Modern Mapping: Digital History Projects

February 26, 2016
© National Museum of the Royal Navy
© National Museum of the Royal Navy

Cartography, the study and practice of making maps, enable one to present and model a reality in order to communication, explain or navigate their way through the world. From cave paintings to 18th century globes, ancient maps of Greece to maps from the Age of Exploration, right up to the digital maps of the 21st century, people have used maps to present and communicate spatial information. Although printed and physical maps produce a tangible way of interacting with our world both past and present, the use of digital tools have helped change the way we see – and record – the physical world.
Daniel Crouch Rare Books last year sponsored the digitisation of the Klencke Atlas at The British Library. The personal map collection of King George III contains more than 50,000 maps and views and is considered to be one of the most significant and beautiful collections of maps in the world. The collection provides a rich insight into one of Britain’s most intriguing monarchs as well as making one of the founding collections of the British Library.
Digitalizing history in this way will help to preserve national collections in an easily accessible format. By doing so one, in a sense, transfers a physical collection online. However, over the last few years numerous interactive maps have been created which bring together information online that have never before been juxtaposed or compared. These projects enables one to visualise the impact of historical events or movements with a completely different emphasis or perspective, as well as with a more informed outlook.  
A notably impactive project is Visualizing Emancipation, a map recording slavery’s end during the American Civil War. The project finds patterns in the collapse of southern slavery, mapping the interactions between federal policies, armies in the field, and the actions of enslaved men and women on countless farms and city blocks. You are able to use the filters to find specific types of emancipation events including the capture/enslavement/re-enslavement of African Americans by Confederates, the Abuse of African Americans, Fugitive Slaves/Runaways and many more. Using a Heatmap one is able to easily visualise the geographical impact of the emancipation of slavery.
Mapping projects such as the recently launched Interactive Map, hosted by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, allow us to understand historical events with alternative perspectives. Interactive Map records the individuals involved in the Battle of Jutland from all over the British Isles and further afield highlighting the battle’s scale and significance to the First World War through its human narrative. A growing historical record, the NMRN are calling members of the public to share their ancestor’s stories to build a clearer visual representation of the impact of the battle.
Continuing this theme a fantastic project, The Fallen of World War II, looks at the human cost of the Second World War and sizes up the numbers to other wards in history, including trends in recent conflicts. This strong 15 minute video indicates how digital visualization can bring home truths of past events which seem distant and constrained to the history books.
Other projects cover perhaps more light hearted subjects such as The Roaring Twenties, a digital mapping project which taps an archive of noise-complaint data from New York City during the 1920s and early 1930s. As the city rapidly modernised and mechanised, public complaints about noise grew with it. You can see the complaints mapped on the city or browse by types of complaint or incidences of complaints over time, some complaints are also accompanied by the actual letters or video footage of the noise. This allows key events such as the building of the Chrysler Building to be recorded by the impact they had upon New York City residents.
These different ways of visualising data have helped to evolve and change our understanding of the past by enhancing engagement and re-imaging history from a different perspective. Accessible remotely, one is able to access nationally significant collections and sets of data from all around the globe. From the humble atlas to digital mapping projects one is able to contain and revisit a past which otherwise could be lost to history.

About the author

Charly Hancock

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