Source: Mapping as a means for presentation and inquiry

Interest in spatial relationships in the making and study of art is by no means a new concern; however, digital geospatial applications do open up radically new means for presentation and inquiry, and make these available to a much broader potential user base.1 The so-called “spatial turn” has truly been a long and gradual bend, which, as Jo Guldi demonstrates, can be traced back at least as far to the codification of landscape painting in the 17th and 18th centuries, which came to define a “certain type of modern organization” between the state, the body politic, and the land.2 Guldi notes that by the late 19th century, art historians, such as Jacob Burkhardt, began to specifically investigate the broader cultural meaning manifest in these spatial relationships, looking at architectural drawings and urban planning maps with a new critical attention. Space has always carried semiotic weight in the production and reception of art—from ‘two-dimensional’ painting to all manner of built environments, art is made and experienced in terms of space—but we can perhaps identify the modern moment (from the 17th century to the present) as the point at which space itself became, and is still in the process of becoming, the content and subject of art making and art history in a new, critically self-aware way.

Guldi specifically mentions Burkhardt and Heinrich Wöfflin—two of the great-grandfathers of the practice of art history as a discipline—as early proponents of spatial methods for art historical research, suggesting that art history has always in some sense been critically engaged with the spatial. What do digital geospatial applications introduce, then, that serves to radicalize the ways in which art historians can conduct spatial research?

One contribution is certainly a much expanded ability to dynamically visualize spatial relationships, a prime example of which is provided in Pamela Fletcher and Ann Helmreich’s study of the 19th century London art market.3 In many ways, their article very much resembles something you might find in an art history journal: an extensive text laying out their argument with figures to illustrate their points. However, the dynamic map documenting the development of London gallery spaces, artist residences, and retail locations becomes more than just illustration—in many ways it is the argument, and the text becomes a supplement explicating the map. As we discussed in class, the structure of the article reflects this shift in focus, with much of the text devoted to discussing their method and process for creating the map. The map’s co-developers, David Israel and Seth Erickson, in turn are crucial members of the research team. The article starts to look less and less like a typical art history article and more like something found in a science journal, with a team of authors contributing to a broader project, and where the method requires as much attention as the findings.

As becomes evident with the Fletcher et al. article, digital geospatial applications contribute much more to art historical research than compelling visualizations. They also constitute a new means of inquiry. This is the point that Richard White hammers home in his article “What is Spatial History?”:

visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.


As with Burkhardt sitting down with his urban plans, investigating spatial relationships through visual representations is a means of inquiry for art historians. The major benefit of specifically digital spatial representations is that these allow scholars entirely new ways of manipulating, comparing, and transforming geospatial datasets. The Fletcher et al. study evidences that more complex and dynamic geospatial applications can require a larger team and a wider skill set than those typically employed by the lone art historian, but there are plenty of digital tools for spatial research with a lower barrier of entry.

Google Maps is one easy to use option that actually provides quite a bit of flexibility and capacity for a wide range of spatial research and presentation. The ready ability to share your own Google maps also makes it an ideal platform for collaborative research projects. While this platform doesn’t allow for more interactive or dynamic means for displaying maps, as was the case for the Fletcher et al. article, Google Maps does enable a researcher to start thinking spatially about a particular set of issues, which might then fuel them to pursue a more involved spatial research program and begin having conversations with computer science colleagues about developing a unique application, and so on.

Below is a map of public artworks in Pittsburgh that I created over the past week in order to start thinking spatially about a particular research question:

I’ve plotted 20 different public artworks from across the city of Pittsburgh, including outdoor sculptures, indoor and outdoor murals in public spaces, and several temporary sculptural installations. As I created this map, I was interested in exploring the relationship between artwork and public space in an urban environment. Where would artworks tend to cluster? What is the relationship between artwork and different kinds of institutional spaces, like universities or city-managed parks? As public art necessarily, either implicitly or explicitly, navigates questions of how people relate to the spaces they inhabit and move through, I thought that mapping where these artworks occur might help to give some insight into these questions.

While far from an exhaustive mapping of Pittsburgh’s public artworks (there are hundreds, if not thousands of prominent public artworks, I’m sure), some interesting patterns did start to emerge. Many of the artworks clustered around the downtown “cultural” district, especially larger sculptures and all of the temporary installations. However, very few murals were located in this area, with most of these being more often integrated into neighborhood spaces. Sculptures that did exist outside of downtown tended to be linked to some institutional space, or were funded as part of a city-driven public art initiative.

These patterns may just be the product of 20 public examples I found in my search (which was by no means methodologically rigorous), but they are certainly suggestive of how we might devise a more in-depth plan of research into these issues.


[1] At the risk of repeating myself, this negotiation of the “newness” of spatial conerns for art historical research echoes a point I argued in my previous post that annotation is in fact an ancient scholarly technique, but finds new and expanded potential through digital applications. For all variety of digital methods and tools, there will inevitably be both conceptual and practical relationships back to the analog world. Articulating this lineage between digital and analog will continue to be a project of utmost importance for scholars—lest we get too enamored of the novelty of digital tools, or entrenched in a prohibitive nostalgia for the ‘old’ way of doing things.

[2] Jo Guldi, “Spatial Turn in Art History,” Spatial Humanities,

[3] Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich, with David Israel and Seth Erickson, “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,” Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 11:3 (Autumn 2012).

[4] Richard White, “What is Spatial History?” Stanford University Spatial History Project (2010): 6.