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Watercolor maptiles website enters permanent collection of Cooper Hewitt

Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian

Watercolor Maptiles—a web-based, open-source mapping tool designed by Stamen Design that displays OpenStreetMap’s data with the hand-hewn textures of watercolor paint—has been acquired by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum for its digital design collection. It is the Smithsonian’s first acquisition of a live website into its collections, consisting of over 56 million map tiles (separate png image files) and the underlying code. In addition to archiving these assets, a duplicate copy of the live site will be maintained as a Smithsonian version, prioritizing the free access and interactivity that is inherent to the work.

“Interactive digital works by their very nature subvert traditional museum collecting practices,” said Andrea Lipps, associate curator of contemporary design at Cooper Hewitt. “Watercolor Maptiles is itself a dynamic, living web-based map that is placeless; it exists on a browser and its assets are distributed across servers. By creating a duplicate version of the Watercolor Maptiles site and hosting it on Smithsonian Institution servers and domain, Cooper Hewitt has established a new acquisition model for the museum sector.”

“I wanted to make a kind of gesture in mapping that I hadn’t seen done before,” said Eric Rodenbeck, founding partner and creative director at Stamen Design. “Map making is always an expression of power as well as aesthetics. I wanted to show, not just say, that the choices mapmakers make are just that: choices, informed by ideology and agenda and all kinds of other factors. Maps occupy a special place in our information systems; they relate most closely to the physical world, so they’re a great conversation piece for issues of representation, power dynamics, technology, history. Everything gets wrapped up in maps if you look closely enough. There’s no such thing as a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ map; maps always leave something out for everything that they include.”