Skip to Content

In Situ

Where are you from? This seemingly simple question often reveals the complex relationship that people have to place. For some, place is stable and rooted; for others it is pluralistic, changing, and contested. The entry for place as a noun in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary offers over twenty meanings, including a physical environment; indefinite region or expanse; relative position in a scale or series; proper or designated niche or setting; distinct condition, position, or state of mind; and more.[1] The question of “from” is even more complicated when explored through the concept of in situ—the natural, original, or existing position or place—which is often a critical lens through which we consider cultural heritage. Perspectives on Place engages these ideas in the realm of the built environment and visual culture by asking: How do concepts of place and place-making influence the understanding and care of cultural heritage?1

The original concept for this volume stemmed from the Art Institute of Chicago’s groundbreaking acquisition and installation of the Hartwell Memorial Window, a monumental landscape in stained glass with a design attributed to Agnes F. Northrop for Tiffany Studios. In 2017 the Community Church of Providence (formerly the Central Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island) approached the museum about taking on the long-term stewardship of this extraordinary work. There was one important consideration, however: it was still in situ in Providence and would need to be removed from the church and reinstalled at the museum. This relocation would uproot the window from its originally intended site and context; furthermore, at twenty-five feet high by sixteen feet wide and comprising forty-eight panels showcasing hundreds of pieces of intricately arranged glass, moving it would be no small feat. Perhaps the greatest challenge of all was developing a re-siting plan that would honor the window’s history while attending to present and future considerations of its place within a museum collection. The months of planning that ensued, the many experts that contributed novel approaches to its deinstallation at the church and installation at the museum, and the discoveries that were made as a result of this change in location attests to the material, meaning, and practice of place-making. As the spatial and physical context of the window changed—as it moved from a religious setting to a secular one, a local congregation to a global stage—new opportunities for contemplation, reflection, and understanding emerged.2

Humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan spent his career developing an intellectual framework that is relevant to this reorientation of place as more than location. In “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective,” one of his many texts that engage the subject of a human’s experience of the world, Tuan posits that place is both a “unique entity” and a “special ensemble” with “a history and meaning.” He continues, “Place incarnates the experiences and aspirations of a people. Place is not only a fact to be explained in the broader frame of space, but is also a reality to be clarified and understood from the perspectives of the people who have given it meaning.”[2] Tuan’s work has spurred a movement to conceive of place in pluralistic terms and to consider positionality—not only spatial positioning but also the human dynamics of access and power at play in the creation and meaning-formation of place.[3]3

Turning back to museums as one arena where place can be formed and reformed via a dialectical relationship between objects and people, scholar and cultural critic David Carr addresses the power and possibility of museum sited-ness in A Place Not a Place, noting,

Our best experiences in cultural institutions confirm an irony: because of what is in them, held in place, it becomes possible to think beyond that place. And another irony: despite the physical dimensions and frequent densities of our places and their contents, their most important holdings are those we cannot see—the interaction, reflections, and interior engagements we make through the objects, tools, and information we encounter.[4]

Although the concept of in situ is antithetical to museums as they are not the original context for the objects in their care, they can offer varied and layered opportunities for different kinds of place-making. On the other hand, buildings and sites that remain in their original locations also undergo changes over time—in their physical attributes but also in their meaning and the way they are used by the various communities that inhabit and value them. Concepts of place are thus inherently dynamic and mutable.

The relocation of the Hartwell Memorial Window thus relates to a set of questions that art historians, conservators, curators, and other cultural heritage professionals ask about all works of art: How were they experienced in their original time and location? To what extent did these initial contexts orient and shape artistic intent and audience interpretation? Location and place may change over time. What happens when the physical context of a work of art is interrupted or upended? What are the stakes surrounding its placement and/or displacement? Research and analysis are themselves informed by position and place. How are art historical, conservation, and material science methods shaped in situ? How must they change when addressing a work of art that has been removed from its original context(s)?5

Intertwined inquiry into the past, present, and future of artworks has always been important in art history and related disciplines but has taken on even greater weight in our particular moment. Debates around presentism (a term referring to a preoccupation with the current moment as the essential way of understanding the past) are churning in various fields of cultural investigation.[5] It is not a leap to apply the principles at the heart of these lines of inquiry about presentism to the broad concept of place we are engaging here. This connection opens up a further set of questions: What does it mean to recontextualize works in physical places that are separate from their past? What happens when we privilege one point in an artwork’s history over another—or when we deprioritize or disregard that history? How might contemporary digital tools and technologies help us better understand, critique, and also document the changing places of art?6

Perspectives on Place is driven by the many ways experiences, materials, and processes make and define place. As coeditors, we—a curator of American decorative arts and design, and an architectural conservator shaping cultural heritage practice—saw the potential relevance of this line of inquiry to an expansive geographical, temporal, and theoretical range of artworks, sites, and subjects. We can interrogate place, sited-ness, and the concept of “original” location through archaeological investigation and research; theoretical and practical projects of restitution and decolonization; community-based conservation; site-specific artworks and interventions, Gesamtkunstwerk, and land art projects; digital and material recreations of artistic sites and architectural settings; and more. What principles are shared across the disciplines of art history, conservation, and cultural heritage preservation, and where do they diverge? When we center and interrogate place across a diverse set of case studies, what opportunities arise for artists, activists, historians, and practitioners to learn from each other?7

As this volume was inspired by the Hartwell Memorial Window, the opening essay, “A New Setting for Tiffany Glass: The Hartwell Memorial Window at the Art Institute of Chicago,” explores the acquisition and unprecedented installation of this monumental stained glass landscape. Carrying on the tradition of collaborative work that defines the window’s history, authors Elizabeth McGoey, Diane Rousseau, Rachel Sabino, Ken Sutherland, and Andrew Talley offer an interdisciplinary account of the origins of the window, its deinstallation from the Community Church of Providence, and the complex process to develop and implement its novel setting at the museum. Oscillating between the work’s place in the past and in the present, they contend that the relocation of the Hartwell Memorial Window not only conserved its material form but also resulted in the revelation and transmission of historic craft techniques and practices.8

Moving to another religious site, Pérside Omena Ribeiro, João Pernão, Luiz Souza, and Joaquim Caetano are also concerned with conservation interventions in “Conserving Polychrome Surfaces in the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição dos Militares in Recife, Brazil” The authors describe the multiyear project to bring this church interior back to its original aesthetic, thereby advancing the preservation and understanding of Brazilian heritage. Baroque art and architecture flourished in Brazil in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; shaped by European imperialism, Catholicism, and local identities, the built environment of this period is associated with the development of a distinctive national culture. Inside the Nossa Senhora da Conceição dos Militares, however, that vibrant history had been obscured, covered up by successive layers of white paint that had been applied over centuries. Their essay tracks their collaborative efforts to conduct a comprehensive study and restoration of the interior that brought it back as close as possible to the original decorative scheme—an approach they believe not only reveals the intentional relationship of art, architecture, and the human experience in the space but also re-centers the church as a present-day cultural destination.9

Ana Nieves’s article on Nasca art engages questions of place through an intermedial investigation of the iconography of the Nasca Mythical Killer Whale in ceramics, geoglyphs, and petroglyphs. While the ceramic works—untethered from the land and dispersed across the world in private and public collections—are often the subject of iconographic study, Nieves brings readers to the heartland of the Nasca civilization to think about indigenous visual culture and meaning-making through site-specific practices. Her goals are both to connect ideas across these disparate creative endeavors and to bring positionality into analysis of Nasca art. “Representation, support, and location seem to be intertwined,” she writes, “yet the position of the viewer in relation to the image is a factor that is rarely discussed.” In “Pots, Petroglyphs, and Pathways: The Mythical Killer Whale in Nasca Art,” Nieves changes this by inviting us into an analysis of the iconography of the Mythical Killer Whale across immobile bodies of earth and mobile bodies of clay.10

Jennifer R. Cohen also explores the relationship of mobility and sited-ness in, “Siting a Multiple: Robert Motherwell’s A la pintura (1968–72).” Printmaking is largely understood as a mobile art form given that it is reproducible, portable, and able to be easily recontextualized. Yet Cohen contends Motherwell’s first printmaking project challenges these received understandings of the medium. Following three main paths of investigation, Cohen presents A la pintura as a series that must be understood by the places it depicts, the physical place where the pages are held, and places of its care and display. From this perspective, she writes that the series “celebrates the material sources of color” through depictions of the landscape and architecture of Spain; that the sheer bulk of the folio and its housing “made viewership of the book necessarily embodied”; and that an understanding of the site of creation (Motherwell’s studio) needs to be consistently applied to the series.11

While all the artworks addressed in this volume derive meaning from concepts of place—as location, material, subject matter, and more—contemporary site-specific art is understood as having been made for a particular place with an interrelationship with that location. Tatja Scholte engages this discourse on site-specificity through the contemporary installation artwork Drifting Producers, created by the South Korean artists’ collective Flying City. Developed and displayed intermittently between 2001 and 2009, Drifting Producers is inspired by a real place, Cheonggyecheon, a district in Seoul, South Korea, which has been deeply impacted by globalization. As a site-specific work, it also becomes a place when it is installed through a series of imaginative city models made of cardboard, plywood, tape, and string along with photo and video elements. But what happens when a site-specific work is collected and restaged within a museum context? As Scholte asks, “is it possible to revive the artwork’s site-specificity in a museum context, and if so, how?” In an attempt to answer these questions, Scholte traces the history of Drifting Producers from Cheonggyecheon to its acquisition by the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands. Offering the practice of dramaturgy as a model for this kind of institutional restaging, Scholte suggests that this practice (originally developed in the realm of theater) melds the artwork’s biography with conceptual, physical, and institutional realities. For Drifting Producers and other works, safeguarding the conceptual and material aspects of the artworks alone is not enough to keep them alive; they also require dynamic and relational rethinking with “human engagement at all stages.”12

Finally, Perspectives on Place includes a photo essay and personal reflection by Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong addressing the complex connection between place and belonging. Sixteen haunting towers, known as dīuláu (碉樓), draw us into the built environment of two counties, Toisan (台山) and Hoiping (開平) in the Sze Yup (四邑) region directly west of Macau and Hong Kong. These are regions marked by strife and political insecurity, and the buildings, erected between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries, were constructed as sites of community, power, and security. Now abandoned—in some instances being overtaken by nature, in others, slowly deteriorating in place—the towers can be seen as symbols of the Asian diaspora. They are, in Leong’s words, “of many places at once” and “the built expression of an identity shaped by connections with the faraway.”13

Works of art and architecture can help us answer the question “Where are you from?” just as they can reveal parts of the world previously unknown. Perspectives on Place offers a platform for self-reflection and exploration as well as a discursive site to challenge, critique, embrace, reject, and redefine ourselves and our world in situ.14

Banner image: Detail of fig. 8 in Ana Nieves, “Pots, Petroglyphs, and Pathways: The Mythical Killer Whale in Nasca Art.”15



  1. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “Place,” accessed June 1, 2023,
  2. Yi-Fu Tuan, “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective,” in Stephanie Gale and Gunnar Olsson, eds., Philosophy in Geography, Theory and Decision Library vol. 20 (Berlin: Springer, Dordrecht, 1979),
  3. See, for instance, Tim Cresswell, “Place: Encountering Geography as Philosophy,” Geography 93, no. 3 (Autumn 2008): 132–39; and Daniel R. Williams, “Making Sense of ‘Place’: Reflections on Pluralism and Positionality in Place Research,” Landscape and Urban Planning 131 (2014): 74–82.
  4. David Carr, A Place Not a Place: Reflection and Possibility in Museums and Libraries (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2006), 127.
  5. An introduction to the concept of presentism can be found in François Hartog, Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time, trans. Saskia Brown, European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); and Marek Tamm and Laurent Olivier, eds., Rethinking Historical Time: New Approaches to Presentism (London: Bloomsbury Academic), 2019. For related debates and perspectives in the fields of art history and history, see Christopher S. Wood, A History of Art History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019); and James H. Sweet, “Is History History? Identity Politics and Teleologies of the Present,” in Perspectives on History 60, no. 6 (September 2022) along with the author’s note added to the digital link on August 19, 2022,

How to Cite

Elizabeth McGoey and Jeanne Marie Teutonico, “In Situ” in Perspectives on Place, ed. Elizabeth McGoey and Jeanne Marie Teutonico (Art Institute of Chicago, 2023).

This contribution has been reviewed through an open-review process.

© 2023 by The Art Institute of Chicago. This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license:

Sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates.

Learn more

Image actions