Charting the Past: Maps as Evidence, Argument, and Narrative, 1600–2000

AHA Session 201
Saturday, January 8, 2022: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Mardi Gras Ballroom H (New Orleans Marriott, 3rd Floor)
Uzma Quraishi, Sam Houston State University
The Audience

Session Abstract

The rise of spatial history has charted new paths for the historical discipline, ambitiously upending conventionally accepted narratives, creating new histories altogether, and revealing unique ways of interpreting established histories. The use of digital and conventional maps as sources has illuminated hidden histories and generated fresh perspectives. Buoyed by the advent of recent technological advances including GIS and big data analytics, historians and practitioners of other disciplines have spearheaded the spatial turn to produce a spate of innovative work. However, as is often the case with burgeoning fields, these visualizations of the past quite often produce more questions than they can answer. This panel aims to foster a discussion on the value and uses of cartographic works as historical sources.

The panel is comprised of four women historians with papers of broad geographical and chronological sweep. Their projects are fused together through their methodological use of maps to write about place and space. Addressing topics about urban areas in four major continents (Latin America, Asia, Africa, and North America) and four time periods (from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries), all of the projects rely extensively on maps as a source base. A critical inquiry into the comparative methodological and interpretive uses of cartographical productions, the panel illustrates the kinds of historical narratives we can construct using maps. The papers address the balancing of visual data against more qualitative or quantitative evidence, while tackling the question of maps as historical evidence or argument. Maps become a common language through which historians with wildly divergent research interests can nonetheless communicate, with the further boon of enhancing their interpretative lenses.

Although recent dialogues about historical map use often focus on digitization and software advances that have transformed spatial history in the last decade and a half, this panel endeavors to draw into conversation historians who utilize digital mapping technologies with those who rely on conventional maps. Overlapping these two types of map sources provides insights into how we interpret visual representations of space in order to tell stories about historically lived places. Whether produced by hand in the sixteenth century or GIS in the twenty-first century, maps reflect the mapmaker’s (and where applicable, the patron’s) conception of space and society, as well as their value system—insofar as maps are created within the maker’s goals and vision. By bringing together different approaches to historical cartography, this comparative panel showcases one of the most generative developments in the discipline of history: the use of maps as evidence for constructing historical narratives and arguments stretching across the centuries.

The panel does not have a commentator; rather, the panelists look forward to a robust discussion with a diverse audience. The panel holds potential appeal for audiences with as wide a range of cartographic, narrative, urban, and/or spatial interests as those reflected in the papers themselves.

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