5-Minute Animation Maps 2,600 Years of Western Cultural History

Working with his colleagues, Maximilian Schich, an art historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, took Freebase (Google’s “community-curated database of well-known people, places, and things”) and gathered data on 150,000 important artists and cultural figures who lived during the long arc of Western history (6oo BCE to 2012). The scholars then mapped these figures’ births and deaths (blue=birth, red=death) and traced their movements through time and place. The result is a 5-minute animation (above), showing how the West’s great cultural centers shifted from Rome, eventually to Paris (circa 1789), and more recently to New York and Los Angeles. Maps documenting the flow of ideas and people in other geographies will come next.

According to NPR, “The models [used to create the videos] are the latest application of a rapidly growing field, called network science — which uses visualizations to find the underlying patterns and trends in complex data sets.” And they could yield some unexpected insights into the history of migration — for example, even with the advent of planes, trains and automobiles, modern artists don’t move too much farther from their birthplaces (an average of 237 miles) relative to the artsy types who lived in the 14th century (133 miles on average).

A complete report on the project was published in the journal Science by Schich and his colleagues. Unfortunately you’ll need a subscription to read it.

via NPR/Nature

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  • Sam Anderson says:

    Nicely done, but lacks the interconnectedness of subsahara Africa and the pharaonic empires’ impact on GrecoRoman culture. In addition, does not show the interconnection between the chattel slavery period (1444-1888) and the rise of “New World” culture… As well as the impact of wiping out the indigenous population of the Americas. Remember: racism/white supremacy played a central role in influencing “Western Culture” on a global scale.

    Lastly, this mapping makes Africa and Latin America look like cultural vacuums neither receiving nor transmitting cultural values/products.

  • Art Serotoff says:

    Stunning technology; an incredible tool. To extend Sam’s comments, it would be a terrible injustice and horrible gap in inquiry if the pursuit of “culture” ended here. In addition to Africa and Latin and South America, the near and far east are missing too. It is difficult for me to swallow an animated map of culture without seeing the contributions and effects of Timbuktu, China, India, Peru, Mexico, Guatamala, etc.

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