"Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it's not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term 'social network.' The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They're not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object". Nina Simon

Social connections through shared objects

1 Socialising with cultural memory

Social surveys reveal that having a strong cultural heritage makes a substantial contribution to the attractiveness of urban residential areas. This is the context in which a cultural heritage location can emerge as a community driven venture to re-enforce a local sense of place. The aim is to help preserve the heritage and traditions around one or more cultural themes exemplified by a collection of unique social objects.

Social objects are objects which furnish the human ecological niche within which social networks form. The concept was put forward by Jyri Engeström in 2005 as part of the explanation of why some social networks succeed and some fail. Engeström maintained that "Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people." Instead, he proposed what he called "object centred sociality," citing the work of the sociologist Karin Knorr-Cetina. Knorr Cetina's 2008 lecture "The Synthetic Situation: Interactionism for a Global World" is vital in rethinking assumptions about order through our communicative interactions with objects. It has been remarked that much of the success of the popular photo-sharing site Flickr is due to the fact that photographs serve as significant social objects around which conversations of social networks form.

A "synthetic situation" is defined as a situation that "...invariably includes, and may in fact be entirely constituted by, on-screen projections...". Examples of a synthetic situation include an online video chat, playing video games against others on the Internet or even a business deal done via videoconference. This idea can be seen as a result of the advancement in technology in recent years, and adds a new dimension to social situations where face-to-face interaction was formerly required. Knorr Cetina explains the difference of the two situations by the use of surgery. A synthetic situation arises when the surgeon uses technology like a scope and a screen in order to accomplish the task at hand. Without looking at the patient through the screen, the job would not be able to be done and would remain a face-to-face, social situation. The same could be said of face to screen interactions with objects carrying cultural memory where the objects are embedded in a rich social context, which is anonymous such as a wiki.

It has often been observed that our time is obsessed with collective forms of cultural memory. When displayed in museums, they are seen as an emergency brake on the rush of unfettered progress in capitalist consumer societies, carried along by universal media networks. Our globalizing cities seem to function as the premier sites where technological innovation and economic changes compete with attempts to retrieve vanishing traditions, displaced memories, and nostalgic desires. There is a clash between a reinvented past, projected through architectural reconstruction and historicist simulations, and a consumer culture which is centred on cultural memory.

Cultural memory is something that is primarily produced by the material presence of the topographic site itself. Although activated by the perceptive visitor, it is the place itself that initiates the formation of cultural memory through its tangible and visual signification. In this context, cultural memory is the "translation" of this silent language of urban topography into commemorating public discourses. We can then envision new, possibly more authentic ways of engaging with a rapidly vanishing past to boost human well being.

Natural landscapes are the result of biophysical processes that shape the land and create the unmistakable differences between one place and another. Similarly, human landscapes and settlements are the consequence of culture modifying and imposing its needs on natural or wild places. The inclusion of cultural patterns in landscape interactions is essential for understanding human influences on the present landscape and for predicting and planning for regional trends. The distribution of human occupation through settlement across a landscape provides information about how people use the landscape, about patterns of economic development, and about social interactions of human groups. When the distributions are examined over several thousand years, we gain an evolutionary understanding, not only of the people and their cultural patterns, but also of physical landscape development.

Using a human factor approach, landscape analyses can lead beyond descriptive landscape studies, toward understanding causal forces of modern landscape structure, which involve dynamic interactions between settlement, ecosystems and culture.

2 Museums as art installations

Place is central to human existence. It is one of the means by which we structure our lives around spatial arrangements of natural and human-made social objects that support our culture. An on-line museum dedicated to display images of place is an attempt to put the past in a context that is meaningful to the human mind. Through viewing we inhabit these illusions and follow the path of imagination prepared and set forth by the curator. The museum has itself becomes an instructive art installation. In this connection, the installation artist Joëlle Tuerlinckx says that: "An exhibition is, first and foremost, an experience of space - space composed, perhaps, of objects of space – that proposes action, or reaction, as a means of reflection, of thinking our human condition, as a common experience, it regards itself as public and open to all."

Tuerlinckx's site-specific art practice often focuses on the formal properties of gallery spaces, the role of museums, and the museums’ relationship to their communities. Her work is distinguished by a unique sensual and transient approach and a precise use of materials, colours, and abstract shapes, culminating in expansive, complex installations. Film projections, video, drawings, collages, photographs and found objects are often combined with subtle alterations to the spaces and gestures that highlight the time and space of the viewing experience.

While rigorous in its artistic methodology, Tuerlinckx's work engages our perception and senses. Her exhibitions function as containers in which the visitors encounter spaces between the artworks that inhabit and represent them. Arrangements often include a large number of cabinets, and wall texts, referencing traditional presentation modes of museums. She creates a landscape of experience, in which objects and images are encountered in specific ways

In Tuerlinckx’ exhibition all the objects are her own creation, and the similarities she highlights between them are for her to decide. But at the same time, there is a reference to the tension, the power struggle that lies within all museum institutions, of who has the right to decide what gets put there. These are further referenced by Tuerlinckx by the antiquated nature of certain objects, the old science text books and a paper globe, as well as the ‘curiosity shop’ feel. As a visitor to her exhibition we relinquish our ability to critique the categories she creates, and in this process we ask ourselves whether we ever truly can question the institutions we are in. This issue is particularly acute when curating a virtual museum where the artifacts are all created within an artificial situation of a two dimensional display, applying the artistic practice of creating imagery of places that consist of abstractions from reality. Prepared to be invaded by our minds through viewing, we inhabit these illusions, continuing the path of imagination prepared and set forth by the image-maker. The image, sound, picture or video is the first port of call.

The idea of topography within an image, or the exploration of the geography of a transitional and temporal place, can be seen in the work ‘Airport’ by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. We are presented with an intangible situation that existed only for that short moment while it was being seen by the two artists. Airports are places where high technology meets consumer culture, where we feel in the presence of the giant collective mind of the modern world. There is a total absence of settlement ecosystem and culture. We may reach the airport from environments which haven’t changed much since the 19th century; suddenly at the airport, we see the promises of modernity: of speed, transformation, infernal bureaucracy, and nightmarish loss of individuality and sense of place. It can be a mixture of horror and beauty, which only art can celebrate and lament. This momentary place is now fixed into imagery. While once it was real, it now exists as a useless topographical memory.

3 Example of a Cultural Heritage Location

The glacial gorges of South Wales are dominant features of the landscape. Three of them have been selected as the basis of a community ecomuseum,

One of these gorges, the Taff Gorge, serves as the example to show how the gorges serve as local centres of meaning, which cross-reference to many social objects and events many of which resonate on a global scale. The Taff Gorge is a place where planetary processes of plate tectonics and climate change meet the consumer culture of Cardiff, Wales’ capital city.

The Gorge is a naural phenomenon which carries the River Taff, where it dramatically breaks through the southern rim of the South Wales coalfield, flowing between a sequence of upland Carboniferous rocks on either side. The Carboniferous Period lasted from about 359 to 299 million years (Ma) ago during the late Paleozoic Era. At the start of this period the surface geology of what was to be Great Britain was lying at the equator, covered by warm shallow oceanic waters. It was during this time that the massive upturned quarried limestone cliff, which now terminates the South Eastern side of the Gorge looking over the city of Cardiff, was deposited. The strata are tilted at an angle of 50 degrees to the south. This is evidence of a mountain building period known as the Variscan orogeny, which occurred around 280 Ma.

Geological mapping has shown that the South Wales coalfield lying to the north consists of an elongated oval shaped area of Carboniferous rocks, the main portion of which extends east west between Pontypool and Carmarthen Bay. The coalfield occupies much of the old counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire and parts of Carmarthenshire and Breconshire. It is approximately 18 miles at its widest point north to south between the Taff Gorge and Merthyr Tydfil and 40 miles east to west. Carboniferous coal was produced by bark-bearing trees that grew in vast lowland swamp forests. Vegetation included giant club mosses, tree ferns, great horsetails, and towering trees with strap-shaped leaves. Over millions of years, the organic deposits of this plant debris formed the world's first extensive coal deposits. The upturned seams come close to the surface on either side of the Taff Gorge. In the Taff Valley the warm water spring of Taff's Well marks the base of the coalfield.


The Gorge is also a prime example of how the Welsh landscape overwhelmingly bears the marks of the last major glaciation. The River Taff followed the path of the southward flows of glacial ice which created this and other gorges along its path. This glacial period, known as the Late Devensian, probably reached its maximum extent just over 20,000 years ago. During this time, much of Wales was covered beneath thick ice sheets. Glaciers developed in the Welsh highlands and flowed radially outwards from the mountains, eventually coalescing to form a huge ice sheet. Along much of the north, west and south-west coasts Welsh ice met a great southward-moving ice stream that filled the Irish Sea Basin, nourished by ice from Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Lake District. Up to 300m thick in places, and with only a few of the highest mountain peaks exposed, the coeval Welsh and Irish Sea ice sheets had enormous erosive and depositional power. Over a period of about 10,000 years, the ice sculpted the Welsh landscape to an unprecedented degree, enlarging and deepening pre-existing valleys, carving new ones and plastering the landscape with ground-up rock debris and boulders. The Taff Gorge is testimony to the fact that all of Wales now bears the signs of this ice, as it flowed and melted, in its topography and biodiversity. It was this planetary-scale process which made possible the exploitation of fossil fuel and minerals of the coalfield to create the global Victorian energy market, initiated from Cardiff, that powered a global Industrial Revolution.

'People of the coalfield': a 19th century affiliation of people and objects in South Wales