For my critique, I decided to examine The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, or TOAH, (  My interest in this timeline/research tool/map stems from how it grapples with an enormous amount of information over time.  The timeline covers a period from 8000 B.C. to the present, examining a number of art movements, objects, and archeological periods throughout the world.  Although I do not expect my project to span such a wide history, I am concerned with how the element of time will play a role in displaying my research as well as showing the intersections between different subjects and themes.  The TOAH presents many ideas in how to organize information, however, it also inherently contains many limitations as a mapping tool.

By being a “timeline,” and not an outright map, the TOAH seems at first more interested in indexing information than spatializing it.  However, maps do play an integral role in the function of the TOAH. On the homepage, visitors encounter in the top navigation the five main channels to search through the Timeline: World Maps, Timelines, Thematic Essays, Works of Art, and Index.  These categories are reiterated throughout several other content areas of the homepage (and site) as well. The World Maps area shows a map divided into ten regions with accompanying images of art objects for each region. Above the map on the web page is a timeline, where visitors can choose what point in time they would like to investigate.  By clicking on a time period, the images on the map change but the regions never do.  As a baseline, the Museum has chosen to structure its map of the world according to these ten geographic regions throughout every period in time, despite any global social exchanges or local political demarcations that would have influenced or affected the art traditions of those regions. By clicking into the map, the visitor is taken to a zoomed-in map with more localized information.  By continuing to click into the ensuing map, the visitor can dig deeper into the information, which also links to other content-heavy sections of the TOAH.
One of the biggest strengths of this time line is that it allows visitors to drill deep down through several different search options.  The TOAH is almost a literal visualization of a database that allows you to tab and dig through massive amounts of information.  I was reminded of James Corner’s “The Agency of Mapping,” where he discusses the different thematic approaches and practices to mapping.  His concept of “Layering” applies to the way the TOAH’s maps interact with timelines, essays, and other elements on the site.  The idea of layering information on top of information is certainly an asset for this tool, which contains such a large assortment of world history data.  Another strong aspect of the TOAH are the various ways that visitors are able to search through that data via thematic essays, timelines, maps, works of art, and an index of all the information on the Timeline—the latter itself being a visual map of listed words.  When exploring each search area in the top navigation bar, the visitor is presented with advanced search options to drill deeper.  This powerful search capability, which guides the visitors through the architecture of the underlying database, allows visitors to look for specific information as well as “surf” around casually.

The TOAH does, however, also contain a number of limitations and challenges.  The fact that this timeline is funded and run by The Metropolitan Museum of Art is both a blessing and a curse.  The Museum’s ownership of the timeline is positive, on the one hand, because it is a well-funded institution devoting itself to the research and scholarship of art history throughout the world. On the other hand, the TOAH also only belongs to the Museum, which means that any shortcomings in Museum scholarship or in the Museum’s collections are reflected in the Timeline.  Unfortunately, the Museum’s collections have certain limitations, such as the geographic distribution of its holdings: the institution boasts a world-class European Art and East Asian Art collection, but it is weaker in the areas of African, Oceanic, and Central/South American Art.  Furthermore, the Museum also has a bit of what Denis Wood and John Fels in “The Nature of Maps” call the “this is there” mentality.  In other words, by being a world-renowned scholarly institution, the Museum oftentimes takes an authoritative voice on information validated only by its own scholarship.  As an example, there is a lot of information on the TOAH that is not cited, which raises questions on the reliability of the information presented.  Can we blindly accept that the Museum’s scholarship is unbiased and correct? Additionally, the format of the TOAH is inflexible, making it difficult for visitors to find relationships and build synergies between and across regions and time periods.  A more transparent structure (both visually and figuratively) between the rigidly separated search options would allow visitors to discover and uncover for themselves a more inter-disciplinary approach to art history scholarship.

As a tool that presents a database of knowledge on art history across thousands of years of history, the TOAH is quite successful.  For my prototype application map, I have considered the “drilling down” capability of the TOAH as an element that might inform my own research in mapping the history of publishing/media companies throughout New York City.  As an experiment, I created three maps that illustrate how I might apply this method of digging into the information in a visual way.  The first map below (Map 1: Buildings in New York) shows the entire field of my map delineated by arbitrarily demarcated regions and time periods on a timeline at the left. (Please note that most of the content of the maps below is either made up or fake.)

Map 1: Buildings in New York

The second map in this series drills into the “mid town” area of Map 1, showing more options for research and scholarship according to general subjects and themes of interest.

Map 2: mid town

The third map drills down further still, after clicking on one of the images of the buildings on the map.  Here a visitor can find information on a specific building, or explore a number of themes/subjects organized chronologically to which that building is related.

Map 3: Time Warner Building

This is obviously a very basic approach to organizing data in multi-modal scholarship, but it suggests a rough sketch of the different ways in which a visitor can navigate to the information they seek by literally digging (the archeological term seems so appropriate here!) into the database to explore time, place, theme and subject.