Animated Maps and Archival Capabilities: A Look at Creating History in the Digital Age

I must admit, this post is a “reblog” so to speak of a web review I did from a year ago now:


Harvard historian Vincent Brown’s Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative tells the story of a slave insurrection in Jamaica known as “Tacky’s War.” Brown documents the story of the revolt primarily through the use of an animated map. Situated on a timeline, the map carries the user through the insurrection, highlighting major events, troop movements, and conflicts as they occur. As Brown notes, the map offers an “argument about the strategies of the rebels and the tactics of counterinsurgency” as well as “the importance of the landscape to the course of the uprising (Brown).” The map, in other words, captures the rebellion’s spatial dynamics in a way that print or rhetoric alone simply cannot. However, as adept the map is in using digital media’s spatial affordance, it seems to be lacking a similar encyclopedic character. That is not to say that the site does not contain any pertinent information, but, by design, it is not an “exhaustive database (Brown).” While it has some archival properties, its focus is strictly on the spatial functionality and usability of the map. This essay offers an analysis of how Brown utilizes the spatial affordances of digital media and, at times, under utilizes digital media’s encyclopedic capabilities in order to create an animated, participatory, and cartographic digital history site.


Janet Murray refers to the spatial affordance as digital media’s ability to “represent space using all of the strategies of traditional media, such as maps, images, video tracking, and three-dimensional models (Murray 438).”. Brown relies heavily upon the spatial affordance by making the map the focus of the site. Though not three-dimensional, the map allows Brown to recreate and represent Jamaica as it was in the 1760s. He gives the user the ability to toggle back and forth between the place map which offers locations such as cities, regions, and rivers and the terrain map which discloses the Island’s significant mountain ranges. When the play button is clicked on the timeline, the events of the insurrection begin. As evident in the image below, movements made by each of the parties involved are documented by corresponding colors–burgundy for the rebels, blue for the navy, teal for the militia, purple for the maroons, green for the army. Significant events are also documented by a similar set of icons and colors, all of which are visible on the map key.

Above: Animation from Slave Revolt in Jamaica (Brown)


However, as Murray notes, what distinguishes the spatial affordance of digital media from that of other traditional mediums is its navigability (438). In Slave Revolt in Jamaica, while the map moves through the timeline and each movement or event is highlighted, the user has complete freedom to operate and maneuver the map as he or she wishes. He or she can can click on some of the icons or movements for more details about that particular action. The user can also adjust map by zooming in zooming out. If something catches the his or her eye, all he or she has to do to stop the animation is click pause. Even the map’s organization facilitates navigation. In the simplest form, the map is organized by individual movements or actions, but those events are grouped together by day. Instead of following along the animated timeline, the user can click on what ever day he or she wishes to see events of that day unfold, giving him or her complete control of the map.

While Brown makes great use of the spatial affordance to create a highly interactive, navigable map, the opposite can be said for how he used digital media’s encyclopedic affordance. According to Murray, “When the encyclopedic affordance is appropriately exploited, large information resources are semantically segmented at multiple levels of granularity, sorted, classified, and labeled with controlled vocabularies (Murray 418).” Because of the computer’s encyclopedic capabilities, it has become the “most capacious medium,” and when the encyclopedic affordance is used correctly, it can, as Murray puts it, create an “experience of immersion (Murray ?).” When browsing through Slave Revolt in Jamaica, however, the immersive experience is strangely absent. Sure, the animated map is informative and highlights the patterns of counterinsurgency, but its relatively minimal amount of information inhibits both further exploration and immersion. When an event takes place on the map–whether it is movement of forces or a clash between two groups–all that appears is an icon. Some events give the user the option to click on the icon for details, but the details generally only label what specific groups–as in regiments or battalions–or how many men were involved in the event. So while the animation may be great, without any additional information, the user has to interact without any context for what the animation denotes, inhibiting the him or her from having an immersive experience with the site.


To be fair, Brown never meant for the project to become, as he puts it, an “exhaustive database (Brown).” However, a few minor tweaks to the maps design could have given the site certain archival capabilities without transforming it entirely into a database. By giving the site a more archival character, it would then, in turn, foster a greater sense of immersion and exploration. For an example of how Brown could have tweaked the site’s design, take The University of Richmond’s Visualizing Emancipation–a site that, like Slave Revolt in Jamaica, uses animation to track the Emancipation events occurring in the post-Civil War American South.

Above: A Source from Visualizing Emancipation (Nesbit and Ayers)


In Visualizing Emancipation, as each event occurs, a dot appears on the map that, when clicked, opens up a box with a plethora of details about the event. Most importantly, however, the box provides the event’s source as well as an excerpt describing the event from that source.Though not a database or an archive in the traditional sense, this feature provides the user with an opportunity to engage with the map on an archival level, moving him or her far beyond simply interacting with the map. Also, in providing this level of detail, the user is given the appropriate amount of context to help fully understand the events that are being represented. For a better understanding of how Visualizing Emancipation organizes its information, watch the video included below:

A reason behind Brown’s relative under utilization of the encyclopedic affordance hinges, perhaps, upon a major question facing digital historians: should a site tell a story or should it catalog information? There is quite a marked difference  when it comes to creating both a narrative and a database, and it is often very hard to strike the delicate balance needed to combine the two. One component generally has to be sacrificed for the other. The major problem is that while the sheer amount of archival information in a database tends to obfuscate any real specific narrative being told. Likewise, in order for a site to hone in on a specific narrative, it often has to exclude any corresponding contextual information.For example, Visualizing Emancipation catalogs a large amount of slave emancipation events, but the scope of the project is so large that it inhibits the user from seeing an organized sequence of events. Therefore, Visualizing Emancipation highlights emancipation trends but not individual stories. In contrast, Slave Revolt in Jamaica is working with a much smaller data set and fewer sources, allowing Brown to take a much more narrow and narrative approach. It makes sense then that the encyclopedic affordance of digital media is strikingly absent in much of Brown’s site. Judging from the subtitle, “A Cartographic Narrative,” Brown obviously chose to sacrifice his site’s archival properties in favor of its spatial properties–an affordance that, in Brown’s case, is much more conducive to relating a narrative.

With that being said, then, Slave Revolt in Jamaica accomplishes Brown’s goal. As he states on the site’s homepage, the site “does not examine major themes such as belonging and affiliation among the insurgents or the larger imperial context and interconnected Atlantic world (Brown).” Instead, the map is designed to simply offer “an illuminating interpretation of the military campaign’s spatial dynamics,” which, when viewed in totality, provides the user with a better understanding of the patterns and strategies associated with counterinsurgency. Though a not quite as immersive or encyclopedic as it could be, it stands as a strong example of how digital media allows historians to spatially recreate historic events and carry users through time.






Works Cited

Brown, Vincent. Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.


Murray, Janet H. Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design As a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. Print.

Nesbit, Scott, and Ed Ayers. “Visualizing Emancipation.” Visualizing Emancipation. University of Richmond. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://dsl.richmond.edu/emancipation/>. 

Image Url: http://digitalmedia.wikidot.com/digital-humanities-approaches-perspectives-challenges


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