An interactive map that invites visitors to explore the question “Where is Asia?” foregrounds the new thematic presentation of the Seattle Asian Art Museum. As the world’s largest and most populated continent, Asia is not uniform or fixed: its boundaries shift, its people and cultures are diverse, and its histories are complex. After a transformative renovation, the Asian Art Museum, one of three sites of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), reopened February 8, 2020 with a presentation that embraces this complexity. You will not find galleries labeled by geography. Instead, works from different cultures and from ancient to contemporary times come together to tell stories about Asia in a non-linear narrative.
As visitors prior to the renovation skewed traditional, not reflective of this dynamic cultural presentation, the familiarity of geographic maps provides a common platform for all visitors to engage with more abstract and potentially sensitive ideas of defining whole cultures and identity. By contemplating their own ideas of Where is Asia, visitors engage with the inherently shifting definitions of Asia. A heatmap of the art on view also gives transparency to the collecting patterns that may not align with visitors’ definitions and with local Asian population demographics.
SAM staff built this interactive map as a website for ease of maintenance, particularly as IT staff are based at the downtown museum location, and updates can be pushed remotely to the interactive at the Asian Art Museum. For the visitor selections and aggregated heat map of visitor-inputted data, SAM used Google Charts API, as the continuously updated nature of Google Maps sufficiently addressed curators’ concerns about the often-political implications of shifting borders. For the heatmap of SAM’s Asian Collection, SAM applied data visualization software by Tableau, which also leveraged the museum’s partnership with the locally-based company. Embracing the glass corridor expansion of the renovated the Asian Art Museum, SAM chose to use a transparent monitor by Planar layered with a touchscreen IR sensor so that the interactive map not only contextualizes the curatorial approach to the museum but also enhances the architectural features of the new Park Lobby.