7 questions with...

Helen Sunderland Cohen

Helen Sunderland-Cohen is a lawyer, art collector, museum studies graduate, and historic map fanatic.

Through her consultancy Lucet Limited, Helen manages The Sunderland Collection of antique maps and atlases. This involves overseeing everything from acquisitions, cataloguing and collections management to digitisation, arranging and approving loans, coordinating collaborations and partnerships, conservation, and supporting scholarship.

Bringing The Sunderland Collection to the world was the starting point for Oculi Mundi – the Eyes of the World — a ground-breaking digital cultural heritage platform.

1. Why is Oculi Mundi special?

For two reasons — the design and the purpose.

The Design

The Sunderland Collection does not have a physical, ‘in real life’ home. This makes it a ‘moveable feast’ — ie. it’s not tied to one fixed location, and there is no specific building associated with it visually. This meant that we were able to start from scratch with an entirely blank slate.

The first step was engaging with architects to look in detail at how old maps and atlases are used and displayed, how people interact with maps and cultural heritage, how users move through virtual spaces, and what a fully digital user journey might look like. With a brief to push creative and technical boundaries, the dev team then designed an online platform that showcases the maps and other objects in the collection in a beautiful, engaging way: a purely digital environment honouring the artistry, quality, and technical achievements of the mapmakers.

The design of Oculi Mundi is unique and is meant to be fun, joyful and wondrous, but also smooth and easy to navigate.

The Purpose

Oculi Mundi enables access to the entire Sunderland Collection, which otherwise is kept in storage or in private spaces.

Oculi Mundi means ‘the eyes of the world’, and we chose the name because we aim to build a platform for exploration, discovery, and sharing. It is deliberately not didactic; instead it is meant as a resource for a dynamic community of map enthusiasts of all levels of expertise and from all over the world — as well as anyone interested in the historic context of maps, the people who made them, and the artistry behind these objects.

2. Why is it important to digitise the collection?

We want as many people as possible to be able to access The Sunderland Collection and use it for study or pure enjoyment.

Granting access to a private collection is quite a personal choice. There are also various complications and costs, which mean that many collections stay hidden from view. We want to support research, contribute to global discourse, and encourage the sharing and discussion of knowledge and ideas.

Maps and atlases provide a rich, fascinating lens through which to look at all kinds of topics and to begin to understand why the world is as it is today. Historic maps record commercial undertakings and trade, political ambitions, the movement of people, and scientific and geographic advancements.

Some of the most famous thinkers and artists were involved in map-making, including Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, and the scientific knowledge behind maps goes all the way back to ancient Greece and Arabia.

Another reason to make these wonderful objects accessible is the sheer joy and imagination that they inspire! It is a privilege to look after them, and a true pleasure to share them.

On a practical level, a digital platform is a way of making objects accessible in a really profound, authentic way. Anyone with an internet connection can dive in from anywhere to enjoy and experience these wonderful objects, at any time. It is very important that Oculi Mundi works on most devices, and even at low internet speeds. We worked hard to factor these considerations into the way the site functions.

Users can zoom in, move around, and in a sense ‘handle’ the collection, while the physical objects are safely in managed storage. Some objects in the collection are centuries old and very fragile, so this is the only way to share them widely.

3. What’s your favourite object in the collection?

That’s an almost impossible question to answer! I find myself drawn to different ones at different times.

I can say that the heart-shaped map by Cimerlino always makes me smile, as do the wonderfully vibrant colours and array of ships and creatures in the de Jode atlas. On the celestial side, the Cellarius atlas with its glorious engraving, colours and superb little cherubs, is just brilliant. Another favourite is the Rudimentum, a 15th century book that provides an amazing window into European life at that time.

4. What does Oculi Mundi mean for the future of digital cultural heritage?

There’s a lot of discussion about whether digital cultural heritage is ‘as good as seeing the real thing’ — can it replicate the feeling of seeing something up close, in real life?

If the user experience is seamless, intuitive, and engaging, and if the objects are presented at very high resolution, in a crisp way with a smooth zoom function, then we hope that Oculi Mundi can remove some of the distractions and distance between the visitor and the object they are looking at.

Building a robust, bespoke platform pays homage to ancient mapmakers who created these incredible, beautiful objects with skill and patience. We hope that the quality of Oculi Mundi creates space for deep engagement between visitors and objects within the digital environment.

I also think that the digital realm speaks to the way that maps and atlases were originally created, in the sense that it offers the latest technology for both presenting concepts and objects visually, for artistic design and rendering, and for interaction between humans and cartography (including cosmological charts).

What we’re doing with Oculi Mundi is the logical next step in a long history of technical innovation in map design and making. We are trying to keep a balance between using technology and being true to the objects, and we will keep iterating as tech develops.

5. What does Oculi Mundi mean for international cartography?

Essentially, we hope it will be useful! As a resource for academics, students, and artists, as well as map enthusiasts — but also as an active part of the global cartographic community.

My father founded the collection as an outlet for his passion for imagination, adventure and cultural interaction. We want visitors to Oculi Mundi to feel the same way. If it provides a joyful, inspiring break in someone’s day, inspires discovery and learning at any level, then we will be thrilled, and consider our mission achieved.

6. How did you assemble the right team to translate your vision?

I was really lucky to have two fantastic teams across two distinct phases — concept and build.

For the concept phase I assembled a group of architects: Tim Archambault of CreativeDestruction in Miami, Paola and Juarez of MAR Studio in Milan, and Eric de Broche des Combes in Paris.

For The Sunderland Collection we knew we wanted to build something new and exciting that would maximise the possibilities of digital cultural heritage, without compromising the integrity of the objects. And so we embarked on a long phase of deep, intensive research into how maps are presented: how people physically interact with them and how museums and private collections display them.

The team also looked at how flat items like maps might appear digitally — from considerations such as data organisation, to visually effective colour schemes. The team created a ‘cluster’ view for the objects, freeing them from the confines of a physical built environment.

This phase took over a year, and the output was a comprehensive and intellectually rigorous set of material, compiled in a document over hundreds of pages. Eric also created our logos, which we love for their simplicity as well as their nod to historic graphic design.

For the ‘build’ phase we brought in a team based in Amsterdam — Fabrique (design) and Q42 (development) — who are part of the ARC consulting group. They were selected because we so admired their work creating the Rijksmuseum website, among other significant cultural projects.

We gave them the challenge of creating something completely innovative that looked like nothing else out there. The team really took our remit to heart!It was a very collaborative, detailed, hands-on process.

Fabrique and Q42 wanted to shake up expectations of what a website can be. They produced the beautiful floating spheres area instead of a regular home page, for example, and put the contents of the usual website footer in the About sphere. The idea was to remove distractions, and really place the visitor ‘inside’ a digital space.

Decorative elements come from the maps in the collection, like the stars in the background which are taken from the Blue China celestial map. As you move around the site you feel more and more immersed.

The team spent a lot of time considering how visitors might behave, so they could make navigation intuitive and simple. You might notice that the mouse icon becomes round and sometimes gives guidance, while menu options are kept discreet, so the pages don’t feel cluttered.

Visitors can also choose to view additional information, or simply to enjoy an object visually. The zoom function allows visitors to see material in incredible detail — far more than if you were looking at the object in real life.

With Oculi Mundi you can really get lost in the collection — exploring and slowly making your way around the objects. However, for those who want more detailed information presented in a more conventional way, the Research area arranges the collection in a simple ‘tile’ format.

The design of Oculi Mundi is completely bespoke, and together with the build, it took about 18 months and involved some very complex and challenging coding to make the design concept come to life and ensure a smooth user experience.

7. What’s next?

We are in the process of designing and building further areas of Oculi Mundi, to be rolled out over the next year. We will also keep refining the design.

The teams at Fabrique, Q42 and The Sunderland Collection are constantly testing out new ideas and looking at what can be improved — gathering feedback from our contemporaries in the world of historic maps, and soon from Oculi Mundi visitors too.

On the collection side itself, we are also planning to start offering online and offline programming and exhibitions in 2024, to really build a bridge between these amazing historic items and the world today — and to enrich the community that is Oculi Mundi.

As we often observe: the journey of human discovery is still not over — and it beckons!

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