Any well-made map should be easy to read. No matter how complex the subject matter is, I should be able to look at a map and at least get a good sense of what is going on and what message the map is trying to convey. Unfortunately, this map on Influential Centers for Polyphonic Music in 15th-16th-century Europe did not meet those guidelines. Based on the map’s title, I would assume that the map would highlight places: cities and schools where advancements and changes took place in the development of polyphonic music. The key tells me a different story. Instead of places, this map shows me a jumbled array of dotted and dashed lines in red and black, tracking the travels of major composers of the polyphonic era. This map is difficult to read, but more importantly, it does not make a larger point. Do the centers of polyphonic music move with the composers? Why were these musicians moving so much in their lifetimes? My job was to give this map new life in the digital world.

As I talked about in a previous blog post, a fellow classmate, Will and I used to start plotting major points in the lives of a handful of composers.  For our final map, we tracked major cities where the composer stayed for a significant period of time, how long they stayed there, what they were doing there, and any major compositions that they wrote during that time. We wanted to make the scope of our map smaller and more manageable for the reader, so only seven composers are included in our map, whereas the original included eleven. The ability to remove layers in our map makes it much easier to isolate composers and follow the path of their lives from birth to death. An online platform makes it easy for us to show significant events in the composer’s lives. Now we are able to see why they moved and the different positions they filled that gave their polyphonic music the opportunity to spread.

Our new map is not perfect by any means, but it is a clear improvement over this traditional print map. The biggest challenge the humanist mapmaker faces when trying to improve on past work is keeping the right questions in mind. Why is this old map ineffective? What is the point that it is trying to make? How can we present new material in the most effective way? Not all of our answers will be the right ones 100% of the time, but so long as we are focused on making improvements then there is value in the work that we do.