With all of the excitement about new interfaces to visualize the past, it’s easy to forget the old standby: the timeline. It has the power of simplicity, the challenge of over-simplifying. And in museums it has a visceral appeal: walk through history!

I’ve written a bit about the timeline, at too much length for an easy post, for an article. I’ve embedded a draft here, footnotes and all.  Any comments, suggestions or examples most welcome.

[scribd id=83077179 key=key-2gixwfq5oxnh4zwva4lb mode=list]

7 thoughts on “Timelines

  1. I recently saw a demo of the new chronozoom and am looking forward to trying it out when it’s released on the 14th of this month. One of the particularly interesting new features is the ability to embed entire digital collections (such as digitized museum collection objects) as points in the timeline. I’ve noticed that a geographic or map view has become a common way to look at a set of digital images using, for example the google maps api, I wonder if we might start to see a timeline or time-map view start to become standard as well.
    Another valuable-seeming feature that’s added is an extremely easy “tour” recording ability that allows one to record with audio a segment of browsing/moving/zooming/etc… within the time scale. As a teaching tool it seems like a particularly good way to have students illustrate a story using objects and their temporal relationships.
    Even better the whole thing is being release under a free open source license so we can install it on our own servers and start playing with it – who knows what might come out of it.
    Thanks for this thought-provoking essay!

  2. Steven, Thank you for sharing this article, which moves our discussion into the context of the organization of museum exhibitions. Online tools and virtual exhibits now offer us the possibility of “interrogating” the timeline, which will probably long continue as the most familiar mode of presentation for historical materials. In 2001, colleagues and I produced an interactive CD-rom for Fisk University entitled “Two Paths to Progress: W.E.B. DuBois, Charles S. Johnson and the New Negro Arts Movement” that used parallel timelines. What we hoped to do was offer students (intended audience middle school to adult) an immediate way to visualize the intersection of these two men’s lives (heretofore not considered as “partners” in orchestrating the Harlem Renaissance but who were the major engineers of a movement that is often credited to others who served as spokesmen or participants) at critical moments (the 1923 Opportunity magazine dinner attended by young African American writers and artists, as well as older white [and other] critics, collectors, publishers, during the Harlem Renaissance). Eleven years ago the possibility of doing the project (funded by NEA, NEH etc.) as a website was not even considered–not economically feasible, institutions were unwilling to grant web access to digital materials, etc. The programming architecture (ANODE, Inc., Nashville) is now long out of date. But the concept worked and I sincerely wish we could capture that content now and re-present it as an online exhibition. Unfortunately, Fisk University continues to suffer from changes in leadership and direction, as well as severe financial constraints, so without the intervention of a guardian angel or a well-funded institution, this is unlikely to happen. The content was developed with such well known scholars as Richard Powell, Duke University; Rudolph Byrd, Emory University; Amy Kirschke, UNC Wilmington; Camara Holloway, UCLA; and Reavis Mitchell, Fisk University. It includes materials not only from the Fisk University Library’s Special Collections and Art Gallery but also from LOC, Yale’s Beineke Library, and several other repositories. In addition to the “Two Paths” timelines, the material includes several short videos of contemporary students, a sortable “gallery” of digital images, biographies of well-known and not so well known participants in the New Negro Arts Movement, suggested further reading, and several short scholarly essays . Would love feedback from anyone who has ideas about how it could be converted into an online educational tool.

  3. Steve, please forgive me for digging up something you wrote more than 25 years ago, but I have been reading your 1986 review of the Computer Museum where you outlined two uncritical forms of history: chronology and genealogy. The exhibit technique you associate with the former is the time line, with the latter the family tree. Given your recent thoughts about timelines, have you been doing parallel thinking about trees? Do digital trees fall victim to extreme whiggishness? Can trees be used to visualize the past on its own terms or do they consider it only as a precursor to the present?

  4. Allison – I must admit I had completely forgotten what I had said in that review… shows I have no new ideas… Yes, the second part of the talk is on genealogies. (I’ll post the abstract on the main page.) ou’ve probably heard me rant about the problem of using “evolution” instead of “change” in the history of technology, and in history more generally. So you can imagine my thoughts on genealogies. I am exploring cladograms as an alternative….

  5. Thank you, Steve, for this extremely thought-provoking article. In my own work on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I have been especially interested to see how spatial techniques present more robust methods of visualizing those “roads not taken” (quite literally in my case). The existence of many planning maps for things not done makes this possible — through georeferencing, we can see where things would have been had different decisions been made. I am not sure, however, how best to combine those insights with time, except by possibly having a moving timeline upon which all the options, not just the chosen one, pop up. At least then you would get the sense of an array of choices at many points along the way. Do you know of places or sites that have done this kind of thing?

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