A space for spatial history
When most of us think of history and studying history, countless rolls of maps and tall stacks of books come to mind. These items document different versions of the events that have occurred in the past. As we make our way deeper into the digital age, however, these physical maps and books must make way for new ways to record history.
Kate McDonald — a historian who has been with UCSB for almost a decade — rolled out one of these new ways recently. She and her colleague David Ambras — a professor of history at North Carolina State University — launched the website Bodies and Structures 1.0 in January 2019. This website serves many functions.
Bodies and Structures provides a platform where Dr. McDonald and other spatial historians like her can present and share their work. So far, the website holds several modules in which seven scholars discuss border controls, migrant networks, manifestos and more in East Asia throughout history.
Dr. McDonald’s own module, titled “Cai Peihuo’s Inner Territory,” discusses the 1928 manifesto of a Taiwanese elite member’s effort to talk about the discriminatory structures and policies affecting Taiwanese Chinese and indigenous people in Taiwan.
Cai Peihuo, according to Dr. McDonald’s module, stated through his manifesto that “granting self-rule for Taiwan was the only reasonable response to the inequities of colonial rule” of Japan.
“That’s actually one way of thinking about spatial history,” Dr. McDonald told the News-Press. Indeed, Cai Peihuo’s manifesto shows that maps are not the only way to discuss how territories expand and contract.
Dustin Wright, one of the contributors, used the photographs of Captain Charles Eugene Gail — an Army dentist stationed in Okinawa from 1952 to 1953 — to observe that the dentist “seems to have made a conscious attempt to avoid documenting the American militarism that determined his being in Okinawa in the first place…What are we to make this?”
Having a place to share these primary sources, analyses and questions connects the historians around the world. But the website also helps the academics connect with their students.
The website serves as a teaching tool for Dr. McDonald, who told the News-Press that she sometimes assigns the modules for her students to read.
“I’m often giving them something to read, and sometimes, they take away from it another point than what I thought they’d take away from it,” said Dr. McDonald. But for those with new perspectives and thoughts on the readings, the website might be of assistance.
While the readings can be found under the different modules, the organization of these readings can be seen the “Tag Map.” Students and anyone else using the website to learn about spatial history — which Dr. McDonald defines as the study of how space shapes social life and how social life shapes space — can see how Dr. McDonald and other thinkers do their thinking.
The base of this tag map starts off with nine branches: figures, flows, boundaries, imaginative, vehicles, place, references, built environments and material culture. These branches will expand to expose either more categories or readings associated with the branch. These categories and readings themselves will sometimes connect. Opening up the branches will expose a tag map that resembles a molecule of different atoms. As visually stimulating the map may be, it can also be overwhelming.
“I wouldn’t start an undergrad with the tag map,” Dr. McDonald said.
Once a user has familiarized oneself with the tag map through the “How to Use This Site Section,” however, the map proves to be a powerful tool.
“This couldn’t happen on paper,” said Dr. McDonald, who explained that the way the map works is similar to the way the mind of a historian works when comparing, contrasting and analyzing documents throughout time.
“What could happen on paper is one of those juxtapositions,” said Dr. McDonald. “You can’t take apart that book and put it with another book” without ruining books in the physical realm. In the digital realm, several analyses can occur simultaneously, and a viewer can make many comparisons at once.
Although the website is already paving the way for other new ways of studying history, Bodies and Structures 1.0 will be getting an upgrade soon. Dr. McDonald told the News-Press that the seven-member team will be growing to 17. With this addition of new contributors, the issues addressed will also expand. A planned contributor, for example, will shed light on the herbicide known as agent orange in Vietnam, where the U.S. Military forces used the herbicide to eliminate forest cover and crops.
In addition to new contributors, the website will also be receiving new features to make analysis, orientation and navigation all easier. The target audience? Anyone curious about spatial history, including students and scholars with an interest in history, geography, art history and humanities.The website is https://scalar.chass.ncsu.edu/bodies-and-structures/.