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Historical Maps in Second Life

David Rumsey’s antique maps feature in an innovative build in the virtual world.
February 29, 2008

A new installation inside Second Life is bringing alive one of the world’s largest collections of antique maps. Called the David Rumsey Maps Island (registration required), the Second Life site is San Francisco map collector David Rumsey’s latest high-technology plan to share his collection with as large an audience as possible. (See “From Lewis and Clark to Landsat.”)

Globalization: Two globes, shown above, dominate the horizon of David Rumsey Maps Island, a place in the virtual world Second Life devoted to showcasing the historical maps in David Rumsey’s collection. Both globes were made by Giovanni Maria Cassini, the terrestrial in 1790 and the celestial in 1792.

Rumsey started collecting maps about 20 years ago. In 1997, he began digitizing his maps, many of which now appear on his website. Launched in 1999 with 2,000 maps, the website now features more than 17,500 maps.

The island features a gallery in the center where visitors can view maps and receive free maps and other digital souvenirs. Surrounding the gallery is a topographical rendering of an 1883 map of Yosemite Valley; users can toggle between two-dimensional and 3-D displays. Along the skyline, two great globes, one terrestrial and the other celestial, turn, animated by an enormous clockwork that can provide front-row seats for avatars who fly inside. Visitors can also travel through an 1836 map of Old New York by J. H. Coton.

It’s this map that Rumsey says is his favorite place on the island. “There’s something about walking on it that is just fantastic,” he says. “I love walking from Battery up to Harlem and feeling the history.”


  • See videos of the historical maps in Second Life.

Nathan Tia, associate creative director for Centric, the agency that created the site for Rumsey, says that the build presented technical challenges. For one thing, Second Life didn’t naturally support scanning at the high resolution needed to fully showcase the maps, causing the team to have to scan maps in pieces and stitch them together by hand. Tia says that he wants to find a way to make the Yosemite terrain, currently in phantom form, a solid surface that visitors can walk on.

Cory Ondrejka, formerly the CTO of Linden Lab, the company that maintains Second Life, and now a visiting professor at the University of Southern California, in Annenberg, is impressed by the island’s construction, which he says plays to the strengths of Second Life. “It’s a really wonderful example of taking a traditional media, such as maps, and making it cutting edge,” he says. In particular, he adds, the island takes advantage of how big a space Second Life is, making striking use of horizons and encouraging visitors to enable the maximum draw distance allowed by viewers so that they can see as far as possible. “It isn’t just a virtual copy of an art museum, nor is it a virtual copy of a website,” Ondrejka says. “I suspect that anyone doing a large-scale art installation [in Second Life] in the future will have visited this place.”

Rumsey says that he’d eventually like to see a more seamless interaction between the island and his website. He envisions a large column built on the island covered in thumbnails of the maps in the collection. He also envisions users being able to fly alongside and through the column, clicking on maps that interest them and exploring them, using data provided by the website. This type of integration is difficult to pull off in Second Life at this point, Rumsey says.

Barton Pursel, instructional designer for the College of Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University, says that he has been experimenting with builds in Second Life designed to share artistic and educational experiences with a wider audience over the Internet. He says that while Second Life provides a persistent environment where a large quantity of work can be stored, it’s challenging in practice to bring visitors to sites. Pursel says that he’s still trying out different ways of attracting people to builds, and he adds that it’s necessary to provide interaction and events for visitors. He thinks that a “problem with Second Life in general” is that many users find themselves unsure of what to do in the virtual world once they’ve learned the basics.

Rumsey will speak inside the island’s gallery on March 6 at noon Pacific Standard Time. The working title of his speech is “Giving Maps a Second Life with Digital Technologies.”

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