Visualizing the Past

Back in high school I had this idea for a field trip in a van. It was going to be what I did after college (where I would, of course, double-major in theatre and history), and it went more or less like this: most public schools these days have trouble getting the resources (time, money, manpower) for field trips, but field trips to historic sites were some of the best times for me as a kid, because you got to be where the past happened. ((In the words of one of the kids Sheri took on a house tour, you get to “touch history”)) In order to bring that experience to schools, I was going to get a van and fill it up with objects, clothing, and build a whole educational workshop that could go for a class period or half day in whatever space was available.

One of the features that I concocted was a map mash-up which would help students see the historic landscape and the modern simultaneously. There would be a map, probably the historic map, printed large so everyone could see; the other map, say the modern street map, would be printed on overhead projector type clear plastic so it could overlay the historic one. I thought the visual collision of past and present would help other kids see how history is related to the world around us, in the roads and fields and buildings.

Needless to say, I never got around to making the field trip in a van, but the map idea stuck with me. Which is why I really enjoyed a number of the sites on the syllabus for this week (11), which are using digital tools to make a much more sophisticated version of a historic/modern map mash-up. Hypercities is only currently configured for select cities, but the interface is good. It allows users to select a time range and to increase or decrease the opacity of the historic map(s) which overlay a modern satellite view.  Some of the cities have only a few maps; London apparently only has one, but it’s John Snow’s cholera map!

Map overlays or mash-ups aren’t, of course, the only sort of visualizations available for historians. The variety adds to the use, and I find visualization tools personally useful. I am the sort of person who makes mind maps, writes and reads simple entity-relationship diagrams for relational databases, and appreciates a good flow chart.

However, when I remember my high school plan and impulse, I look at the visualization tools another way. Visualization tools can help a historian analyze their data, but they can also make that data more comprehensible to an audience, whether scholarly peers, students, or the public. It could be in the form of an argument, where the visualization illuminates an aspect of the data which is otherwise buried. It can also be in support of an argument, for example a relational diagram which highlights what aspects and relationships were considered most important in the data.

For this second form of visualization, the trick is making something which is true to the data and comprehensible to the reader. Even my low-tech overhead sheet map wouldn’t work for a group of students who had no idea how to read a map. Provide a key, define your terms. A visualization may be gorgeous, but if you’re the only one who can understand it, what’s the point?

4 thoughts on “Visualizing the Past”

  1. First, let me just give you the award for best opening line on a post. “Back in high school I had this idea for a field trip in a van” had me hooked!
    As one interested in military history I too am excited about spatial and mapping technology like Hypercities. Many visitors to battlefield complain about the difficulty of visualizing what went on when all they see is fields and grass. Technology like Hypercities, if configured for hand-held devices, could show a representation of what the ground you’re standing on may have looked like during the battle. Even placing certain units in their approximate locations would give you a better feel for what took place. I think Hypercities is great and I think the technology behind it has enormous potential.

    1. Thanks! I’m glad I decided to mention it.
      The battlefield visualizations you’re describing would be so helpful! I can never quite grasp the information in the old slides or animations of “red line and blue arrow move towards each other on black background which represents battlefield”. There’s just no correspondence to reality for me. Seeing the movements outside, where the hills and fields are right there, would be amazing.

  2. I also enjoyed how you began your post with the anecdote about the van – how very fitting to begin a blog post about spatial history by discussing an object that moves through space!

    Your comments on the van/road trips as well as on audience also made me remember how in the past you’ve discussed using digital applications to help people move through current and historical landscapes simultaneously. I’ve taken some cross country road trips, and the more I think about it the more I love this idea. The study (and my love) of history has sometimes lead me to believe that all time happens simultaneously, and while true or not, spatial history is a way for us to recreate that simultaneity while also showing change (“over time”).

  3. Hooray for plastic overlays! History tours are tricky because we are standing in the present time and are asking visitors to imagine this space X-number of years in the past. To do this, we need to peel back the layers of the present (the modern clothes, the electricity, the clean windows, the roar of the jet plane or the sounds of traffic) and place ourselves in a time and space that was here and very real to those who lived it. I suppose all historians have this sense of thrill when considering the possibilities of time travel (otherwise we are in the wrong business), so creating those tools to help others visualize this “recreated past” is the bread and butter of the history business. I love the diaramas that give us a sense of the space (but I can’t step into the small scale). I love the computer generated recreations of ancient cities (complete with robo-people), but these technologies seem so expensive and time consuming for the average (low-budget and limited time) historian. I do not think that visual representations are a new thing (historians have created miniatures or mock scenes for a long time), but the digital format allows the less technology-savvy to make use of these resources.
    I like your idea of history-on-the-go to bring history to people and hope that somehow the images created by the Hypercities or the mapping tools enables us (in small steps) to help visitors step into the past through a multi-sensory experience. The computer is probably just the next step in your plan to take history on the road and it saves gas!

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