New Meanings with Maps

Maps provide us with a new way of engaging with and interpreting information. In class this week, we looked at several digital projects that utilized maps, two of which I’d like to discuss here. The first being Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich’s “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market.” Using two data sets, one regarding “locations of major London commercial art galleries between 1850 and 1914” and the other concerning sales made by an international art retail firm, Local/Global provides an interactive map that models the London art market at the time. Through this map, they were able to show the changing density of art galleries and the pathways that both dealers and art works traveled, amongst other things. The project was 10 years in the making, which hints to how labor-intensive and time consuming successful digital projects can be.  The feature I enjoyed most about this DAH was that users of the map could modify both the year and the kinds of data they were looking at by changing what layers were in use (museums, galleries, artists and retail). One thing worth noting about this project that applies broadly to many DAH projects is that while it appears simple, this project took countless hours, endless data input and a lot of hard collaborative work. 

The second mapping project we looked at was Digital Harlem. The makers of the project mined data from archival records, legal records and newspapers to recreate what daily life in harlem was like. The map’s versatility is quite impressive; one can track where people moved throughout their lives, see concentrations/frequencies of arrests, and the map has over 70 items in its legend from aborton providers to dance halls. My favorite way to use the map of Harlem was to select the name of an individual from the drop down menu and read about their life while navigating the map to see where they spent their days. At each node on the map, a pop up window could be activated and it would tell you the significance of, or the event that occured at that point on the map. I could see this kind of project translating well into a digital art history project that traces the lives of various artists. One thing that has always made archival research exciting to me is the element of intimacy with history that it provides. Such mapping projects make historical figures and their lives feel more tangible; I think this is one reason why the Digital Harlem project was so successful. 

This week we looked at two mapping tools, Google Maps and StoryMapJS. I chose to work with Google Maps, but both could provide digital art historians with a unique set of tools with which they could communicate new information to their audiences. I’ll first start with a review of Google Maps that will include my own map, “Artists’ Homes and Studios.” As the title of my map suggests, I chose to plot 20 homes and/or studios of North American/European artists. Ideally, I would have had more time to conduct archival research and plot where various artists lived throughout their lives. I had initially envisioned a map of New York City that charted where artists lived – such a map could convey information about changes in art movements and see if they were related to artists’ proximity to other artists etc. As the turnaround time digital assignment was quick, I chose to select artists whose homes are either museums or historic houses that one can visit. 

In class, we looked at the Modern Architects map that JJ Bauer and her ARTH 383 class created. That map had a layer for architects of color, and  another layer for women architects. I had first wanted to organize my map in a similar manner, but then realized there was no way to classify an artists as more than one thing; what to do with Frieda Kahlo who was both a woman and an artist of color? Thus, I chose to create layers based on the country in which the house/studio was located (North America and Europe) and then color-code the points by the primary medium in which each artist worked (Red – painter; Green – sculptor; Teal – print maker; Yellow – mixed media; Illustrator – purple; Gray – architect; Brow photographer). I’d like to note that while I chose to indicate the medium in which an artist worked, I don’t think that has much to do with geographic location in this particular example. That being said, I am sure there could be instances where drawing connections between location and medium could be fruitful. 

 Google Maps is a useful tool as your map data can be exported into a spreadsheet, photos and videos can be embedded into each point in addition to a description and information pulled from Google itself. Like many other Google Tools, Maps can be worked on collaboratively, which would be useful for most DAH. Google Maps could be useful for a wide array of projects, but I do think there are some inherent limitations imposed by the tool. Unlike a map embedded into a website, you can only provide so much contextual/additional information within Google Maps. In contrast to a mapping project like Digital Harlem, Google Maps seems to fall short of the possibilities for data visualization offered by other mapping tools. 

While you can provide a decent amount of contextual information within each point in Google Maps, you don’t have control over how a user interacts with the map, which brings me to StoryMapJS. I didn’t pursue making a map through StoryMapJS,  but I could see it being particularly useful for my own work as it could allow for detailed annotation of archival material. StoryMap lets you tag various points on an image and add descriptive information, links, and other media to provide more information about said image (or in many cases, an image of an art work). In some ways, StoryMap reminded me a bit of Tropy in that you can embed additional images or files within a singular image and use those secondary files to provide more information about the first. 

Works Cited 

Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, with David Israel and Seth Erickson, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 11:3 (Autumn 2012).

3 thoughts on “New Meanings with Maps”

  1. Taylor, I enjoyed your post, especially how you describe how you find archival research exciting because of the “element of intimacy with history it provides.” Yes! I completely agree. I researched the origins of the North Carolina Museum of Art and Wilhelm Valentiner, their first director while in undergrad. I loved going through boxes of letters, memos, and plans for the future of the museum at the North Carolina State Archives. You learn so much about a person through their letters. Valentiner was such an eloquent and elegant writer. I found plans for the expansion of the museum, how he dealt with problems, and how his thought process in selecting art for the museum. I enjoyed the map of Harlem, too, and I agree with your assessment that it is a good model for an art history project which traces the lives of various artists. I liked working with Google Maps, and found it fun and easy to use. I agree that it doesn’t have the same level of sophistication as a mapping project like Digital Harlem, but it has its uses, which you pointed out, such as exporting data to a spreadsheet, and the ability to embed photos and videos into each point. For me, StoryMapJS involved too many steps to get to a point where I could work with it. I got lost somewhere in between Photoshop and importing our tiled zip file. I found it to be a bit confusing. I would like to work on StoryMapJS again, so I could get a feel for its capabilities. Fletcher and Helmreich’s article did a great job of pointing out all the items to consider before launching into a digital art history project. The work is very labor intensive, and requires a lot of time. The scholars note that they originally thought that inputting the information into the computer would go quickly. They soon realized that this was not the case, and that leads to lesson two. They also point out that digital scholarship rests on data standardization. And as we learned this week, tidy data organization. The authors also stress that collaboration is crucial for success. To undertake these kinds of projects, the expertise of specialists in data management, database construction, computing programs, and web design and development are needed. This will cause us to rethink traditional models of authorship. The new models of collaboration that is required for digital projects of this type require new ways of determining authorship. Fletcher notes that they had many conversations about who, from the project teams, should be identified as authors. I can also envision this becoming a problematic issue. How do you decide whose contribution is significant enough to be considered an author? And if the work is published online rather in print, will it still be viewed as “scholarly”? There is a lot to consider in the field of digital art history, but I do believe it has a lot to offer in terms of sparking new avenues of inquiry, and new ways of displaying information.

  2. Hi Taylor! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, I really appreciate how you incorporate your interest in artist archives into this post. Your idea of using the Digital Harlem framework to use as a model to map an artist’s life, seems like a great idea. I know you work with contemporary artists, but I could see even with my own work in early modern how interesting it would be to trace Veronese or Titian’s life in Italy through the records they left behind in archives (for example I know there is a contract for a house that Veronese rented and subsequently lived in until his death in Venice’s archive). That would be a fantastic way to introduce students to archives. The problem you ran into with google maps not allowing a place to be in multiple layers is also a great point. I guess when google was developing they didn’t have a use case for that (although it seems silly that they wouldn’t) I guess the only way to mitigate that problem would be to use the markers differently but it sounds like your markers already have meaning. I was poking around the maps google features on the my maps website and it’s crazy the different maps people have come up with like best places to retire, pokemon nests, and hudson valley hiking. It didn’t seem like any of them were utilizing the layer the way they could, but interesting to see. Thanks again!

  3. Taylor, I really appreciate how you approached the map digital assignment! I did a “tourist attraction” city map for my own project, so the issue of categorization of layers didn’t really effect me (everything fit into neat categories of museum, restaurant, nature trail, etc). When we looked at JJ’s example, I still hadn’t thought through the implications of her categorization of the architects. I don’t think there is a way to do it on GoogleMaps, but what would really make a tool useful would be being able to cross-list points across layers. Going with your example of Frida Kahlo, going through a checklist and clicking “artist of color” and “woman” would then populate Kahlo and say Kara Walker. In some ways, this was successfully done in Digital Harlem because different places came up in multiple searches as I was playing with the tool. I think with archival research your idea has the potential to be a really interesting project!

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