Emory University’s Dr. Lauren Klein presented on Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s feminist digital visualization work in a recent colloquium.
PROVO, Utah (January 31, 2020)—The Humanities Center welcomed Dr. Lauren Klein as its speaker for the weekly Colloquium series. Klein, the director of the Digital Humanities Lab at Emory University, titled her presentation “The Shape of History: Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Feminist Visualization Work.”
Klein’s remarks focused on data visualization in the 19th century, especially emphasizing Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s innovative work. Though Peabody is most well known for opening the first kindergarten in the United States, her lesser-known marks of ingenuity include an intricate chart-making design that she employed with her students. Klein’s research rediscovered Peabody’s system and made it accessible to the public through an interactive website (shapeofhistory.net).
In today’s digital age, Klein explained, one expects information to be clear and intuitive when displayed on a chart or a graphic. Contrarily, Peabody’s designs were much more illegible to the untrained eye—emphasizing the process of creation and a multiplicity of interpretation, not the ease of transmission of information.
“For Peabody, this near total abstraction was precisely the point. Her charts were intended to appeal to the senses directly, to provide what she called ‘outlines to the eye,’” explained Klein. “Her hope was that by providing only the mental outline of history and then by insisting that each student interpret the outline of history for themselves, that the students would each conjure their own historical narrative, and in that way, produce historical knowledge for themselves.”
Peabody’s charts were to be made by students as they developed a knowledge of historical events and figures. Colored squares represented countries, and their placement on the chart corresponded with types of events (battles, births and deaths, treaties, etc.). Encouraging the students to create charts themselves allowed them to internalize the information they were learning.
Peabody created a large chart the size of a living room rug—called a “mural chart”—and traveled from classroom to classroom with her invention in tow. She would sit on the floor with students (an unprecedented practice by teachers in the 19th century) and give them hands-on learning experiences as they deciphered the chart together.
Largely due to the complexity of creating and understanding Peabody’s charts, they never caught hold in the subsequent wave of data visualization. Other innovators of her era, like William Playfair, continue to have a heavy influence on modern data displays. Playfair is credited with creating the line and bar graphs and pie charts.
“No one will argue with the fact that we see lots of line graphs and pie charts,” Klein said. “We don’t see anything that looks like Peabody’s grid and there’s a reason for this, right? This widely held belief that what visualization does best is condense and clarify; it provides evidence and then reveals insight.”
Klein’s continual research of Peabody’s work has led her to explore the crossroads of data science and feminism, which is the subject of her forthcoming book, Data Feminism (MIT Press, March 2020).
“I call this a ‘feminist approach’ to data visualization, because it really does insist on this multiplicity of meanings,” explained Klein. “It locates the source of knowledge not in the source but in the interplay between viewer and image and text.”
—Samuel Benson (Sociology ’23)