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With Digital Mapmaking, Scholars See a New Virtual Landscape of Paris

A 1578 map of Paris was among the many sources of archival data that Hélène Visentin gathered and applied to a current Google map of the city today. She then used an interactive Web-based digital mapping platform created by Amherst College for exploring and studying the layered history of Paris as well as its cultural and urban spaces. Facsimile from Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room. Click to enlarge.

/ Published October 5, 2011

Few cities in the world have figured more prominently in cultural imagery, history chronicles and the storylines of thousands of novels than Paris, a city that has morphed from a small fishing settlement on the Seine some 2,000 years ago through centuries of fortresses and walls, sovereign rule, revolutions and calamity, to become one of the world’s leading business and cultural centers. But Paris holds special significance for humanities scholars, as it is where great thinkers and visionaries have gathered for centuries—from medieval poets to American Beat writers, artists and French feminists and theorists—to embrace and embody the intellectual vibrancy that is the pulse of a city known as the Capital of Lights.

Yet how can scholars and their students visualize the complex and multilayered urban space of Paris—and experience its topography, landmarks and rich artistic and literary milieu—without touring firsthand the Louvre, visiting the palaces, walking the neighborhoods or taking a seat at a sidewalk café?

In a new pedagogical/research project, “Mapping Paris, a Cultural Capital,” Hélène Visentin, associate professor of French studies, is using a multimedia environment with GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology to explore and study the historical layers of Paris. It uses interlinked digital maps of Paris from the 16th through 19th centuries, applied to a Google map of the city as it is today. The digital mapping platform allows students to navigate through interactive Web-based maps and collaborate on the cultural, urban, architectural and social history of the city.

Indeed, through the emerging field of digital humanities, scholars like Visentin are realizing the reach of the innovative spatial technologies such as GIS—mapmaking software that displays and analyzes data collected for specific physical locations—and how these can be applied to their disciplines and enrich the learning experience of their students. (See sidebar).

Students use historical layers of maps to study the urban design and evolution of Paris by layering earlier maps over a recent 21st century map of the city. The two images above trace the city’s boundary walls and their growth over time; a 1578 map (top) illustrates the original city boundaries highlighted in yellow. Beneath it, an 1871 map of Paris is visible indicating new boundaries in green. Both maps are overlaid on an actual contemporary street grid (bottom) of the city.

Essentially, digital mapping makes it possible not only to re-create the rich contours of a long-lost landscape and understand how the city evolved, but also to gather and analyze data, add layers of information specific to a physical location and generate new interpretations of specific environments and related cultural and historical events.

Inspired by her participation in a Mellon 23 Workshop "Digital Archivalism: the Liberal Arts College and the Humanities" at Haverford College, Visentin integrated the digital mapping platform of Paris into her colloquia in French studies: Paris, a Multi-Layered City (FRN 230). “There is a part of the history of Paris that students in the classroom can’t easily understand without being there. For instance, when we are reading a 17th-century comedy Le Menteur by Pierre Corneille, who writes about Parisian society under the reign of Louis XIII, it is difficult to reconstruct how the city looked, what it would be like to live in 17th-century Paris—a time when trendy new neighborhoods were beginning to pop up inside Paris in what was once the countryside.”

Visentin says GIS technology allowed her to revise the content of an existing cultural studies course on Paris in order to think critically about transformations of urban spaces and to understand what role topography and geography plays in novels, poetry, short stories and other cultural artifacts. It also gave her a new opportunity to teach media literacy and technological knowledge, “which is so necessary in a digital-information age,” she explains.

“Now with a click of the mouse, we can navigate and explore the city through a series of early and modern digital maps, overlaid on top of one another, and answer the question, what is the emerging modernity of this city? We can study the design and planning of Paris and ask, what happened to the space and time as the city expanded, and how is that reflected in the culture as Corneille depicted it? I can actually show to my students how a concept such as galanterie portrayed in Le Menteur has something to do with transformations of urban spaces.”

STRIDE students Zoe Zaferiou ’13 and Sheona Sauna ’13 delivered a presentation on their work with Visentin at Celebrating Collaborations in 2011. Click to view.

By geo-referencing historical maps of Paris from multiple collections including Smith’s Mortimer Rare Book Room, Mount Holyoke College, Harvard University and La Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, Visentin uses an open-source learning environment created by Paul Chapin, an academic technology specialist at Amherst College, that allows students to tag, annotate and combine data and such information as photographs, cultural references and images from online databases such as Luna or ArtStor, all laid down in layers of millennial times. She had assistance from STRIDE (Student Research in Departments) student Zoe Zaferiou ’13 and Global STRIDE student Sheona Sauna ’13, who delivered a presentation in April 2011 on their work with Visentin at Celebrating Collaborations, Smith’s annual showcase of student and faculty research.

“Using historical maps, we’ve georeferenced time and space layers of Paris, utilizing a mapping interface that represents an urban and cultural landscape. The result reveals the visual differences in the size of Paris as it grew from its 16th-century boundaries, marked by fortressed medieval walls, to a sprawling urban center, and shows how the past helps to understand the modernity of the city, how the actual cityscape keeps memory of the original boundaries,” says Visentin, a professor at Smith since 1999 who specializes in early modern French literature and culture.

“It’s a perfect tool,” says Visentin, “to bring Paris in the classroom and see any location in a geo-temporal dimension. Using this technology in group projects helps me strongly engage my students in learning the cultural history of Paris because they can explore the lay of the land through an interactive digital lens that allows us to avoid the traditional linear lens of history.”

Now when her students read the 20th-century novel Dora Bruder by Patrick Modiano about the German occupation of Paris during World War II, they can better understand the important role that topography and geography plays in the story of a 15-year-old Jewish girl who disappeared without a trace from the convent school in Paris where she was being hidden. “Modiano always gives the names of streets of the Paris neighborhoods he writes about, but now we can map those locations, make them visible, add images and descriptions, write notes on each address, follow the path of the main character. The digital mapping interface enables students to better collaborate and be more engaged in the learning process. In many ways, GIS technology gives students a way to synthesize much more information about the story and the city Modiano portrays for this dark hour of Paris history.”

At the same time it seems a natural way for Visentin to teach already technologically savvy undergraduates.

“My students know this technology better than I do,” she says. “They have their smartphones and iPods and are fluent with social networking and a variety of applications. So I think in the humanities, so much of my role as a professor is to find a way to use the technology that is available to filter and agglomerate information, to create new learning opportunities and to encourage students to be more active in the production of knowledge.”