Digital Humanities

Mapping the Future

Posted by Emily Crockett

When I was at the Duke Wired! Lab this summer working on the Dictionary of Art Historians, I was able to learn a lot about the Visualizing Venice project that launched several years ago and has had multiple iterations of what they have looked at in terms of spatial Art History. This has included Venetian Ghettos, the Accademia and several years ago the exhibit a Portrait of Venice based on the 1500 map by Jacopo de Barbari. While I don’t have as much familiarity with the first two iterations of the project, I was able to see the Portrait of Venice at the Nasher in 2017 and was blown away by what the Wired Lab was able to do. This project went beyond what was described in our readings this week on spatial history and turned that spatial history into a truly digital and interactive project. To view a map on the computer and to be able to manipulate the data is incredibly helpful for thinking about how important space is in art history whether that be the space the artist is depicting of the space the artist is living in. To be able to play with a map large scale and to be able to (almost) experience it, is something completely different. This project allowed the viewer to use a touch screen to decide where to go in the map, it included sounds of what it may have sounded like, additional images, the only thing missing was smell (although considering the way that Venice smells now I don’t know that I would want to smell). It created a completely different learning context for the map. While before seeing it on the wall would be incredible (the map itself is 5 feet by 10 feet) you wouldn’t be able to see detail unless the museum itself decided to include detail shots or if you got really close up, and we all know how museums about people pressing their noses up against the glass. For example, this view would probably be impossible without the help of digital technology:

detail image of the de barbari map

The image of the gondola with 4 little stick figures and the larger ship next to it is the small red box on the larger image above. In the exhibition one was able to zoom into the gigapixel image and explore the map with the annotations made by the team, very similar on a much larger scale to the story map JS I put together of the same map.

Additionally, the map itself is from the Minneapolis Institute of Art who on their website has  linked to the gigapixel image and has asked patrons to search the image, find one of the 103 bell towers used to create the image, and then link to information on the bell tower. This of course brings up the idea of crowdsourcing in digital projects and the fascinating power that could be unlocked with that by using it properly (such as websites like Zooniverse!) This project as well as many like it brings up Johanna Drucker’s question of digitized art history vs. digital art history and recalls what Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, with David Israel and Seth Erickson, address in “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” 

In other words, our field has established models for online access and distribution, but lacks robust examples of scholarly interpretation predicated on new modes of analysis made possible by the innovations of the digital age.

Clearly, tools like Story Map JS and other digital tools we’ve looked at aid in the organization and learning of specific information. I think just like annotation, this ability to kinesthetically engage with an object, or to think about object within the context of a specific space and then actually see that space activates a completely different part of the brain. Whether that qualifies as a new methodology? I don’t I know, but I do think it allows people to see what may have been available for years in a completely different light.

Then on the other hand you have scholars doing incredible projects with AR/VR and of digitally rebuilding lost buildings or trying to see the change in buildings based on plans they may have. The video below explores the Accademia of Venice using digital tools.

And this video is an interview with a PhD student at UNC who is working in religious studies and has built VR models of synagogues in order to explore how the architecture of the buildings were built in relation to the celestial skies and thus played a very important role in the Jewish liturgical activities:

This realm of mapping and of spatial history is something that truly could change the way we think about art history. In my own research, I could see where being able to construct the original context of a painting, or perhaps think about the artist’s studio space could elucidate new information that wouldn’t have been available before. While some types of projects are still only accessible by scholars with advanced technical skills or the resources to obtain such skills or to work with someone who has them, the innovation of tools like StoryMapJS point scholars in the right direction (speaking of which if anyone has interest in the rest of the Knight Lab tools, my colleague at the DIL wrote excellent tutorials for all of the tools)

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