When history and data visualization meet: one aspect of digital humanities you won’t want to miss

Yesterday I got a personal tour (led by the magnificent Catherine Allgor) of an exhibit that will be at the Huntington on “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” until January 6th, 2014.

The exhibit is fascinating, and I don’t say that  because two of my colleagues (Steve Hackel & Catherine Gudis) were largely responsible for it – it is a fantastic exhibit by any measure. If you know something about the colonial period, the contextualization of Serra in the early 18th century context will be familiar territory – but the artifacts and primary sources that illustrate this context, both that of the Franciscan order and that of the indigenous people of what became Alta California, are endlessly rewarding.

For data visualization fans like myself, the exhibit has a particularly fabulous surprise. Steve Hackel is responsible for one of the most comprehensive databases on early California populations, and the exhibit includes a visual and quantitative representation of the demographic shift from indigenous villages and communities into the three main missions of the area. Starting in the early 18th C, early California’s population was spread fairly evenly across the many villages that dotted the area. By 1840, not only is the population densely packed around the missions, the indigenous villages have all but disappeared. Nobody lives outside of the perimeter of influence of those missions, who were themselves doomed to be abandoned soon after. That is until they were rediscovered by Hollywood, and tourism led the missions to a wholly perverse revival.

This part of the exhibit is a very good example of what the digital humanities can do – by managing massive amounts of data and representing this data visually, digitally and potentially interactively, history and its effects can be rendered so immediate, so relevant, so obviously important, that it makes any articulation of yet another “why the humanities” question moot. Why the humanities? Look at those dots across the map, moving – often forcibly – to the missions. Why the humanities? Look at all those villages, disappearing one after the other. And why digital humanities? Because how else would you illustrate all that data on a map of an easily recognizable California? Obviously the digital humanities is way more than a data visualization exercise, but it is also that.

If you live in Southern California, or are planning a trip here before January 6th, do not miss this exhibit, because that interactive map is only on view at the Huntington. I wish the data and documentary sources (account books, Chumash baskets, a friar’s old wool tunic for example) were availably in an electronic catalogue, but the Huntington is such a beautiful location, I’ll happily go back for another peek.

And if anyone is teaching 4th grade in California, the Huntington put together a great lesson plan and primary source collection here.

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