Visitors to universities are routinely given maps, maps which set out the campus in all its glory. These maps are usually both informative and rhetorical: after all part of their function is to produce a favorable gloss on the institution as well as providing directions. The maps also tend to be displayed at opportune points around the campus. And they are, of course, a vibrant online presence.
In the past, many of these maps were works of art in their own right: things of real beauty. But I have noticed a slightly distressing tendency recently for institutions to simply translate their locations on to proprietary platforms like Google Maps or Google Earth. Other institutions tend to use massive indexes which make navigation very difficult.
That said, there are some wonderful examples of online mapping practice. For example, Harvard, Madison, MIT, Loughborough, Exeter, and other universities have maps which allow all kinds of layers of different facilities to be shown according to choice like cycle paths, wheelchair accessible entrances, public art, bus routes, and so on. The University of Wisconsin at Madison’s map (which is probably the best I have come across aesthetically) not only shows up facilities as selected but has a very useful distance tool. Apologies in advance to universities which have commendable maps that I haven’t come across.
What is fascinating, however, is how rarely universities use maps of themselves except as straightforward representations of what is there: surely a peculiar omission when one thinks of the number of geographic and geolocational facilities that universities have and the way that maps have become a crucial part of everyday life (think only of all the mapping apps that are now available covering topics as diverse as running and the location of aeroplanes in the sky), as well as a bulwark of numerous economic and social institutions (think of the way in which electronic maps are being used in the U.S. electoral campaign, for example, or are being used as means of identifying the warp and weft of customers, as in the Carnegie Mellon project Livehoods.
There are some exceptions to this rule, however, apart from the obvious ones like maps of where overseas students come from. One is the 3Cs counter cartographies collective based at the University of North Carolina. The collective uses maps to mount a critique of the university. In its own words, the collective renders “new images and practices of economies and social relations, destabilize[s] centered and exclusionary representations of the social and economic [and] construct[s] new imaginaries of collective struggle and alternative worlds.” Its two disorientation maps plotting UNC’s wider connections have become well-known in mapping circles. More recently, it has begun operations in London.
Another is the increasing use of maps in the arts and humanities. Artists have been turning to maps for some time now but the practice is now spreading elsewhere. In particular, as there has been an increasing interest in landscape, so many academics are turning to their own campuses as a source of inspiration, literally writing on the land. In turn, campuses are becoming scattered with outdoors teaching spaces and replete with alternative maps which are often hybrids of physical and online artifacts.
Finally, there are instances of attempts to produce health and well being maps of campuses. I like the MIT Media Lab Mood Meter project which is intended to map happiness on campus using facial recognition technology.
In other words, campus mapping is going through an adventurous phase which deserves more attention for itself and not just as a record of what’s there.