BA Art History and History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Spatial History: Mapping the Past

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST32112
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


How can maps help us understand the past? Whether we consider the geography of the Holocaust, the trade winds that fuelled the rise of the British Empire, or the history of epidemic disease, maps are fundamental to grasping some of the most critical problems in early and late modern history. This course introduces students to spatial history, a strand of history that studies the past by studying and making maps. Each week, we will look at a different topic in this emergent field, with readings ranging from themes such as the history of borders, empires and indigenous land, urban decline, to epidemic disease and others. As part of the exercise to think spatially about the past, students will receive basic training in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and will learn to create their own maps. Students will apply those skills to a particular topic and develop their own expertise in that area.

No prior technical skills are needed for this course as all training will be provided.


Restricted to History programmes, History joint honours programmes (please check your programme structure for further details).


This course aims at:

  • Exploring the use (and abuse) of maps and spatial concepts in history
  • Identifying a historical question amenable to geographical analysis and explore the use of spatial concepts and techniques to answer it
  • Developing basic skills in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), cartography, and data visualisation
  • Apply skills and concepts relating to spatial history to historical research


Knowledge and understanding

At the end of this course it is expected that you will be able to:

  • Critically evaluate the ways in which historians make and use maps
  • Recognise how maps both enhance and limit our understanding of spatial phenomena
  • Challenge basic geographical notions that we may take for granted as misconceived and ethnocentric
  • Devise alternative ways of understanding geographies of power beyond the model of the nation state


Intellectual skills

At the end of this course it is expected that you will be able to:

  • Develop a spatial argument
  • Clarify and condense a broad research topic into its manageable essence
  • Learn to use geospatial visualisation as a means of generating new questions and revealing historical relations
  • Critically reflect on how data modelling choices influence the interpretation of the data
  • Develop a critical perspective on maps and learn to identify misuse, oversimplification, or misleading use of colour or symbology and act on your criticism by creating maps of your own


Practical skills

At the end of this course it is expected that you will be able to:

  • Use GIS and web mapping applications to collect, analyse, and explore spatial data
  • Create high quality maps and graphs
  • See a digital research project from inception to completion
  • Present an argument through visualization and narrative, combining short texts, supporting graphics, figures, and tables


Transferable skills and personal qualities

At the end of this course it is expected that you will be able to:

  • Work collaboratively with a team with diverse skills and potentially conflicting visions
  • Gather, clean, and synthesise data from a diverse range of sources
  • Present information and arguments orally, verbally and visually with due regard to the target audience
  • Think creatively how to develop and communicate your work


Employability skills

Analytical skills
This course enables you to critically read and evaluate spatial arguments, maps, and visualisations. You will learn to recognise biased, misleading, or oversimplifying forms of visual representation, but also to create better ones to understand complex questions.
Group/team working
The course will train you to collaborate in a team with diverse skills and potentially conflicting visions.
The course allows you to formulate your own research questions, condense them into a manageable agenda, and answer them using new tools that allow you to develop and present your argument through visualization and narrative.
By the end of this course students will be able to collect, clean, and join data from different sources, generate their own maps, visuals, and posters, and understand key principles of data visualisation which are an essential skillset in the creative industries. You will be able to present information and arguments orally, verbally and visually with due regard to the target audience.

Assessment methods

Final Project

70 %

Presentation of a digital map


Intermediate requirements:

a) Project proposals

b) Project draft


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Oral feedback on intermediate project requirements as they are completed


30 minutes of the weekly seminars will be dedicated to discussing project progress and address issues as soon as they arise. Week 9 is entirely dedicated to project troubleshooting ahead of the final submission. Moreover, students are encouraged to seek formative feedback during seminars and in consultation hours.


Detailed written feedback on final collaborative project and essay, designed to include advice on improving future performance.



Recommended reading

Amrith, Sunil, Unruly Waters: How Mountain Rivers and Monsoons Have Shaped South Asia’s History (Penguin: 2018).

Brown, Wendy: Walled States, Waning Sovereignty (Zone: 2010).

Edney, Matthew H., Cartography: The Ideal and Its History (University of Chicago Press: 2019)

Gordon, Colin: Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City (University of Pennsylvania Press: 2008)

Hämäläinen, Pekka, The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press: 2009).

Koch, Tom, Cartographies of Disease: Maps, Mapping, and Medicine (ESRI: 2017)

Lewis, Martin and Kären Wigen: The Myth of Continents. A Critique of Metageography (University of California Press: 1997).

Monmonier, Mark, How to Lie with Maps (University of Chicago Press: 1991).

Mullaney, Thomas, Christian Henriot, Jeffrey Snyder-Reinke, David McClure, and Glen Worthey, The Chinese Deathscape: Grave Reform in Modern China (Stanford University Press: 2019) [].

Smallman-Raynor, Matthew, and Andrew Cliff. Atlas of Epidemic Britain: A Twentieth Century Picture (Oxford University Press: 2012). Scott, James C., The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale University Press: 2009).

Tufte, Edward R., The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press: 1983).

White, Richard, “What is Spatial History?” Spatial History Lab: Working Paper (2010).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Luca Scholz Unit coordinator

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