Historic Data Visualization: A Pop-up Exhibit

Curated by Xena Becker

Graphic representations of data are older than the written word. As the way that information is communicated developed and expanded with writing, graphic representations of information shifted to match them. Today, we call this representation “data visualization.” Data visualization re-frames the way data is presented to a graphic format as a way to highlight certain qualities or discover new insights about the information at hand. Creating a graphic representation of information or data can assist either the researcher or for the audience.

A spread from Oliver Byrne’s printing of Euclid’s Elements of Geometrie, in which Byrne attempted to use as little text as possible to convey information.

Researchers create data visualizations to discover connections and patterns in the data that tabular or written representation does not show. It brings a new perspective to data that a researcher might have grown intimately familiar with through their research process. Additionally, it allows them to integrate elements of fine arts and graphic design into their work, as the act of creating a visual representation of data can be an artistic re-imagination of information.

When used in other ways, data visualization makes complex or broad information more digestible to an audience. Visual representations can better explain the scope, scale, and significant features of a piece of research through various cues. Color, size, and shape are all tools that researchers can use to make their message clear to an audience.

The different figures in the image represent the people who took part in the procession honoring the newly elected Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Giuseppe Pozzobonelli, on 21 June 1744

There is no perfect way to represent any piece of information; data visualization allows us to explore the creative, unusual, and dynamic ways we show what we have learned. Our methods and techniques for crafting data visualizations have changed dramatically over time, though many core principles remain the same. The visualizations presented here show groundbreaking discoveries. They demonstrate new information and re-imagine old concepts. All together, they paint a picture of data visualization before computer modeling and embedded software tools, showing how iconography, color, and artistic interpretation can be used to show what we know about the world in a new way.

This pop-up exhibit is currently on display in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. We invite you to stop by and take a closer look at the items showcased in the exhibit.