The World Is Your [Living Museum]: Spatial History and the Digital Age

Hi friends, hope you are staying well—body, mind, and soul—and safe at home! I don’t know about you, but the readings on place, space, and human connectivity for this week felt either particularly cruel or like a digital vacation (or, if you’re like me, oscillating between the two).


In any case, please join me in a discussion of space and why, starting about a century and a half ago, Western scholars of history, religion, psychology, etc. began to take up the topic of spatiality. In the readings this week, Jo Guldi and Mark Tebeau introduce us to both the origins and examples of the application of the spatial turn in the digital age

Jo Guldi’s “What is the Spatial Turn,” tells us—you guessed it—what exactly the spatial turn was (gotta love that sign-posting). According to Guldi, starting in ~1880 and lasting through the mid-twentieth century, Western scholars from multiple disciplines—particularly the arts and social sciences—began to consider the relationship between peoples/societies and the land. In fact, they considered not only the relationship between a person and the land, but how that land could and did facilitate connections to other people. He brings up the discussion of “the commons” (any student of history or poli-sci likely remembers a class lecture of the “Tragedy of the Commons”—essentially the “this is why we can’t have nice things” of the 1960s), using it to model how historians, in particular, began to conduct close-readings of sources on societal structure to glean information about the importance of the space societies inhabited. Guldi’s second article, “The Spatial Turn in History,” breaks the trajectory of historian’s explorations of spatiality more closely. According to Guldi that trajectory looked like the following:  

  • Land within the context of the nation (a top-down, elitist narrative) –>
  •  Land within the context of the “city” (which allowed historians to “foreground middle-class actors” –> 
  • “Imagined” or “Sensuous Landscapes,” such as leisure spaces, suburbia, or even the “home” (which facilitated the entry of a broad range of historic actors into the narrative) –> 
  • Space within the context of the “infrastructure state” or how the manipulation of territory results in new/different relationships between people and the land

Guldi notes in “What is the Spatial Turn,” that since the 1970s, questions of power in relation to space have been the focus of many social histories. Indeed, we would be hard pressed to get out of a seminar book discussion without identifying how the author treated those subjects. Yet, not until the Digital Age have scholars had the opportunity to interpret and represent these spatial histories in a manner that emphasizes their spatiality. Writing about events that occurred within a space is not nearly as impactful as seeing an image that captured the event within the space is not nearly as impactful as seeing both the narrative and image imposed on a geospatial representation of the space itself. Each layer of interpretation provides the scholar/public a more complicated and (arguably) “complete,” multi-sensory lens into history. 

The primary question I had after reading Guldi’s articles is about how spatiality has been represented in non-Western scholarship? Western spatiality is very much wrapped up in place—physical locations seen through a predominantly colonial lens. However, there are other ways of conceiving of space beyond the physical that not even the imagined/sensuous landscapes of Western scholarship seem to get at. I imagine that including conceptions of “space” outside of the Western tradition would challenge the physicality of place-ness of how we conceive of the spatial. 

 Mark Tebeau’s article, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” discusses a great example of how spatial history can be represented and interpreted using digital tools. Cleveland Historical, a “dynamic, layered, and contextual storytelling endeavor,” combines maps, multimedia (oral histories, music, images), and contextual text (felt redundant/wrong but left it) to “curate” Cleveland’s history. This project is collaborative in that multiple users can contribute “pins” to the map after being trained, and is intended to elevate aural interpretation to the same level as visual. Because this project is mobile, users can go on tours and stand in the “pinned” spaces while accessing contextual information online. As Tebeau refers to it, Cleveland Historical is a “living museum” the size of the city and its strength lie in both its collaborative nature of democratizing the historical interpretive process AND in its utility in presenting history in a multi-sensory, spatially-oriented way.

The “Cuyahoga River Fire” pin on the interactive map of Cleveland
Once you click on the pin, you get sent to that pin’s landing page
In addition to contextual text (wrote that again, still the worst), the pin has multimedia such as a video interview…
…and images of the event. Below the multimedia were tags, a bibliography of sources consulted, and space to comment.

I chose to use the “Cuyahoga River Fire” pin as an example because Tebeau addresses it, specifically in his text to make the point that it’s not totally clear “whether geolocation even provides the best way to contextualize historical stories.” He argues that, in the example of the burning of the Cuyahoga River, “placing the story at an abandoned railroad bridge along the Cuyahoga River (as we do now) may be physically accurate but remote from a location where its interpretive connections are richer.” However, I believe it is worth arguing that sites of experience—regardless of whether or not the site is one of many or, alternately, the physical site itself no longer exists–have memory and experience embedded within them. Ultimately, spaces themselves can facilitate the interpretation, and rather than shifting the location away from the space in which an event occurred, we might challenge ourselves to attempt more creative interpretation before considering relocation. For instance, the Cuyahoga River Fire page could be used to prompt deep thinking about the impact of pollution in Cleveland’s history. It could be connected to other locations where pollution runs unchecked, introduce the narratives of those who are particularly vulnerable to environmental racism or discrimination (thus ensuring class, race, gender, and other categories of experience and analysis are elevated). What is so encouraging about a borne-digital project like Cleveland Historical is that it is ultimately iterative—constantly evolving, growing, becoming (ideally) more representative—and has the capacity to incorporate a many connected, overlapping, layered histories interpreted in myriad ways. 

I’m interested to hear if, especially in the process of drafting our projects—particularly those who are doing digital projects—you have come across any multifaceted digital history projects that incorporate the spatial and narrative in engaging ways?

12 Replies to “The World Is Your [Living Museum]: Spatial History and the Digital Age”

  1. Hi Carmen, thank you for this post! Guldi’s The Spatial Turn in History is one of my favorite readings for this class. Her nuanced historiographical approach of the inextricable relationship between modern history and the physical landscape allows for a greater understanding of the implications of urbanization on the politics of class in burgeoning cities, the arbitrariness, and artificialness of national boundaries, and the use of landscape to construct a national identity. Her arguments concerning the aesthetics of mourning after World War I, specifically how governments such as France and Britain mobilized the romantic landscape to create emblems of nationalism. The United States created the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery to espouses similar themes.

    1. Also to answer your question, last semester while writing social media posts for the DC History Conference I learned about the DC Writers Homes project. The project entails mapping out the homes of famous literary authors, such as Frederick Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sinclair Lewis, who lived in Washington, DC throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. While some of the homes are identifiable as a result of plaque signifying its historical significance others were absorbed into the urban landscape. The end goal of the project is to transform how people interact with their sense of place.

      1. Leah, this project sounds fascinating! And the point you make about some of the homes being identifiable while others were absorbed in to the urban landscape reiterates a point that I think was evident in all of our readings for the week–the landscape is constantly being remade–both in the physical and mental sphere–and thus provides a challenge (and opportunity) for digital historians in particular to consider how they might represent ever-changing spaces in their projects!

  2. Thanks for your post, Carmen! I LOLed at your first gif- it me.

    To answer your last question, I have come across some cool digital history projects that incorporate the spatial and narrative. Since I am a digital mapping baby, I did some googling to see if there were any projects I could use as a model for my own. One of my favorites that I found was the University of Washington’s Mapping American Social Movements Project (

    The authors of the project contend that, until now, historians have studied social movements in isolation and with little to no attention of geography. This project puts social movements in conversation with each other, and allows us to see if/how they spread across the country. Starting in the 1870s, the site looks at Black Freedom Movements, Latinx Movements, Women’s Movements, Labor Movements, and more. On many of the maps, you can see exactly where the specific movement started, and you can toggle back and forth between years to see how widespread the movement became over time. I encourage you all to spend some time on the site!

    Having a spatial element to the histories of social movements seems really important, and demonstrates how we can use spatiality to enhance our understanding of history. In this case, it
    exposes new dimensions of American political geography, allowing us to easily see how one locale fostered social movements, how popular that movement became in new places, and how it changed American politics over time. Social movement history thus seems to lend it self really well to spatial history. Can y’all think of other histories that would benefit from a spatial interpretation using digital tools?

    1. Jenna, thanks for your comment and for introducing me to this project–it sounds fascinating and get right at the heart of the spatiality of things that occur on or within the landscape but are not necessary a fixed part of the landscape, itself. I was just reading an article the other day about “Geographies of Activism” and how different locations facilitate (or don’t) activism, and I think the Mapping American Social Projects Project can be used to further those sorts of interpretations/arguments. I am stunned by the sheer number of different digital maps the Project used to represent movement data across the United States. The one thing I am less certain of is whether or not the Project seeks to combine this data to demonstrate where social movement of all types have occurred on the map, or maybe even more usefully, show all of the movements for a given year or stretch of years and where they were occurring during that period.

  3. In response to the Tebeau reading and Jack’s post – I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with using/creating maps to engage people. There is something inherently appealing to them, and are a ‘language’ that most people can understand. As we saw in the link (Histories of the National Mall – which we encountered in Seminar last semester), people have been using maps to make meaning for centuries. I’m not usually the “if it aint broke don’t fix it” type, but I think we should stick with media maps for a while. Maps also tie us to place, albeit in a western fashion, but it is something people can identify with, as you pointed out.

    Oral history is certainly an important, human component to and digital history. We can create digital media all we want, but the human component is what creates deeper and more meaningful connections. I commented on Jack’s post about tracking activity during the pandemic and spring breakers in Florida. The reason the data/hot spot of activity is interesting is because of the human component. People ‘misbehaving’ is what interests us, not the simple act of congregating. Tebeau certainly emphasizes the human component in encouraging people to further engage the location and material in their lives.

    Along the lines of human component, Tebeau certainly addresses shared authority more than we have in many of our comments. A lot of what we (I…) have talked about is more of a traditional practice where historians go in and look at what the data tells us. How do we go beyond that in the digital era and engage with the human side of the information? This is certainly a question we wrestle with when doing history ‘in the present’ with COVID19. (again, I think the Hsu reading is helpful in this context)

    1. Ani, thanks for your comment! I think you get at the answer to your final question in discussing the utility of oral histories. I also think the options for co-curation or community curation offer some fruitful opportunities for humans who experience these events to share that lived experience and interpret THAT data for themselves. For instance, data shows us that Spring Breakers went to Florida and interviews with them while in Florida demonstrate a certain mindset they have about being there. However, since returning from their respective trips, many have apologized for these statements in light of new knowledge/experiences. Perhaps it is the layering of those multiple experiences and seemingly contradictory actions that get at what is really HUMAN–we are messy, complex, contradictory creatures who often do things for our own instant gratification and then turn around and do something that is for the greater good. I think these sorts of digital platforms offer possibilities of representing those complexities in a non-linear form that more closely mirrors actual human experience.

  4. Enjoying this great post and great discussion. Thrilled folks are finding Guldi’s “What is the Spatial Turn in History?” so useful. I think it’s really helpful in drawing out connections between the fascination with “space” and “place” in scholarship with the development and advent tools like GIS, and mobile technologies that situate us in spaces and maps as core features. When we step back and think about developments from environmental history to urban history all of that work connects together around the way that we interact in the built and natural environment.

    I think one of the other questions that these readings draw out are some similar questions to the issues we got into in our initial discussions about visualization. That is maps and spatial representation are interesting as tools to communicate and engage but they are also distinctly interesting as methods and systems for conducting analysis.

  5. I think your question about what the conception of physicality and space looks like in other, non-western cultures is incredibly interested, especially because I’m not sure if any of us (if we grew up in the United States) would able to accurately conceptualize it. My first thought after reading your question was nomadic Native American tribes. Their relationship to the land and space wasn’t sedentary, and was not rooted in power structures in the way that it is in Western culture. Urban planning and the cost of real estate has created power structures based on who can afford to live where. The land was not a commodity as much as a it was a resource in many Native American tribes as far as I understand from my admittedly Eurocentric education. Another example that comes to mind are the small apartments in dense Asian cities like Tokyo. When Queer Eye went to Japan in their most recent season, the people they helped said that it wasn’t typical for people to personalize their home, and that the home was more of a utility than a sanctuary. This could be related to the work ethic in Japan, or the collectivist culture in Asian countries. Thus, space may not be an extension of self, but rather another necessity. Of course, I cannot speak to this with any sort of certainty or authority, but these are a couple of examples that I could reference from my elementary education and pop culture that seem to represent different spatial relationships than we experience in Western culture.

  6. Carmen, as always you have made an engaging and thought-provoking post. Your comment about nonwestern ideas of space reminded me of a website that might answer your concluding question, This website maps out indigenous lands throughout the world and just by looking at it, you can see the differences between the western ideas of space and nonwestern ideas of space. I found the Guldi articles interesting it was nice to take a moment to consider how space and place have been thought about throughout history and across disciplines. It also illuminated the way that digital resources are used to explore space today. Apps such as “Chongno allys” encourage people to explore spaces that they don’t always think about and encourages them to consider how spaces have changed throughout time. Much like the way that historians today are beginning to change the way that they think about spaces when they study history. As noted in the article space and place are always changing but with the help of digital resources, we can document and discuss these changes in a beneficial way.

  7. As a fellow Clevelander, this class has shown me that we are on the forefront for digital history! Cleveland, on the surface doesn’t look like much, but thanks to projects like Cleveland Historical, people are introduced to the wonderful city that is Cleveland. Its a really cool and, as you said, is really encouraging that projects like this can be executed well. The constant updating is always something I consider, like when, if ever, will a project like this be complete? There will always be new pins to add as Cleveland is on the up and up and great things are happening. But with all these new additions, can the site keep up to date, and what will happen to the project once contributors stop interacting so often?
    Anyway, Cleveland is great, I can’t really enjoy it right now, but in spirit I am always loving The Land!

  8. Carmen and all,

    Thank you for such a wonderful discussion to read through. I too thoroughly enjoyed Guldi. I am reminded of the crucial work that has been done with regards to spatial histories when we embrace the interdisciplinary potential of the field. Geographers, architects, geomappers, etc. are so critical to our work in public history. I was particularly interested in your question, Carmen, with regards to the place that spatial history might/might not have in non-Western contexts.

    I visited Japan last summer, and before I departed, my undergraduate professor recommended that I take a look at a (then) new project developed by Kate McDonald (University of California, Santa Barbara) & David Ambaras (North Carolina State University). It is a wonderful spatial history platform developed as both an educational tool for teachers and a learning opportunity for students. It was my first introduction to spatial history, and its non-Western focus on Japan’s spaces and bodies is relevant toward answering your question.

    I highly recommend taking a brief glance through the modules and geomap the site offers. In short, what I notice is that Japanese spatial history is only partly told by traditional (Western) physical/virtual spaces–Japan’s spatial historians point to imagined spaces, contested borderlands, two and three-dimensional bodies, and the expansion & destruction of space. Certainly then, one might argue that spatial history in non-Western settings is distinctive, nuanced, and worthy of more attention.

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