Update: When In Rome

Our most loyal readers may remember that we announced a collaborative project with the Smith College Museum of Art back in March.  We set off last semester to create a Story Map for their autumn exhibition, When In Rome: Prints & Photographs, 1550-1900.  In addition to serving as a public, digital archive of the exhibition, the Story Map is on display in the gallery itself, where it allows visitors to visualize the monument locations and perspective points for all of the images in the gallery.  It also helps visitors to explore Rome’s changing landscape by overlaying the 1749 Map of Rome by Giambattista Nolli on the present-day Google Maps depiction of Rome.

At the outset of this project, neither the SAL team nor the Museum team realized how much time and effort it would require.  During the spring semester, former SAL Assistant Karen Yu ’16 designed several prototypes to showcase how the various Story Map templates would fit with this project.  Over the summer, our intern Tanvi Kapoor ’17J continued this work by mapping the artist’s perspective point for each image.  Tanvi also worked with Charlene Shang Miller, Associate Educator for Academic Programs at the Museum of Art and Aprile Gallant, Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, to appropriately format the text and images in the “story” part of the Story Map.  After Tanvi’s internship ended, I (Scott) worked with Charlene to include some custom features, including an image selector, map controls, and custom icons.

Though the process was challenging, it proved to be a valuable learning experience in the modern practice of cartography.  We did grapple with traditional cartographic questions, such as what symbol to use for an artist’s perspective, or how to georeference the historical Nolli map to line up with the present-day street map of Rome.  But the interactive, multimedia dimension of this Story Map posed entirely new questions, such as: How do you optimize the various buttons and controls for use on a touch screen? How do you make the image and map controls intuitive for an audience of all ages and computer abilities? What are the different needs for those accessing the map in the gallery versus on their personal computers at home? Especially for me, creating this Story Map felt much more like web development than cartography.

As cartography expands and blends with fields such as web development, keeping up with the newest techniques like Story Mapping can seem like a daunting task.  But whether you’re hand drawing a world map (and yes, some people still do that) or coding in Javascript to customize a Story Map, your goal is still generally the same: communicate spatial information to your intended audience.  That’s one reason why the SAL team is eager to incorporate design thinking into how we teach cartography: rather than emphasizing the technical nitty-gritty of any particular approach, design thinking centers a deep understand of your audience/client’s needs and experimentation, defining your ultimate goal, and experimenting with the many possible approaches that could achieve that goal.  Having seen history majors teach themselves how to code and environmental science majors produce map art, I have full confidence that design thinking will soon become an integral part of Smith’s campus culture, and that it will help the students we work with to make some stellar maps – with paper and pencil, ArcGIS, HTML and Javascript, or whatever other useful tools they can find.

Thanks so much to Charlene, Aprile, and the rest of the folks at the Art Museum for the opportunity to work with them on this project. When In Rome will be on display until December 30.  Additionally, Jon and I will give a gallery talk on Wednesday, November 16 at 12:15pm in which we’ll touch on the changing use of maps from Giambattista Nolli’s time to the present day.  The Museum is also hosting several other exhibition-related events.  Finally, check out the actual When In Rome Story Map here!