From Here to There Through Embodied Conversations

By: Lynn McRainey | February 12, 2015


My father is an avid map reader and user. He always keeps a map (or two or three) pinned to the wall above his desk. When I asked him about the maps, he responded, “A map can take you anywhere. If you have a good map, you can get in your car and go there.”  And my childhood memories are filled with car trips to places marked on those maps.

Maps have also shaped my understanding about the past. The “there” in history are the places that served as stages for the stories of our neighborhood, city, or nation.  These stories, good and bad, occur at the crossroads, where there is a convergence of people, ideas, dreams, and vision for the future of that place.


Our identity is closely tied to place. When I first arrived in Chicago twenty-five years ago, I quickly discovered that every Chicagoan had a “worst winter ever” survival story. The blizzard of 2011 is mine. Now, through a Glimmer grant in collaboration with Nate and our colleagues from UIC, I have a new understanding of maps, place, and identity. Like the past, our lives took (and are taking place) somewhere.  Attaching our stories to places and charting paths between those places leads to new insights into where we are here and now.


As we have developed our method for conducting embodied conversations, we have tried out new activities together. Our bi-weekly meetings are conversations about our method and the conversation tools UIC colleagues have us test.  Through Google maps we have connected personal stories of coming to Chicago to places and through five photographs we have documented random places we are in a given day. We were ready to begin having conversations with others.

The Chicago Historical Society (CHS) Teen Council was formed in 2002 with teens from across the city. During their multi-year involvement, members collected over 100 oral histories, planned events for local teens, and directly shaped a CHS exhibition called Teen Chicago.

As the Chicago History Museum plans for its next generation of teen programs, it is only fitting that we have a conversation with our past. Our first conversation was with former members of Teen Chicago, a sixteen member teen council who over a two-year period collected 100 interviews of Chicagoans’ memories of being a teen and who worked with staff to mount an award-winning exhibition and programs. Over ten years later, seven former members came together at CHM for a conversation we could not have imagined.

We turned the tables and now they were sharing their stories of being a teen in Chicago and participating in Teen Chicago. We used maps of Chicago, floor plans of the building pre- and post-renovation 2006, and maps of where they lived five years ago. They marked places, attached memories, and charted pathways that told their personal stories.

CHS Teen Chicago participants revisit the Museum over 10 years later for our first Geoconvos session, January 2015.
CHS Teen Chicago participants revisit the Museum over 10 years later for our first Geoconvos session, January 2015.

In the coming weeks, we will initiate more conversations with teens and with our colleagues inside the museum and out in the city. We will continue to use place-identity, here-there as our legend to chart our course and to find the next path CHM will take with teens.

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