Mapping the Digital from Minnesota to #sfmetrix

By Lesley Kadish

San Francisco Elevation and Right of Ways

San Francisco Elevation and Right of Ways

Before I came to San Francisco for Seb’s talk, I read a post on SFStreetsblog called “Eyes on the Street: The Ghost Streets of San Francisco” about ‘secret’ right-of-ways around town. You know, those steep steps that lead through an art garden or behind a house, where you’re never sure if you’re on public or private property. Being a map person, I majorly geeked out: I downloaded the San Francisco street centerline GIS shapefile, sorted the attributes by class code, added an elevation map, located the SFMOMA, and plotted my little adventure!

It only took an hour… and all with publicly available data! I’ll admit, before Seb’s talk, I would not have considered this  little exercise more than pre-trip geekery. What Seb highlighted was the fact that this is happening all over the place, all the time, with an ever increasing availability of data. Folks like me, with interests in snooping around urban nooks, are taking what’s out there and making it their own.

I’m always excited to see what emerges with maps and public data. My name is Lesley. I’m the Curator of GIS at the Minnesota Historical Society. A funny title, right? I’m not lucky enough to rest on the laurels of a historic title like Curator of Art. You guys have it easy!

As the Curator of GIS, I spend a good amount of time mulling over the quandary of archiving born digital material. But I spend even more time thinking about place… as you can imagine.

So, I was especially excited to see the Powerhouse Census Explorer, and their new Collections Mapping interface. It’s a direction we’ve been heading in for a while. A couple of years ago we launched something in a similar vein. But rather than use the maps as a background to collections data, we wanted the layers of MAPS to tell the stories themselves. We gathered the available GIS layers from state agencies and created an online GIS tool for school kids to layer up to 150 transparent maps atop each other.

For example, 6th grade classes studying immigration could see areas where people settled, with maps of soil productivity, original vegetation, and natural disasters overlaid atop. At the end of the day, an average kid could say, “Why yes, the Germans Did take up the heavily mollisol area, because they Are good at Farming, but Too Bad, they lost their crops to a grasshopper plague when trying to tame the Prairie!”

Throughout the Minnesota Historical Society, we’re engaging ‘place’. We’ve tweeted photos like the White Castle on Wheels, asking followers Where was This? We have a wiki about place, called Placeography, for the public to add content about places in their own lives. We’re experimenting with fun little KMZ files to see our historic map collection in Google Earth, and we’ve even got a searchable database of Minnesota placenames. I’ve found that it’s one thing to geotag land-based objects, like maps, or things that don’t move, like buildings (oh, nevermind White Castle). That stuff is FAIRLY straightforward. But it’s a whole other thing to talk about geocoding collections. I imagine Seb and his team are working through some of the same things we are.

I think we’ll all agree, when collections get digitized and put ‘out there’ they can become imbued with new life. New contexts are discovered, old stories are told. Take the fireman’s hat that gets recognized when it’s put online. Before, its provenience is listed only as Minneapolis Fire Station No 18, circa 1920. But suddenly, with recognition, the hat has a head it belonged to. Fires it fought, cats it rescued. Thinking somewhat philosophically, how would we place this canary yellow No18 hard hat on a map? Certainly it could be located at the old station (now an artist’s loft). Or at the fireman’s house (his daughter still lives there, even better). Or at that big blaze down on Lexington where ten lives were saved in a moment.

Digitizing a collection lets us see its multidimensionality. Here’s where this principle of whakapapa fits in, I think. My take on whakapapa is that objects, like people, carry history with them; each has a genealogy of life and place. Thinking this way about collections fits with the semantic web and can be somewhat confounding for old school curators.  But it may help us take a step closer to understanding the layers our collections have and create when we put them out there.

A response to “More thoughtful learning”

Dear Leslie,

Photo by Frantz Vincent courtesy of Flickr

"Those About to Die Salute You," hosted by Queens Museum; artist Duke Riley. Photo by Frantz Vincent courtesy of Flickr

Thank you for the fantastic post. I too am approaching professional development through social media, as a consultant who serves this field. I wrote this post on my blog about how four museums in New York staged an art event using Twitter. I think it’s a dynamic example of what you’re talking about.

I began my museum career 20 years ago at Chicago Children’s Museum. I was lucky enough to receive my first professional development at the Midwest Museums Conference. Over the years I began speaking at conferences: always a prerequisite for being able to attend a conference. Some employers paid my way, others allowed me to attend on the clock if I covered the costs.

I managed to get to at least one conference a year, which I found stimulating and enriching. One of the rules at the places I worked was that you had to do a presentation for the staff when you returned, so early on I began synthesizing the conference experience for my peers. [I don’t know if this is common practice but I highly recommend it as a way to foster an atmosphere of professional development, as well as getting the most bang from your conference buck.]

It frustrated me that one association, like attendees at NAI , often had no idea about resources available through another, like VSA. I made it part of my core message to cross-pollinate ideas so that people weren’t reinventing the wheel. Social media is ideal for this.

In the last five years I’ve heard these messages loud and clear: Conferences are expensive. Front-line staff can rarely afford to attend. Small and rural museums have a tough time ever affording consulting… maybe once in 25 years if they are doing a capital campaign or get a huge grant from IMLS or NSF. And when the economy tanked, so did conference attendance.

Dena'ina historian Aaron Leggett led us to the spirit houses in Eklutna. Online learning can't replace experiences like this, but used well can offer great value.

Dena'ina historian Aaron Leggett at the spirit houses in Eklutna at WMA '08. Online learning can't replace experiences like this, but used well offers great value.

When I was at WMA in Anchorage last year, I thought about all the museum staffers from Alaska who were able to make it to Anchorage, but aren’t able to come to the Lower 48. While of course there is huge value in face-to-face interaction, I do believe there is a role for online experiences and training.

I hope I can encourage the field to utilize online learning and social media, as I think it’s an incredible way to deliver assets, affordably, where they are most needed.

I look forward to hearing everyone’s responses.

  • Are you willing to try online learning?
  • Have you attended a webinar? What did—and didn’t—you like about it?
  • What kinds of topics would you like to see offered in tech tutorials or online classes that relate to the visitor experience?
  • What guest speakers would you like to hear from?

I am very open to everyone’s thoughts and comments, as this is a new venture. It’s such a privilege to serve this field. Leslie, thanks again for your thoughtful post. Sincerely,

Stephanie Weaver

Stephanie Weaver is the author of Creating Great Visitor Experiences: A Guide for Museums, Parks, Zoos, Gardens, and Libraries (Left Coast Press, 2007). She is a WMA professional member and visitor experience consultant based in San Diego, and is excited to be part of the WMA Host Committee for this year’s conference. Her online learning website is, and you can email her at sweaver [at]