report.

Mark Tovey, a post-doctoral fellow in public history at Western University who’s been working with the city’s culture office, has collected interviews for the first 10 sites, including the Sir Adam Beck estate at Sydenham and Richmond streets and the former Murray-Selby shoe factory at Piccadilly and Richmond streets. Tovey grew up in the neighbourhood and knew much of its history already.

“Asking people to tell me stories about the neighbourhood seemed like the next logical step,” he said.

The master’s students Hamilton oversees will learn to collect oral history as they research important landmarks in the SoHo area in the fall. The goal is to tell the stories of marginalized groups and Londoners who aren’t part of the history textbooks, Hamilton said.

Sites such as Richard Berry Harrison Park, named after a famous actor whose parents fled to London as escaped slaves, are a good example.

“A different kind of history — women’s history or African-Canadian history or Jewish history or working-class history — it’s not well known in London,” Hamilton said.

For Tovey, the oral history projects also are a way to bring communities together.

“I love the idea that you could increase neighbourhood cohesion by gathering up stories and finding ways of giving them back to people,” he said. “Imagine filling neighbourhoods everywhere with stories. Once you know the stories of a place, a simple stroll becomes a journey for the imagination.”

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