David Rumsey Maps

Second Life offers a forum for exhibition unlike any other that we have looked at yet this semester. The program offers virtual exhibition space at low cost for anyone to use. The spaces can mimic the feel of a “real-world” gallery space, but also allow much flexibility in designing the architecture and the interactional elements of the media of exhibition. I will focus my review on an exhibit entitled David Rumsey Maps, found on Rumsey Map Island in Second Life, which was launched in February 2008. I chose this exhibit because unlike many other SL exhibits that present works created in-world, David Rumsey Maps recontextualizes objects from the “real-world” in a virtual format. Although the exhibit does not seem to make a scholarly argument (the maps seem to be placed either randomly or according to aesthetic sensibilities) the exhibit does offer interesting ways to present objects in a digital forum.

The exhibit displays digital representations of a selection of antique maps from David Rumsey’s collection. After having scanned thousands of maps for display on his website, Rumsey decided to partner with Centric, a design agency, to create a permanent exhibit in Second Life, to give his map collection a metaphorical “second life” (Naone). The collector was directly involved in the presentation of the objects, working with the design team to use the medium of the virtual world to its fullest. Some of his ideas (eg: of having a tower of thumbnails that would link back to his website) are not yet technologically possible in Second Life (ibid), but I think that having the collector, who is so passionate about sharing his collection in new ways, involved helped the exhibit push the boundaries of what is possible in Second Life for displaying objects.

The exhibit begins with an interactive 1787 World Map, on which each visitor is encouraged to insert a push-pin on their hometown and write a few words about that place (Image 1). Although this activity is the only truly interactive component of the exhibit, Rumsey also includes many other examples of innovative ways of experiencing the map collection. These include an immersive map of 1836 New York; a 3-D rendering of an 1882 map of the Yossemite Valley (seen at the bottom of Image 2); and 3-D “floating” spheres of the World Globe (of 1790) and the Celestial Globe of 1792 (Image 2).

Image 1- Interactive Push Pin World Map 1787 with view of exhibition building entrance
Image 2- World Globe 1790, Celestial Globe 1792, over 3-D rendering of Yossemite Valley 1882

(image 2 taken from here)

The exhibit continues with the “Map Walk” (Image 3), a display of maps around the perimeter of the island. The walk consists of 150 maps from different places and time periods. Clicking on any map within the exhibit either gives the visitor a “gift” of more information, or links to Rumsey’s website, where the viewer can see a larger, zoomable, downloadable image of the map, as well as more in-depth descriptions (Image 4). These descriptions also include information about the materiality of the map, including its “real-world” physical dimensions.

Image 3- Map Walk on Rumsey Map Island
Image 4- Carta Orografica on David Rumsey Map Collection

Next, the visitor’s avatar can enter the exhibit “building” which triggers a video and audio introduction to the exhibit, which the visitor can sit and watch on the second floor (Image 5). The architecture of the building is wide and open, with transparent, glass-like walls. The color scheme changes depending on the time of day, mimicking the changing colors of the atmosphere between sunrise and twilight. When I visited at night, the darkness allowed the “illuminated” maps to appear to glow, and contrast against the dark atmosphere. The maps are not cropped, but seem to have been resized to fit into the available space. On both sides of the building, maps are displayed “hanging” on the walls (Images 5 and 6), imitating the format of a real-life gallery.

Image 5- Second Floor Video-watching area
Image 6- Map-viewing room
Image 7- Two maps on display

Rumsey makes the motivations behind the exhibit quite explicit. His website claims that: “Digitization increases [the maps’] accessibility, and when combined with online catalogs, they can be searched in a variety of ways. The site allows public access to rare maps that have been hidden or available only to a few” (David Rumsey Map Colletcion, Collection History). Rumsey’s goal is to expand his audience. He wants people to see the exhibit for both “education and entertainment” (Mapping), indicating that he intends the audience to be not only maps scholars, but also visitors with a casual interest in maps, or just in seeing his interesting displays. The collector wants to share his exhibit in new ways, which is seen in the exhibit’s innovative interactive and immersive features. Thus, Rumsey sees losing the material aspect of the map as an acceptable loss in creating greater accessibility to these rare objects. Thus, by becoming immaterial, the maps take on a “second life”, where they will not deteriorate, can be seen in great detail and can conquer the limitations of geography. Rumsey claims that putting the maps in Second Life allows “visitors to explore them in ways only possible in virtual worlds” (David Rumsey Map Collection, Second Life). He wants his audience to encounter the maps as virtual things, not simply see them as projected images. The maps are things, as they seem to “assert their presence and power” (Brown 3) through their virtual presence. They are simultaneously unique things, and downloadable and reproducible images.

What can we learn from this exhibit? A few detriments of the Second Life format are its lack of reliability and accessibility. One of my attempts to visit Rumsey Map Island failed because the teleportation feature on SL failed to work. Technical difficulties are possible with any digital exhibit, but Second Life’s technology can be particularly unstable. Also, SL’s format can be limiting. For example, the platform does not allow high-resolution scans, forcing the designers to include links to Rumesy’s web archive (Naone). Also, the audience is limited to members of Second Life, who must have the program and an avatar. However, the benefit of using Second Life is that it allows more creative ways to display objects, and to play with their materiality, than are available in other platforms. Rumsey is able to present a 3-D rendering of a map, 3-D globes through which avatars can fly, and interactive elements like the push-pins, allowing the viewer to experience the exhibit in a much more embodied and engaging way. The visitor feels a map’s presence and experiences it as an (virtual) object, instead of simply as an image of an object. However, we must remember that the maps are still digital images, even as they are presented as immaterial things. Rumsey tries to present the materiality of the objects, by including context (shadows, backgrounds), and in the quality of the high resolution scans, in which the viewer can see marks, folds, chipping, etc. Images of objects related to the maps are also featured on the site, including book covers, envelops, and globes (Image 8). Thus, through the combination of a virtual world exhibit and an online exhibit, Rumsey is able to highlight the materiality of his objects, to present them as virtual things, while sharing his collection with a wide audience in new and exciting ways.

Image 8- David Rumsey Historical Map Collection


Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory”. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1, Autumn 2001. p. 1-22. Print.

“Mapping Into New Worlds: David Rumsey Historical Map Collection Establishes Unique, Experiential Map Exhibit in Second Life”. E-releases. 27 February 2008. Online.

Naone, Erica. “Historical Maps in Second Life”. MIT Technology Review. 29 February 2008. Online.

Rumsey, David. David Rumsey Map Collection: Cartography Associates. Website.

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