Spatial History

“The Spatial History Project, however, does operate outside normal historical practice in five ways.”

  1. projects are collaborative
  2. “main focus is on visualizations, and by visualizations I mean something more than maps, charts, or pictures”
  3. “visualizations overwhelmingly depend on digital history. By digital history all I mean is the use of computers.”
  4. “projects are open-ended: everything —both tools and data— becomes part of a scholarly commons to be added to, subtracted from, reworked and recombined”
  5. “most critical aspect of our departure from professional norms is our conceptual focus on space.”

– Richard White, “What Is Spatial History,” Working Paper, Stanford, California, 2010

An interesting example of a spatial history project currently underway is the Waterlines Project at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle. This project has many facets including a video showing the development of downtown Seattle from pre-1850 to present time (see below), an online exhibit  titled Waterlines featuring maps, images, and videos of the changing geography of the region, and a public information center called Milepost31 in Pioneer Square.

Video “Djidjila’letch to Pioneer Square” from the  Burke Museum YouTube account.

“Not just a reminder of the past, but a resource for the future,” is a quote from a video on the new Burke website highlighting their rebranding. This emphasis on why it’s important to study history, geography, and material artifacts from the past is highly engaging and I think speaks to the goal of creating something that becomes “part of a scholarly commons to be added to, subtracted from, reworked and recombined.” It seems like the hope is that the Waterlines Project will have an effect on future construction and urban planning in Seattle and will get museum visitors and local residents talking and perhaps add to or creating new similar projects.

The last thing the Waterlines exemplifies is the multi-disciplinary and collaborative nature of spatial history. The project team consists of people who come from a variety of disciplines including archaeology, environmental science, ecology, anthropology, art, geology, architecture, urban design, web design, botany, and history. I think this collection of expertise demonstrates that creating spatial history projects can bring together those with highly specific and diverse skills.

Lastly, I keep noticing journalistic pieces and I think, isn’t that DH? or is it not serious enough or historical enough? The recent mapping of girls names from 1960 to 2012, by Reuben Fischer-Baum and published in Jezebel, is fascinating, informative, and gets a ton of comments. Is this the sort of thing that DH is hoping for? Or does DH mean that something has to be more complex?

Map: Six Decades of the Most Popular Names for Girls, State-by-State
Map: Six Decades of the Most Popular Names for Girls, State-by-State

In the comments of the Jezebel website page people are curious about names that did not make it on the map. Surely there are a lot of Katies and Lisas out there and those were popular names, but did the multiple spellings of the name mean that “Katie” did not get its due consideration? These are the types of intricacies that historians are critical of and aware of, and perhaps struggle depicting with a simple visualization that is effective but doesn’t tell many sides of a story. Still I think it’s worth looking at and historians need to be looking at what is going on not just in museums and academia, but in magazines and online news sources as well, both for inspiration and to see what sticks with readers.


3 thoughts on “Spatial History

  1. The one “difference” of spatial history as opposed to traditional history that I have trouble buying is the claim that spatial is collaborative. This seems to imply that traditional history is not. I don’t know about everyone else but I have never worked completely alone on any historical project. In the acknowledgments or even the preface of almost any traditional historical work the historians thanks a myriad of people for help on their work.

    1. I agree, but I found out quickly in library school that collaborative work was more explicit. My first research paper was written by a group of seven. The sciences all seem to have multiple authors as a common way of writing papers, whereas history there is often one main author. I think with spatial history it’s more interdisciplinary so you need to collaborate with people from different fields. I think looking at definitions of collaboration is also helpful, because there can be specific criteria to label something a collaboration past working with multiple people on a project. One quick example –

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