by Annie Poslusny

Digital Mapping

Thee project, Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market led by scholars Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, began with Fletcher’s question: how did the commercial art-gallery system operate in nineteenth-century London? Fletcher was curious about where people encountered works of art, and how did the physical and social circumstances of those encounters shape their responses? She was quickly overwhelmed with the sheer volume of data, and realized she needed a way to organize the data, as well as a means to put the individual accounts of galleries into a larger pattern. The first part of the project involved mapping all the data points, and the second step was creating the animated map. The team used GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to do so, and because modes of mapping time in GIS were inadequate, they chose to animate the map using Flash. Fletcher relays that the map originated as a tool to organize and understand the large amounts of data uncovered through her research of the London art market, but that the visualization quickly suggested new interpretations and avenues of inquiry. Fletcher and Helmreich are not advocating for a single hidden meaning that can be extracted from the sources. What they are advocating for is the adoption of new modes of analysis that will allow us to view the historical record in new ways – from a point of view of distance that permits us to observe patterns that would otherwise elude us. The scholars state that the new methods do not displace other modes of art historical analysis, but instead work in concert with them.

Fletcher goes on to address seven lessons the team learned while working on this project. The first, is to understand that digital scholarship requires an extensive time commitment. 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. The second, is that digital scholarship rests on data standardization. This is a significant point, and those who are not experienced with digitization may not consider the fact that the computer requires standardized spellings and other repeatable formats in order to organize the data and perform efficient searches. This can be a challenge with historical texts and changes in language structure over time. The third, is to revise traditional scholarship and publishing workflows. With digital projects the publishing format is variable and therefore all viable options must me considered at the start of the project. The two aspects of the project – generating new scholarship and publishing new scholarship – must be managed concurrently. This is a new way of working and conceiving a scholarly project, and it can prove difficult to make all the decisions at the start of a digital project that must be made. Fourth, 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. Each team member must be treated as an equal, rather than as a service provider. I think for an effective team to operate, each member must feel that their contribution is valued. While I agree with Fletcher and Helmreich, I’m not sure how this would actually work in a museum setting. Museums, like much of society, is based on a hierarchical system, and currently the people doing the digitization projects are either art librarians, (who are also busy completing many other tasks) or graduate students, who most likely are not getting paid. I would suspect that this is the system at smaller museums, while larger museums could possibly have a full-time staff working on digitizing their collection. The fifth lesson, is that we must 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? Is this decision made solely by the scholars in charge? And if that is the case, then the entire team are not really ‘equals,’ are they? What criteria do you base this decision on? Is this a decision you make based on the amount of contribution by a member of the team at the end of the project? Or will some people be guaranteed authorship at the start? Author status has the potential to become a contentious issue. Sixth, is that digital scholarship is a form of scholarly interpretations. In other words, there were many choices to be made along the way in a project of this magnitude, and other scholars may have made different choices, leading to a possibly different conclusion. This doesn’t make their research any less valid, it means that simply because there is a digital, computer-based aspect to the research doesn’t mean it is the only answer to the research question. And finally, seventh, is to reconsider the traditional models of scholarly argument. Their research was not limited to the text, but also embedded in the map and visualizations, and they are an integral part of the project. You cannot extricate one from another, they must be reviewed together, as part of a whole. This article shows the highlights and pitfalls of a digital mapping project. It also shows the opportunities available to researchers if they are open to new ways of thinking about scholarship, and authorship.

This week we began experimenting working with Google Maps as well as StorymapJS. I found Google Maps to be easy to understand and use. I had difficulty with the number of steps it took to get an image ready for StorymapJS. It seemed to me to be a complicated process, and I still am unsure if I did it correctly. I was surprised how much I enjoyed working with Google Maps, and I can see myself using that technology on future projects.

References:

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). http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/index.php/autumn12/fletcher-helmreich-mapping-the-london-art-market.

1 Comment

  1. Emily C

    Hi Annie, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the Fletcher and Helmreich article. I think when you wrote, “Fletcher and Helmreich are not advocating for a single hidden meaning that can be extracted from the sources. What they are advocating for is the adoption of new modes of analysis that will allow us to view the historical record in new ways – from a point of view of distance that permits us to observe patterns that would otherwise elude us. The scholars state that the new methods do not displace other modes of art historical analysis, but instead work in concert with them” you really distilled the article and honestly digital art history as a whole into an easy to understand way. I think the first part in particular is something that’s important to remember- that they’re not advocating for a single hidden meaning. In a way I feel like that combined with the fact that digital scholarship can take a while to set up (as we saw in many projects this week!) is part of the reason some scholars are still wary of digital scholarship. Whereas other methodologies that have been introduced into art history have elucidated completely new meanings, compared to connoisseurship or the like. Thanks for giving us your thoughts!

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