Representing Migration through Digital Humanities (2019-2020)


Human migration is, by definition, hard to represent. Its inherent transience often renders its memory ephemeral. Unsanctioned mobility is by nature secretive, self-protectively erasing its traces. Perpetrators of coerced mobility find it in their own self-interest to obscure the evidence of their violence. Unlike settlement, migration leaves few visible remains.  

Digital humanities tools are now being used to creatively visualize human migration. The digitization of archival databases as well as digital mapping tools, timelines and storytelling applications make it possible to visualize and interact with data and stories in exciting ways and can open new conversations about the people, places and politics that are central to the long histories of human movement across the planet. 

Project Description 

From 2017-2019, the Representing Migration Humanities Lab worked to excavate the histories and presents of human mobility, investigating how this phenomenon, which is central to the making of the modern world, entered culture, consciousness and memory through narrative, memoir, archive, history and memorial. 

This Bass Connections project will continue the work of the humanities lab through two linked projects: Remembering the Middle Passage and Linguistic Landscapes. Along with their common goal of representing migration through the digital humanities, these projects will come together in a shared inquiry into the role of race, ethnicity and mobility in data collection and representation. 

Remembering the Middle Passage

Remembering the Middle Passage aims to put together a map of where the deaths of enslaved persons occurred in the Atlantic from approximately 1750-1850. While research has been done into the total number of deaths in the middle passage, no one has focused on where those deaths occurred. In doing so, this project would generate original data on the slave trade. 

This team will also generate a proposal for a memorial in concert with the commemorative ribbon of seabed being proposed to the International Seabed Authority and consider this vast loss of life in relation to the nonhuman environment, particularly the extractive economies of plantation labor and, more recently, the mining of the ocean floor. 

Linguistic Landscapes

Linguistic Landscapes aims to create a digital interactive map of the Triangle area, starting with Durham, that will capture locations and distribution of multilingual signs (i.e., signs in different languages) on store signboards and shop fronts, billboards, notices, posters, advertisements, LED and neon signs, among other examples. This project builds on the new yet growing body of work in the field of linguistic landscapes, which focuses on visual representations of language in urban spaces.

Existing interactive linguistic maps of cities around the world allow visitors to zoom in to see photographs and descriptions of signage, and in this way to experience and explore the multilingual life of a city. Crucially, in the current migration contexts these multilingual pictures of cities are constantly changing, and by mapping them we can gain a new understanding not just of who is migrating where, but also which groups interact with each other, what social spaces are occupied by which ethnolinguistic groups and whether their presence is permanent or transitory.  

The Triangle area is especially exciting for this work because in recent years it has received large numbers of migrants and refugees from places as diverse as Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa, as well as Mexico and Central America. A digital linguistic map provides a rich dataset that can form the basis for analysis from interdisciplinary perspectives, both in the humanities and the social sciences. 

Anticipated Outputs 

Humanistic, accessible database mapping the deaths of enslaved persons in the Atlantic; proposal for a transatlantic slave trade memorial; database documenting multilingual signage throughout Durham and the Triangle; conference presentation for submission to Linguistic Landscapes Workshop meeting; annotated bibliography


Fall 2019 – Spring 2020 

Remembering the Middle Passage 
  • Fall 2019: Assess work done by Summer 2019 Data+ team; design maps and database; assemble scholarly work interrogating use of data in study of middle passage; meet with expert scholars in the field; write collaborative syllabus or annotated bibliography; collate list of archives containing ships logs; draft white paper/proposal for mapping and database principles 

  • Spring 2020: Continue map and database design following guidelines; research slave trade memories and Black history in the Americas; continue evaluating archives; possible archives visit; organize spring break trip to Montgomery, AL 

Linguistic Landscapes 
  • Fall 2019: Begin examining literature on linguistic landscapes; research history of migrant communities in Durham; participate in workshops on digital humanities tools; collect images of multilingual signage around Durham and the Triangle; begin input of data collected into digital platform; produce digital linguistic map 

  • Spring 2020: Continue team meetings to discuss relevant literature; continue collecting images for processing; develop presentation for Linguistic Landscapes Workshop 2020

Team Outputs to Date

Remembering the Middle Passage (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

Linguistic Landscapes of Durham (presentation by Shalin Kapil, Lily Koning, Cayley Ryan; Representing Migration Humanities Lab Works-in-Progress Showcase, Duke University, January 31, 2020)

Remembering the Middle Passage (presentation by Isabel Bradley, Kelsey Desir, Grant Glass, Jane Harwell, Tye Landels, Anya Lewis-Meeks, Perry Sweitzer; Representing Migration Humanities Lab Works-in-Progress Showcase, Duke University, January 31, 2020)

Representing Migration through Digital Humanities (presentation by Charlotte Sussman, Jane Harwell, Perry Sweitzer, Daisy Zhan, Dominika Baran; John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies, Duke University, December 4, 2019)

This Team in the News


Image from Remembering the Middle Passage course listing shared by BlueDevilHumanities 

Remembering the Middle Passage course listing shared by BlueDevilHumanities.

Team Leaders

  • Dominika Baran, Arts & Sciences-English
  • Charlotte Sussman, Arts & Sciences-English

/graduate Team Members

  • Isabel Bradley, Romance Studies-PHD
  • Kelsey Desir, English-PHD
  • Jane Harwell, English-PHD
  • Tye Landels, English-PHD
  • Anya Lewis-Meeks, English-PHD
  • J. Perry Sweitzer, Religion-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Alexander Frumkin, Political Science (AB), History (AB2)
  • Mikaela Johnson, English (AB), Religion (AB2)
  • Shalin Kapil, Linguistics (AB)
  • Lily Koning, Int Comparative Studies (AB)
  • Cayley Ryan, Linguistics (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Andrew Keener, Duke Libraries
  • Elizabeth Milewicz, Duke Libraries

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Grant Glass, PhD Student, UNC-Chapel Hill (English & Comparative Literature)
  • Xiaoou (Daisy) Zhan, Undergraduate Student, Haverford College