Thursday Lecture Series: Observation and Obfuscation

Mapping Time in the 20th (and 21st) Century

Thursday, The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room

In the last ten years, maps have come under attack. With the rise of the digital humanities and spatial history, traditional two-dimensional graphics are now seen as woefully inert and retrograde. We hear that “a map is just a bad graph” that “cannot handle time”; we are told that “maps [are] static while movement is dynamic.” But these statements fundamentally misunderstand the temporality of maps—both from a theoretical and a practical point of view. In response, this talk offers a historical argument and a forward-looking proposal. Historically, mapmakers since the mid-nineteenth century have used many distinct strategies for showing time on maps, and I offer a new vocabulary for describing these techniques, especially in comparison to the temporality of photography and cinema. Some maps may indeed be “snapshots,” but this does not make them timeless, and the interactive maps of today still have much to learn from earlier approaches. Beyond this historical research, I also make a case for mapping time in new ways—or at least in ways that have remained quite rare—with examples from my own mapping work.

Guest lecturer: William Rankin, Yale University
Associate Professor of the History of Science

Image caption: "A sheet from Harold Fisk’s 1944 report on the geological history of the Mississippi River Valley."