Story Maps

Celebrating diversity with 'dots on a map'

Several months ago I was contacted by Marjorie Hunt, a folklorist at Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, with an offer to collaborate on an exciting project. She had been working with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) on an effort to spotlight and celebrate the National Heritage Fellows. Since 1982 NEA has honored more than 400 artists and craftspeople, recognizing outstanding individuals who represent a wide diversity of cultural traditions. They include Navajo basket makers, Japanese American drummers, African American quilters, Appalachian storytellers, Hawaiian hula masters, a Tlingit woodcarver, and an Iraqi American oud player.

With the able assistance of Lee Bock, a developer on the StoryMaps team, we created Masters of Tradition: A Cultural Journey Across America, a custom story map that features an interactive map that provides access to multimedia profiles of more than 100 of the National Heritage Fellows. Within the profiles you can find portrait images, photographs of objects, videos and audio of performances, and biographical sketches.

We all know that geographic information systems can perform a myriad of sophisticated tasks—revealing interrelationships, visualizing change over time, predicting future trends, facilitating infrastructure management, and much more. GIS can also perform simpler tasks. In this case, it locates the home communities of human carriers of rich cultural traditions.

It’s easy to dismiss this sort of display as “just dots on a map.” I suppose it would have been possible to create a heat map of Heritage Fellow occurrence, or we could have located the artists against a choropleth map of predominant ethnic groups. But neither would have provided important additional insights, and both would have complicated the user experience.

As I mentioned, this is a custom story map. Its functions are not yet available as part of ArcGIS StoryMaps. It, along with Chicago HomeStories, a collaboration with the Out of Eden Walk project, are experiments and prototypes. You may see elements of these user experiences incorporated into future releases. We think accessing a selection of people, points of interest, or other items via a map is a useful storytelling tool—even though the result doesn’t present a sequential narrative in the conventional sense. Do you agree? We’d like to hear from you.

Sometimes dots on a map are more than just dots on a map. In this case, the map, and its icons, provide a home base—a common ground—on which to convene an extraordinary group of cultural leaders and exemplars. Consider this scattering of dots as a tiny sampling of the endlessly rich tapestry of American culture, where each individual, each community, adds its own threads to the polychrome fabric that is American life.

At a time when prejudice and fear of the unfamiliar are on the rise, these dots on a map are a reminder that there’s endless joy, beauty, and fun in diversity, and that our nation is enriched by its immigrant communities—whether those immigrants arrived via an ice age land bridge, or crossed the Atlantic or the Rio Grande fleeing poverty and persecution, or endured unimaginable suffering in the hold of a slave ship. We hope you enjoy this cultural journey across America.

About the author

Allen founded the story maps team at Esri. Prior to joining Esri in 2010, he worked at National Geographic for 27 years in a variety of positions, including art director of National Geographic Magazine and chief cartographer at National Geographic Maps.

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