Going to A Digital Mapping Show

I’ll admit I took the way way out this week, choosing a mapping project that was mentioned in one of the readings, but I figured that if I didn’t choose Going to the Show I would have just ended up Googling “digital mapping projects that are just like Going to the Show” until I found something.  This project looks at movie theaters in North Carolina during the silent film era – which may sound like a narrow topic, but is actually a versatile lens to look at many different types of history.

This may not be the correct thing to say during digital mapping week, but I think that one of the strengths of the site is the degree to which the information available transcends the maps themselves.  This is not to say that the maps are not useful: on the contrary, the city-level maps, like this one for Kinston, overlaid period maps onto Google Maps – meaning that each individual building is visible.  The website even allows the viewer to select different years so that they can see the period overlay map change over time.

However, but for the title that mentions mapping, it would be easy to think that this project was a multi-layered history project about movie-going in North Carolina with a mapping component, rather than a mapping project that happens to have some other features.  It is easy to access the maps, but the featured links on the main page are to these special features, not the maps.  I have to admit, the features impressed me even more than the maps.  There is a case study that delves into some of the larger themes of the exhibit, as well as a timeline covering every theater in Wilmington, NC.

The timeline exemplifies what I think makes this project so useful – that is manages to both take the history of entertainment on its own terms and look at it in the context of the larger world.  Links on the timeline lead to articles about individual theaters, such as the Theatorium, that go into detail about subjects like movie theater syndicates, which have significance for the greater history of the US, but are very important when looking at the history of entertainment.  The timeline as a whole is organized around the history of film – with color coded periods denoting early film or the transition to sounds.  But this larger view also shows the viewer the ways that the history of entertainment connects to larger social issues: every theater is color coded as to whether it was segregated.  The segregation of movie theaters is a big theme throughout the project, showing that the data shown by the map and timeline can be used for a variety of history projects, inside and outside of entertainment history.

I really enjoyed exploring this site, and the only issue I could find was technological – it was sometimes a bit difficult to view all the map features on my computer.  Every map page would show me an image and allow me to manipulate it, but also produced a pop up that said “This page cannot load Google Maps correctly.”  I found that I could still use many of the functions – viewing the different overlays, changing the size of the map relative to the browser window, and clicking on different theaters.  However, when I tried to zoom in, sometimes the map window would turn gray.  Though this was frustrating, I did not feel like it took too much away from my experience.

I want to close with one of my favorite pages on the site.  One of the articles mentions that it is impossible to completely understand what the experience in an early 20th century movie theater was like, but, even so, it is pretty cool that the site offers a little window onto a part of that experience that is quite distant from present day audiences.  This page is about an “illustrated song” – a series of slides that accompanies a piece of music.  It may just be my fondness for the period, but I loved that the site recreated a little piece of history, and I found the video itself to be absolutely charming.