Locating the Past, the Gerald Aylmer seminar at the IHR, 29 Feb 2012, part I

I attended the Gerald Aylmer seminar day at the Institute of Historical Research on 29 February, which had the theme of 'Locating the Past'. It was a stimulating and exciting day showcasing different ways in which historians, geographers, archivists and, for want of a better term, pioneers in social media for community histories, were using GIS and other technologies. It was definitely a forward-looking event, highlighting the great possibilities offered by mapping historical data of all kinds, but also indicated the potential problems and tensions with what's going on at the moment.

Humphrey Southall

Humphrey Southall began with a whizz-through overview of the basics of GIS and its underlying principles.

His main argument revolved around the way in which geographers and historical geographers, using current GIS software, are often confined to a  
geo-spatial definition of geography = maps and space
However, historians are generally most interested in the geo-semantic definition = text and place.
'Places' are how most people think about geography rather than co-ordinates. 

It is difficult to represent 'places' and 'localities' adequately as points or polygons on a map. Uncertain historical places become even more problematic the further back in time we go and cannot be pinned down to specific co-ordinates, such as medieval parishes for which we only know the administrative centres but whose boundaries fade away into marshes and forests.

Southall stressed the need to develop geo-semantics within GIS, for example, using 'IsNear' and 'IsAdministrativelyPartOf' as possible terms, although these can never express all the relationships between places. He also highlighted the importance of representing history as linked data, a process that the Ordnance Survey is currently undertaking.

Southall concluded by 'opening' his project Old Maps Online, which brings together all the freely available old maps through an easily searchable portal. It's still work in progress, but the range of maps already there is pretty impressive. It's a little thin for my area of interest - the north of England - for example they haven't got the layers that the Manchester Public Profiler has, and there are no [?] pre-1836 maps.

Panel 1: Sources

Kimberley Kowal, lead curator of digital mapping at the British Library, Dominic Fontana from the University of Portsmouth, and Andrew Hudson-Smith from the Tales of Things project, offered us three projects that are in one sense very different but actually dove-tailed in their attitude to sources.

The British Library maps online project successfully used crowd-sourcing to geo-reference their historical maps.

Fontana's project involved using GIS software to map paintings of the Battle of the Solent of 1545 and speculate about why the Mary Rose sank in the place she did.

Tales of Things by contrast uses QR codes to tag objects with 'memories', allowing them to tweet and/or play back recordings. Hudson-Smith gave a slick 'ted' style presentation and although he showed how their collaboration with Oxfam raised the charity's takings, he seemed very unsure about the wider purpose of this technology and more significantly, its consequences. [BTW, who really uses QR codes anyway? Will they really last as a form of technology with these objects, as he suggested, 'from cradle to grave'?]

I played the pernickety historian and asked the difficult question to all three speakers. What concerned me was about their attitude to the sources. Two inter-related issues concerned me (and to my relief, the other historians in the room too):

1. accuracy and reliability. 

All three projects seemed to be concerned with what they saw as 'the truth', or the most 'accurate' mapping.

Fontana's selection of paintings made a great story because they were surprisingly geographically accurate in the placing of forts, coastline, etc. Kowal said that the British Library selected a quarter of their map collection on grounds of geographic accuracy, so that they would not warp too much when geo-referenced. But what about the other three-quarters? Can't those maps tell historians something about why and how mapping techniques changed over time; the fact that they are inaccurate is important and not a reason to reject them. I wondered what happened if participants in the Tales of Things project lied about their objects, as those misrepresentations indeed are as interesting as truths, but Hudson-Smith seemed perturbed by this suggestion and proclaimed that he had faith in human nature not to lie.

2. spaces of representation

Cultural geographers have all read their Denis Cosgrove, Henri Lefebvre and their Edward Soja. Indeed I thought much of that was all old hat. So it seems obvious to me that both maps and objects are never neutral, but are rather inhabit what Lefebvre calls spaces of representation (Soja's thirdspace).

Maps and objects are not meant to be accurate representations of reality, but rather (as with all cultural items) are representations of ideology, power, politics, the intentions of their producers and patrons. The paintings of Henry VIII in the Solent are very much a case in point of ideological representations. So whether or not they are geographically accurate is besides the point: they are something more than that. So I asked what happens with maps that aren't geographically accurate because they have a point to make - a ducal claim to assert, a landowner's sketch of his estate, a town's portrayal of itself as civil rather than slum? What about the many paintings which use artistic licence to show certain landscapes, emphasise certain features, be symbolic of their owner's power? Also, how are those meanings received and indeed subverted (Soja's thirdspace) by their viewers and users?

Again, this did not seem to be taken into account by the three speakers, who gave the impression that their objects had neutral meanings. I worried about the three-quarters of the maps rejected by the BL because they were not accurate - again, that's what makes them more interesting to political and cultural historians, because of the layers of meaning they portray.

More review of the day to follow in the next part...


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