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Find Your Way to the Maps Exhibit January 16, 2008
by Laura Sexton


Early atlases were as much a luxury item as a reference work. (©Field Museum, Collections of the Newberry Library) [LARGER IMAGE]

More than 130 maps from around the world are on display in the exhibition Maps: Finding our place in the world, which is currently at the Field Museum in Chicago and later moves on to the Walters in Baltimore. At the entrance, visitors are confronted with the juxtaposition of a tiny digital navigation device and a massive 275-pound eighteenth-century atlas. Between them, a text panel on the wall reads "Whether on the tiny screen of a handheld device or in a giant atlas made for a duke, all maps tell us where--and who--we are."

The organizers, Chicago's Field Museum and The Newberry Library, hope to show how maps provide a window into the unique world of their creators, and, for the most part, they were successful. After viewing drastically different maps--both Western and non-Western--it becomes easier to understand their historical context. James Akerman, director of Newberry Library's Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography, says, "Maps tell us much more than where a place is or how to get from here to there. They tell us what's important to the people who made or used them." The center of the map usually reveals the most about a society's values. For example, early Christian maps often placed Jerusalem at the center, while Buddhist maps featured the mythical Mount Meru at the center.


Babylonian town plan of Nippur, ca. 1300 B.C. (Courtesy of Institut für Sprachen und Kulturen des Vorderen Orients) [LARGER IMAGE]

Akerman adds that maps "also tell us what's not considered important to the makers and users--such as a map of colonial America that completely ignores large Indian nations." And it is true that viewers should pay attention to what mapmakers neglected. Detailed road maps may deemphasize rivers in order to more clearly show drivable roads. Or, religious maps may focus on holy landmarks, while ignoring trade routes or strategic military positions.

Beyond showing how maps reflect their historical context, the exhibition challenges common conceptions of what a map is. Rather than focusing on stereotypical seventeenth-century Dutch cartography, there was an effort to include atypical examples of maps. Robert W. Karrow, Jr., curator of special collections and curator of maps at the Newberry, says: "We tend to think of geographic accuracy as the main goal of maps, but it's important to recognize that there's more than one way to view that." For example, a sculpture with curves and contours may be more helpful in guiding an Inuit paddling in the dark than a written map.

One limitation of the show was that the explanations accompanying each map were sometimes difficult to understand. This was especially true of nontraditional and non-English maps. Specific symbols were mentioned, but there were no arrows pointing them out on the maps. Moreover, space constraints meant that many symbols went unmentioned. Usually it was only possible to gain a superficial understanding of each map.


The Field Museum
1400 S. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60605
to January 28, 2008

Walters Art Museum
600 N. Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201
March 16, 2008 to June 8, 2008

My personal favorites in the exhibit were the ones that were visually stunning. As Field Museum research assistant Gretchen Baker notes, the exhibition is very much like an art show. In today's age of computerized everything, it was impressive to see intricate hand-made maps, many of which were over five feet tall. One sixty-foot-long Japanese map showed important landmarks along a 300-mile military route.


Seventeenth-century Ottoman map shows the Nile flowing through Egypt. North is at the bottom of the page. (Courtesy The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore) [LARGER IMAGE]

Other maps were interesting in virtue of their historical significance. The earliest one was a clay tablet dated to 1300 B.C. It contains a town plan of the Babylonian religious center of Nippur, which is now an archaeological site in Iraq. The exhibition also features the map made and used by Charles Lindbergh during his famous flight between New York and Paris.

I was unimpressed by the "Imaginary Maps" section. The goal was to showcase maps of places that do not actually exist. Unfortunately, it basically consisted of four or five novels (if Winnie-the-Pooh counts as a novel) opened to the pages with maps. The only display that caught my eye contained J.R.R Tolkien's personal notes and sketches regarding the dwarf king Thror's map in The Hobbit. Inclusion of more personal notes like these would have made this section feel more like a museum exhibition and less like a library.

The exhibition ends with a tribute to the role of digital maps in our daily lives. I was less interested in this part because it included the gadgets we see everyday (phones, GPS devices, etc.). Others seemed to like it, though. People consistently crowded around the digital touch-screen maps, which allow you to zoom in on a city or neighborhood. Another popular part of the exhibit was a video called "The Civil War in Four Minutes." Most people were engaged enough to watch the entire four-minute progression of the war on a video map.

As long as viewers do not expect to understand every detail of the maps, the exhibit is definitely worth seeing. I walked away with an enormous new appreciation for the artistic value of maps, along with a bit of new insight regarding their history.

Laura Sexton is an undergraduate majoring in the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Science and Medicine at the University of Chicago.

© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America