Building a Multivocal Spatial History: Scalar and the Bodies and Structures Project (Part 1)
In 2019, David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald launched Bodies and Structures 1.0: Deep-Mapping Modern East Asian History. Bodies and Structures is a collaborative platform for researching and teaching spatial histories of nineteenth- and twentieth-century East Asia. The basic building blocks are individually authored modules, which use primary sources to analyze particular historical instantiations of place and space in modern East Asia. The second layer of the site is its multiple conceptual maps, which reveal thematic, historical, and geographic connections across the modules. These maps represent the collaborative curatorial and analytical work of the site’s contributors and editors. Readers access the site through four entry points: the list of modules, a visualized tag index, a grid visualization of the entire site, and a geotagged map. Through these entry points, readers explore spatial concepts, events, objects, and people within a single module and as they intersect across modules.
Ambaras and McDonald built the site in Scalar, an open-source platform for digital publication created and maintained by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC. Below, Ambaras and McDonald discuss how they created the Bodies and Structures project. In a separate post (forthcoming on PLATFORM), Curtis Fletcher and Erik Loyer from the Scalar development team will respond with their own thoughts on the collaboration with Bodies and Structures and the future of Scalar as a platform for humanities scholarship.
Bodies and Structures Co-Directors: David R. Ambaras and Kate McDonald
In 2017, we set out to create an environment for doing multivocal spatial historical research on East Asia. We knew the environment needed to be digital. But we didn’t know which digital. Platforms for publishing born-digital spatial historical research proliferate. Esri Story Maps and Google’s MyMaps offer a straightforward method of annotating points on a map to tell a story or illuminate hidden histories. ArcGIS offers (for the initiated) a method of spatializing multiple types of data and producing multi-layered maps. Digital databases and repositories, such as the China Historical GIS project, allow researchers to trace changes in geographic knowledge and practice over time. None, however, offers a way of de-centering cartographic space. Each plots data atop a cartographic map, eliding the historical conditions of empire, capitalism, and Enlightenment epistemology that enabled the map to claim to represent spatial reality in the first place.
We knew from our reading of critical human geography and spatial histories of empire that our environment needed to be multivocal. Space, as Doreen Massey so elegantly put it, is most productively (and historically) conceived of as a “simultaneity of stories so far.” The cartographic map was certainly part of these stories. But it was only one element of the spatial frameworks that shaped and were shaped by people’s experiences, representations, and actions. How would we represent the place and movement of people who encountered space differently depending on how spatial structures and physical infrastructures constituted them (e.g., racializing, gendering, disable-izing practices)? How would we incorporate spatial sensibilities that oriented from the body or the encounter of multiple temporalities in the same locale? And how could we tell spatial stories and make spatial arguments in ways that weren’t constrained by the imperatives of linear narrative development, that explicitly reflected on questions of authorial and reader choices?
Enter Scalar. Created by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, Scalar uses a unique page-based structure that allows users to establish multiple relationships and multiple different types of relationships between pages. Authors can present information textually or visually through media or built-in data visualizations. The platform’s “import” feature allows contributors to work on their own schedule to build their modules before incorporating them into the main site.
The development team did not initially design Scalar as a platform for digital spatial history. But, whereas we found platforms like Esri Story Maps too intellectually constraining, we found that the flexibility of Scalar enabled us to incorporate the multivocal nature of space and place into the basic structure of our spatial analyses. For example, Scalar’s multiple data visualizations allowed us to index the site in multiple ways, only one of which was the cartographic map (Figure 1). We also used Scalar’s relationships feature to create several ways to experience the space of the site itself: through linear itineraries (pathways), through conceptual categories (the tag map), or by wayfaring (the grid map and the page-level navigation buttons) (Figures 2-3). The result is a spatial history and digital mapping site that analyzes how boundary-making and mobility inform each other; how spatially constituted ideas of progress or difference take shape in different locales; and how events and actors construct and reconstruct places and their meanings within shifting political contexts (Figures 4-5).
 Doreen B. Massey, For Space (London: Sage, 2005), 9.