Make-up Activity 8: Critiquing Narrative Maps

Going back to the week of March 12-14’s lesson introducing us to geospatial analysis and narrative mapping (something I am embarrassed to admit I had forgotten to reflect on earlier), I find that one of the greatest takeaways came in the word’s of Richard White in his article, “What is Spatial History?”:

visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.[1]

In this sense, Anne Kelly Knowles’s re-examination of the Battle of Gettysburg is exemplary: by putting traditional historical research on the battle into conversation with digitally-mapped representations of troop locations and 3D models created through cartographic surveying, Knowles and her associates are able to shed light on how General Lee’s lacking visibility of Union lines contributed to the ultimate failure of the Confederate army at Gettysburg.

In many respects, this project is a prime example of a well-made narrative map/spatial history. The list of contributors, with expertise ranging from history to 3D animation, reflects an embrace of collaboration that such projects require compared to more “traditional” historical narrative projects. Additionally, the map also embraces the interactive potential of its web format. Not only is the user free to scroll and examine any point of the map, the key “turning points” of generals making judgement calls based on what they could see—the moments that construct Knowles’s argument—are made accessible in the form of 3D “viewsheds”, while zooming in on the map changes the very scale of the analysis (rather than just the scale of the viewing window) from troop lines to more finite troop, cavalry, and artillery locations.

Of course, this narrative map begins to show flaws upon closer inspection. The dynamic zoom feature is not always as useful as it would first appear, with changes in the map legend and the significance behind those differences of scale not always being intuitive from a user standpoint. And perhaps more importantly, the way the narrative map engages with its sources is not as transparent as it could be. The sources for this project are presented as a long list of things that influenced the makers’ thinking, rather than the makers pointing to the specific sources they drew from and engaging in discussion with the various sources’ arguments. This is a problem that becomes especially apparent in the moments it marks as “turning points”; the makers present those instances’ status as such as unquestionable “fact”—something that simply is—rather than explaining their thinking in why they established those moments as “turning points” which warranted deeper exploration through mapping and 3D modeling. The methods of narrative mapping enable a viewer friendliness and angle of engagement with history that other forms of presenting information simply do not allow. However, this does not change how mapped history is still history, and thus arguably must not forget to practice the same level of engagement and knowledge transparency that we expect from historical writing

[1] Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” The Spatial History Project, Feb 1, 2010.

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