Mapping many museums is internship’s next task

The newest challenge in our virtual internships with the Smithsonian Institution’s Cultural Rescue Initiative is to create a map of the museum data that we have been collecting this semester. That means trying to figure out the smartest way to visualize thousands of data points.

The digital public humanities coursework that is part of our graduate certificate program at George Mason University introduced us to some great examples and tools.

For instance, the collaborative Digital Harlem project “focuses not on black artists and the black middle class, but on the lives of ordinary African New Yorkers.” It uses legal records and Black newspapers to build a visualization of Harlem. One of the project’s collaborators, Stephen Robertson, led our introductory digital humanities course.

Another project, Locating London’s Past, brings together various data sets and two detailed maps of London created more than a century apart (John Rocque’s 1746 survey and maps created from 1863-1880 by the Ordnance Survey). The result is displayed on a Google map that helps researchers visualize textual data.

Besides the ubiquitous Google Maps, we were introduced to CARTO, a commercial product created by a Spanish company. Other mapping services, such as ArcGIS and Mango, also are available.

Our map of museums will not be anything as involved or visually fancy as Digital Harlem or Locating London’s Past, but digital projects such as these can inspire us to think about how the data that we have been collecting could be useful to different audiences. Initially, our intention is simply to display geocoded markers that reveal the location of various museums and other cultural repositories. Clicking on a marker would display an “infowindow” containing the name of the museum and a description of it.

However, the data that we have been entering into spreadsheets includes elements such as whether a museum site previously had a military function (for example, a former fort) and whether a state actor (local or national government or agency) is involved in the museum organization. If at some point someone would want to tap into that data and visualize it, our map should be able to handle the request.

Given the size of the data set, which likely will grow as future cohorts of interns work on additional countries, we’ve settled on a solution that will use Google Fusion Tables combined with a Google Map.

The Cultural Rescue Initiative needs the data about museums so that it has a better sense of what might be at risk in the event of conflict or natural disaster. In the weeks to come, it will be worthwhile to consider how seeing the data displayed on a map might help officials and cultural workers take action based on the efforts of a group of interns.