Biographical Narrative Construction with Google Maps
For the purpose of creating this map, I chose to trace the significant events in a single historical figure's life in order to better conceptualize a historical narrative not just in terms of geographic, but temporal context. What emerged was a helpful visual aid that illustrates a biography of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs – known as the first "gay" activist.
I selected the base map because it was the plainest – free from most features that would make it appear anachronistic (e.g., roadways and national borders) – but still labeled countries and cities, providing a modern reference point for users without overpowering the overall narrative. For example, during Ulrichs' lifetime, Germany was not a unified nation; he was born in the Kingdom of Hanover, what would be part of Germany today. In fact, the construction "what would be ___ today" is often used by educators to familiarize their audiences with a new spatial context.
"The Life & Times of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs" has three layers: Education (where Ulrichs attended college), Life & Work (where Ulrichs lived and worked), and Moments & Intersections (locations that signify significant relationships or events in Ulrichs' life). I selected layer colors so they would both compliment and pop against the dark base map. There are some gaps and intersections between these layers. For instance, both Hildesheim and Munich have two points each (one for Life & Work, one for Moments & Intersections). Ulrichs lived and worked in Hildesheim for over a decade; during his time there, he was fired from his job for being gay and subsequently came out to his family via letter. While it may seem repetitive to have this information divided into to two separate points, I felt it made the descriptions more concise, as well as easier to navigate (should someone like to switch off certain layers in order to explore a single aspect/theme of Ulrichs' life).
Because my location points are so vague (due to a dearth of information about the specifics of where Ulrichs lived, such as a street address or neighborhood), Google has placed them in the city centers – with the exception of the universities he attended. I am limited by my own knowledge of German geography so, after ensuring the points were (at the very least) in the right area, I opted not to move them lest I unintentionally contribute to the inaccuracy of their placement. I hope that someday in the future when Ulrichs' life becomes more well-studied (and primary sources like census data emerge that could pinpoint where he lived), I might be able to update these locations with more accurate data. For now, because this map is rather "zoomed out" compared to others that might focus on a specific city or neighborhood, these inaccuracies are not so accentuated as to pose a huge problem. Viewing at the default distance to examine the path of Ulrichs' life does not require the specifics of Ulrichs' living circumstances.
Lastly, I drew a path through the locations that we can be certain Ulrichs actually visited, in chronological order, in order to better establish a linear historical narrative of his life. One may note that not every point is included in this path; for example, Ulrichs used a publisher Leipzig to publish his pamphlets, but I cannot confirm whether he sent them or physically traveled there himself. Conversely, Ulrichs' correspondence with Richard von Kraft-Ebing while he was at the University of Vienna was likely a long-distance relationship that never necessitated in-person contact. Once again, hopefully with the benefit of more time and research, this map (its path and points) can be improved, expanded upon and corrected – after all, such is the nature of digital history projects.
Coming into the project, I was unsure about the role of geography in my work (probably because spatial history has never been one of my strong suits). However, I have learned that the use of maps need not be limited to specific contexts. Rather, in tandem with the recent historiographic paradigm shift towards "global" narratives of history, maps allow us to contextualize our narrative construction, to identify relationships and patterns of social, political, economic, cultural and intellectual exchange across space and time.
In the vein of "global history" and the use of world maps, we ought to be wary of the imperialist legacies built into popular map projections. As is implied by this oft-cited West Wing scene, the political implications of maps are vast (much like the Eurocentric frameworks we use to construct our historical narratives – global or otherwise). I am also curious about the possibilities of making maps more dynamic. For instance, could we utilize multiple layers of chronologically-ordered base maps from different time periods that could be animated to gradually fade into one another to show change over time? Could we then pair this function with various layers of points (grouped by time period rather than theme) that are revealed in tandem with the corresponding base map layers? In this way, change over time would be well contextualized and illustrated with little to no anachronism.