Erin Dickey

Digital Art History, Mapping

DAH Post #6: Space is the Place?


In “The Spatial Turn in Art History”, Jo Guldi, in the History Department at Brown University, implicitly contextualizes the relatively recent spate of digital mapping projects in Art History by tracing how art, art history and related disciplines have traditionally parsed, represented, and used spatial relationships in creation and scholarship. Through her exploration of the etymology of landscape, Guldi links German and Dutch collective irrigation projects to renderings of English manor estates in landscape paintings. Later in this genealogy, the construct of the landscape is extended and reimagined in dioramas and spectaculars enjoyed by crowds in large urban centers. Guldi identifies the art historical study of landscape as the locus of philosophical speculation on the connections between visual perception, individual perspective, and Western history, as evidenced by 19th and 20th century readings of the invention of linear perspective in the Renaissance. Guldi notes that the study of historical maps changed in the late 20th century, along with that of other objects of study in Art History departments, with scholars “reading against the grain to reveal the prejudices of power.” More recent projects have explored the connections (or disconnections) as the case may be individual visual experience and the contemporary urban environment.

A talk by Donal Cooper of the University of Cambridge at today’s symposium at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, “Apps, Maps, and Models: A Symposium on Digital Pedagogy and Research in Art History, Archaeology, & Visual Studies”, highlighted a particular example of ties between visual experience of an art object and the history of that object’s spatial relationship with its environment, as well as between a contemporary urban environment and its digitally reconstituted past. In “Modeling Architecture and Uncertainty in Renaissance Florence: The Digital Reconstructions of Santa Chiara and San Pier Maggiore”, Cooper described a project to digitally reconstruct via 3D mapping the destroyed church of San Pier Maggiore in order to provide a space both ritually and historically fitting in which to “display” Botticini’s Palmieri Altarpiece for The National Gallery London’s exhibition of that work. In the process of research, Cooper and his colleagues discovered physical traces of the destroyed church (pillars, gargoyles, steps to the bell tower) in the existing urban environment. Those physical traces in turn helped to build and were incorporated within the resultant 3D model. Cooper shared a Youtube video giving an overview of the process: In this instance, an effort to provide a more fitting context for the Botticini altarpiece than that of the museum (a repository for decontextualized physical traces) led to a fuller exploration of actual physical traces within, as Cooper put it, “the present urban fabric”. With this digital project, the remaining physical traces of the San Maggiore Church (as photographed and encoded) are finally reunited with their lost altarpiece.

With all this in mind, I’ve been experimenting this week with StorymapJS. The map below constructs a narrative path using a toner map of the former site of Black Mountain College (1933-1957), a progressive liberal arts school located in Black Mountain, NC, whose artistic and pedagogical impact has been wide-ranging in 20th century American art. A number of well known and influential figures studied or taught there in a variety of disciplines, including Josef and Anni Albers, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Ruth Asawa, and on and on. Along with others familiar with the history of the school, it has always struck me as somewhat fantastic that the rural town of Black Mountain, NC could become a locus–albeit a temporary one–of the avant garde (and in the middle of the Great Depression, no less). The area is now owned by a private boys camp, Camp Rockmont. With a Black Mountain College site map discovered in 2014 by Camp Rockmont staff, along with photographs of the Black Mountain College campus and students taken by photographer and instructor Hazel Larsen Archer, I’ve attempted to map some of the historic activities of the school onto its current location. Doing so is, in the sense that I’ve referred to above, reconstituting the memories of the place as experienced through physical location, even as the terrain may have changed and some of the structures may no longer stand.  The site map is itself an interesting document in that it depicts both the school’s current buildings (in green) and future plans for expansion (in orange).

This Storymap is a incomplete for my purposes, both because I lack the images to construct a more detailed narrative, and because StorymapJS has a somewhat limited set of features. For instance, it would be useful for orientating purposes to show the map, the site map, and the aerial photograph of the campus side by side (and ideally, to identify features within them), but it appears I’m only able to display one photograph at a time next to the map. Additionally, given my stated goal to explore and spur meditation on how the setting of the campus might have influenced the art made there, it might have made more sense for me to use a map showing terrain, at the very least. With the current map, it is impossible to know where the structures referred to in the photographs actually stand–a visualization akin to Google Street View might be better suited to a project like this. Initially, I had planned to use the site map as the background image that the path would navigate through, but I determined that my JPEG of the site map was not of a high enough resolution.

Still, just from this experiment, it is easy to see how StoryMapJS can facilitate the construction of certain humanities narratives in which the visualization of and movement through space is imperative. Its capabilities also demonstrate the ways in which we might navigate an image of an art object in the same way as we navigate a map, an impulse that art historians and digital humanists may wish to deploy, exploit, or resist depending on what their scholarly goals may be.

UPDATE – 2.29.16: Alice Sebrell, Program Director at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, kindly alerted me to some errors and uncertainties in photo placement in the above StoryMap:

“I’ve always believed that Ray Johnson is wandering down the hallway of the Studies Building. Are you sure it’s one of the Lodges?
I think Katherine Litz is dancing in the Dining Hall. The smokestack in the distance would be part of the Studies Building.
The performance is in the Dining Hall: Marriage on the Eiffel Tower.
The aerial view would be summer 1948, because the Supine Dome is in the picture. Bucky took Hazel up in a small plane.”

All evidence that detailed (and vetted) metadata is vital for any attempt at virtual time travel.



  1. As you may have guessed I am especially interested in your Black Mountain College map, as I’ve studied the architecture and building program at BMC. I actually think this project could be an interesting candidate for the georeferencing workshop (and I read just now in your response to my blog post that it piqued your interest too). I think the Story Map loses its dynamism and sense of appropriate scale with a property as small as Lake Eden or Stagville Plantation. I love that you have incorporated the Archer photos within the architectural and landscape spaces – it really brings the campus to life. Another Story Map JS issue is that it might not be intuitive for a user to right-click on an image in order to blow it up. I am concerned about that with the Holbein stuff as I’ve gathered some pretty large photos and I’m worried the detail won’t be utilized if someone double clicks then gives up. I think it could learn something from simple Power Point capabilities, honestly — even if you do want to map these points, there may be a slide or two where you just want a big image or some text instead of the given format on each slide of limited information superimposed on the same map each time. I also completely support your impulse to use a terrain map — so much has been written in memoirs and such by former teachers and students on the mountainous landscape as inspiration!

  2. Hi Erin,

    Your StoryMap is excellent, and as someone mostly unfamiliar with the history of Black Mountain College, even the few images you provided, tied to the map, helped me get a sense of what the atmosphere then might have been like. You are right that a Google street view format might be even more powerful visually and narratively, and might even tie in elements of repeat photography. I don’t know if such a tool exists, but I wonder if in the Google maps we are creating we might be able to use the Streetview feature. Something to explore I suppose. Also to your point about Cooper’s talk, I think we both appreciated the innovation of the project, but in your comment on my post you made an excellent point about the problematic aspects of these modeling projects. Museums are already in such a problematic position of constructing/presenting narrative as truth, and at first glance it would seem that projects like this are providing context, but that obscures the reason behind the need for context in the first place. Tools like this could be used to further remove the realities behind cultural heritage appropriation from museum-goers and could be a powerful tool in the currently heated debate over repatriation. I like that thinking critically about these projects and tools has been a theme throughout your writing on digital art history – it would certainly be easy to become so enamored of the novelty and innovation of these projects that we forget to examine every angle of the impact they are having and will have.

  3. Nifty set of images! The juxtaposition rather poignantly enhances the status of the campus – semi-available, split between two very different commercial enterprises.
    I wanted to give you the connection I mentioned when we talked at BMCM+AC – Whitney Trettien, whose examination of sources and how they are mediated shows many shared concerns:

    1. Thank you, John! I actually went to a talk (one of UNC’s “Digital Salons”) given by Whitney Trettian a couple of weeks ago–the projects she cited and showed (some of her own, and some belonging to collaborators) are truly pushing the boundaries of digital humanities, as well as combining scholarship and artistic practice.

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