“An opportunity to discover a hidden layer of historical information”

Beatrice Vaienti © 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Beatrice Vaienti © 2024 EPFL/Alain Herzog - CC-BY-SA 4.0

Beatrice Vaienti, doctoral assistant in digital humanities at EPFL, uses computational tools to study errors in 19th century maps of Jerusalem.

Beatrice Vaienti works in the CDH Digital Humanities Laboratory (DHLAB). She’s part of the EPFL globaLeaders program, a doctoral fellowship programme funding early-stage researchers to become leaders in the transition towards sustainable societies. We spoke with her about her project and plans.

1. Could you tell us about your project, “Jerusalem 1840-1940: a Genealogy of Cartographic Inventions”?

I study the western cartographic depiction of Jerusalem in the 19th century. There are many maps available for this period - I’m dealing with more than 100 maps - which is particularly interesting for a key reason: the majority of these maps, which are all done by western travellers, are not original creations, but rather partial or complete copies of previous ones. Moreover, they are usually distorted or contain incorrect information.
This could be seen as a negative element, since a lot of these sources are unreliable. However, it also offers an opportunity to discover a hidden layer of historical information. By finding and analysing these errors, we can understand more about the way the map was constructed: who copied from whom, and how inventions and biases in western depictions may have had an impact on reality. Computational tools can help us in this endeavour, for instance by letting us compare many maps at the same time, and this is what I’m currently working on.

2. How did you choose your thesis topic?

I actually began my research by working on 4D modelling of Jerusalem in the 19th century, due to my background in 3D procedural modeling for cultural heritage from my Master's thesis in Architecture and Building Engineering at the University of Bologna. 3D modelling is great for highlighting spatio-temporal inconsistencies, and if we find two conflicting sources - in my case, maps - we cannot just ignore them; we need to find a strategy to address them. In Jerusalem’s cartographic representation, this is a recurrent phenomenon. When doing the 4D modelling, I noticed the recurring inconsistencies in the sources and that is why I decided to shift my research to the domain of critical cartography and cartometric analysis, with the aim of spotting errors and inaccuracies and studying them as information.

3. What do you find interesting about maps in general?

I think maps are interesting because of how objective and innocent they seem to be. We are used to thinking of them as unequivocally true, and we rarely find ourselves questioning their content – for instance when using Google Maps to orient ourselves. Critical cartography is a discipline that can help us understand how maps lie or filter reality, for instance by selecting what to represent and what to omit, and how these lies impact reality. As such, this analytical tool helps us understand the responsibility that we have in studying their biases and social consequences. Moreover, by seeing the maps as inherently distorted lenses, I believe that we can discover more than by just accepting their content.

4. Why did you choose to do your PhD at EPFL?

After completing my master’s degree, I was looking for a Ph.D. program dealing with heritage preservation and I was fascinated by the work done at the DHLAB, especially the one connected to the Europe Time Machine project. Then, I noticed the open call of the EPFLglobaLeaders doctoral fellowship program, focused on social, economic and environmental sustainability. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my interest in heritage and digital tools with a positive societal impact. Luckily I passed the selection, and I got the opportunity to do my PhD at EPFL!

5. What are your plans for after getting your PhD?

I’m still not sure, but I really enjoy the creativity involved in research. In the future I would like to do something where I can still combine creativity with the possibility of having a positive societal impact.

6. Why did you decide to participate in “My thesis in 180 seconds” and how was the experience?

The course is part of the training required for the EPFLglobaLeaders program. I found it particularly useful, since I believe in the importance of being able to disseminate the results of our research, especially when dealing with cultural heritage. Moreover, it was a great exercise of public speaking, where I had the chance to practice for a more accessible and engaging narration of my work. I particularly enjoyed the training course before the competition, where we learned about effective speaking tools to engage the public and weave our research into a compelling story.

7. When you’re not working on your PhD research, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time I enjoy doing many types of crafting, like weaving, woodworking, and engraving. Currently pottery is my main “obsession", and I mainly spend my free time doing that. I find it incredibly relaxing and creative.

Author: Stephanie Parker

Source: Institute of Digital Humanities

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