Context and History

In any psychology experiment involving people, context is at the top of the scientist’s list of confounding variables. As well as whatever our senses are feeling, the experiences or associations we have with a space have a strong influence on our behaviour.

In Europe we celebrate history more than anywhere else; there are plaques up to mark lives, deaths and events, making us happy, sad, awestruck or perhaps bored as we read them. Even without written signage, knowing what has happened in a place might give us something extra in the moment; sometimes inspiring us on to achievements that can then be marked and remembered, as we become our own ghosts.

London’s West End theatres draw actors from around the world. A few weeks ago I saw Kevin Spacey give a extraordinary performance in Richard III, at the Old Vic. Afterwards he spoke of how he had been inspired by the history of the venue and the calibre of actors who had played the very same role on the very same stage before him. He can do nothing but give his best. All over the world, hero trodden boards entice and motivate their awe inspired successors and the theatre’s reputation is reinforced to arouse, intimidate even, subsequent players.

Sporting arenas are no different. Athletes endeavour to emulate and surpass what has previously occurred in the arena, the event is held in higher regard due to what has previously happened in that space. It is not just arenas. In cycling, each great Alpine climb of the Tour De France has its own legends, heroes and magic. A historic venue is an alchemical catalyst on which great athletes achieve their career gold.

In football, Manchester United refer to their stadium as a ‘Theatre for Dreams,’ their players go onto the pitch believing anything is possible. The longer a great venue survives the more historic it becomes and the more legends it is associated with. The Old Wembley Stadium was literally known as ‘The Venue of Legends,’ enticing players, describing what they can become. Sadly, for our national team the venue seemed to too often over inspire its opponents. After reconstruction, the new Wembley has little history to utilise and is instead subtitled ‘Inspiring Memories;’ a calling for the heroes of the present to make their mark.

Sports fans have associations with the names of stadiums. The history wrapped in that name excites them as they travel to an event, the very sound of it makes them feel something; they have an emotional relationship with it. In England we are in the midst of an era of football stadiums requiring replacement. As this occurs the legendary venue names are consigned to history and worse still, the new names of new stadia are predominantly that of advertisers. I wonder if we will ever fall in love with or be so inspired by the name of an airline, a bank or a photocopier manufacturer.

The commercial world has of course exploited this influence in most domains. When we consider going shopping we are lured to places like ‘Bluewater,’ near Dartford in Kent. A name that calls us toward the most essential element we know. Water calms and satisfies, refreshes and keeps us alive. The fact it is blue makes it sound like the most revitalising of all water, glorious water, the sort of water we see in art, in holiday brochures and in our dreams. New shopping centres in London have been labelled Westfield, another crafty calling to the serenity of nature. A field in the middle of the city!