Intersections: History and New Media

Visualizing 19th-Century Edinburgh with Animation Software

Lisa Rosner, May 2009

A web site designed to accompany a new book is no longer a novelty. However, most such web sites are either pure marketing tools, with lists of reviews and upcoming book events, or exercises in community building around the subject matter of the book, where the author maintains a blog to interact with readers. For my forthcoming book, The Anatomy Murders (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), I wanted to create a web site that did not merely advertise the book, but complemented its argument by taking advantage of some of the visualization capabilities of the web. The web site, The Worlds of Burke and Hare (http://burkeandhare.com), uses scanned images from the era to introduce the main historical actors in the book. Beyond simply presenting the images as a slide show, I assembled them into different “walkthroughs” of the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, as it might have been experienced by individuals from very different social positions.

William Burke and William Hare are known to medical historians and true-crime buffs for killing 16 people in 1828, in order to sell their cadavers as “subjects” for dissection. Their purchaser was Dr. Robert Knox, a well-regarded anatomical lecturer with a flourishing dissecting establishment in Surgeon’s Square. The ensuing criminal investigation and trial raised troubling questions about the common practices by which medical men obtained cadavers, about the lives of the poor in Edinburgh’s back alleys, about the ability of the police to protect the public from deliberate, unprovoked murder for gain. The story of Burke and Hare has made its way into popular culture through Edinburgh’s Blackwood’s Magazine, through Robert Louis Stevenson, and through Gil Grissom of CSI.

The Burke and Hare murder case lends itself to visual presentation. Edinburgh newspapers eagerly followed the story, providing daily and even twice-daily reports and commentary. Local artists sketched portraits of the principals “from life,” and enterprising engravers printed full-color caricatures. Penny-a-sheet broadsides ensured that the images of Burke, Hare, and their best-known victims were spread throughout the city. These illustrations became part of the political discourse surrounding the murders.

The city of Edinburgh has its own rich imagery, because 19th-century engravers were fascinated with the contrast between the narrow, crooked streets of the medieval Old Town and elegant Georgian squares of the New Town. The physical structure and architecture of Edinburgh was well documented throughout the 19th century, from Thomas Shepherd’s Modern Athens (1829) to James Drummond’s Old Edinburgh (1879) to Bruce Home’s Old Houses in Edinburgh (1905). Presenting this rich visual imagery in book form is prohibitively expensive, but is easily accomplished on a web page. Many of the images are in the public domain, or from archives and libraries that grant permission for their use.

When I first considered adapting these images for the web, I focused on the ability to zoom in on a section of a map to show where various incidents took place. But I soon realized that with so many engravings of so many parts of Edinburgh, I could combine information on where events took place with different perspectives on those locales. In this way I could bring the viewer closer to the participant’s-eye view. Since my own attempt to visualize the experience of different places on a map was similar to realtors’ efforts at showing properties online, I began to experiment with different types of software, eventually settling on Tourweaver 4.0 from Easypano. This program is designed to create Flash-based, interactive walkthroughs of properties for real-estate agents, hotels, and museums. (The program specifications for Tourweaver 4.0 can be found at http://easypano.com/virtual-tour-software.html, and Tourweaver is available in a free trial version with full technical support through both e-mail and Live Help). The interface is modeled on the Flash interface, with a SceneViewer, a Timeline, and context-sensitive tools. Users select images, place them in sequence on a timeline, and adjust the angle of view to zoom in and out, or create the illusion of “walking through” the image. The program comes with customizable “skins,” or display areas for the images, and users can also create their own. Once the images are assembled into a movie, Tourweaver publishes them in Flash format, which can be incorporated into any web site.

The key feature of Tourweaver 4.0 for my purposes was that it displays on one screen both where an observer is on a map and what that person would see looking in a specific direction from that spot. Both the location on a map and the field of vision are depicted with conspicuous icons that leave little doubt about how the viewers should imagine themselves within the scene. I chose to show three itineraries, for one of the victims, one of the perpetrators, and one of the anatomists, displaying to viewers the points of intersection and the points of divergence of their experiences of Edinburgh in 1828.

The first animation, “Madgy Docherty’s Edinburgh,” provides a virtual tour of the movements of the final murder victim through the city. It documents the city “from below,” the perspective of the poorer classes. The second animation, “Robert Knox’s Edinburgh,” provides a virtual tour of medical and elite Edinburgh, the city “from above,” as experienced by the professional classes. The third animation, “William Burke’s Edinburgh,” provides a virtual tour of Burke’s experiences of Edinburgh. It traces his routes through the city in search of victims, his probable route in transporting cadavers to Knox’s dissecting rooms, his trial at the High Court of Edinburgh, his imprisonment in jail on Calton Hill, and his execution on the High Street.

Because the software was adaptable to show a view from a specific spot, I was able to use the program to develop a second virtual tour of a quite different nature. The title of my book is The Anatomy Murders, which draws attention to the fact that the bodies were sold in order to further medical education. On the book’s companion web site, I gave a tour of the anatomy illustrations of the era. In the “map” section of the display, I used engravings from contemporary anatomy textbooks depicting where dissections should be started from the “outside,” with the skin still intact; in the “view” section of the display I used more detailed engravings to show, layer by layer, what the body looked like underneath.

Off-the-shelf programs like Tourweaver 4.0 provide scholars with great opportunities to experiment with new ways of visualizing historical information. I found Tourweaver in particular to be an excellent tool for presenting visual imagery, as it allows for sophisticated coordination of maps, images, and text, and it can incorporate a range of image types, easily manipulated for striking visual effects. On the downside, it can have a steep learning curve for anyone not already reasonably familiar with Flash. Plus, price can be a factor. I purchased the standard version of Tourweaver for $199; the professional version is available for $799. Nevertheless, with spatial visualization an important part of the web experience these days—from touring historical Edinburgh to walking modern-day streets in Google Street View—historians would be well served to consider new ways in which information can be visualized online, and how commercial software packages can be adapted for presenting historical scholarship.

—Lisa Rosner is professor of history at Richard Stockton College.