Uncharted territory

November 9, 2007

Maps are not simply sources of information, says Matthew Edney. They are records of and mirrors for the political, social and emotional trajectories of the times in which they were produced. The visitors' book for Maps: Finding Our Place in the World , the new exhibition at Chicago's Field Museum, will make interesting reading. A truly remarkable exhibition of 140 maps, atlases and globes gathered from around the world and from throughout history, Maps is not the exhibition most visitors will probably be expecting. What will they think, for example, when they find that the highly schematised map for the board game Risk, reproduced in hundreds of thousands of copies, has been given wall space and credence equal to some of the greatest and rarest maps of European history?

Map exhibitions traditionally sustain the modern world's view of and fascination with maps. And there is no doubt that the modern world is fascinated by them. How else can we explain why another 25 cultural institutions in Chicago have followed the Field Museum's lead to create a city-wide "Festival of Maps" of unprecedented scale? Yet Maps , like a few other but much smaller recent exhibitions, is very much concerned with exposing, exploring and understanding - psychoanalysing, if you will - that fascination.

The fascination with maps is a long-standing feature of modern Western culture. The vibrant, bourgeois society of the 17th-century Netherlands first began to treat maps not just as tools of government, navigation or intellect but also as things to be consumed domestically. Multi-volume atlases, exquisitely coloured and luxuriously bound, were proudly displayed as evidence of their owners' wealth; many Dutch genre paintings of interior scenes show maps hanging on walls and suggest that maps, both large and small, were commonly used as decoration as well as symbols of worldliness and knowledge. The 18th-century English and French multiplied the domestic uses of maps. They placed them on fans and milk jugs and assembled them into large room-screens; they turned them into jigsaw puzzles and other didactic games. For the first time large numbers of women (all genteel) acquired knowledge of and an appreciation for maps. Nineteenth-century industrialisation promoted still more expansion of maps, from those on railway tickets and cigarette cards to bicycling maps and nationalistic caricatures. The wars and transport revolutions of the 20th century, and finally the explosion of the internet, have made maps an integral part of mass culture.

Parallelling the spread of maps within everyday life has been a growing appreciation of old maps. The 19th century witnessed the real development of map connoisseurship, as wealthy collectors began to apply the same rules to maps that were already applied to objets d'art . Old maps are thus evaluated according to their aesthetic and material quality, subject matter, authority, originality, age and rarity, together with their possession of that extra, elusive je ne sais quoi . The advent of cheap photographic reproduction allowed this connoisseurship to extend its hold through the proliferation of facsimile reproductions; since 1950, old maps have cropped up in a variety of decorative consumer products, including coffee mugs and calendars. Anecdotal evidence might suggest that a significant portion of the antiquarian market comprises interior designers who select old maps purely on aesthetic grounds - and certainly coloured maps sell better than uncoloured ones, giving rise to the nefarious, albeit time-honoured, practice of adding colour to old maps - but issues of originality and subject matter are very important in attracting the interest of both connoisseurs and the wider public.

Map collectors have traditionally fixated on those maps that constitute "firsts": usually the first representation of a certain place but also the first use of a specific cartographic technique. The obsession with "firsts" is a symptom of the modern conviction that maps are the products of measurement, observation and testing and so are fundamental works of science. More particularly, "firsts" exemplify the progress of that science, as it acquires ever more and ever better knowledge of the world, and they therefore stand as monuments to Western civilisation. Only a few maps can be "firsts", however, so collectors have also emphasised other maps that stand as exemplars of particular periods when cartography was seen to make significant advances.

The celebration of cartography's progress has recently carried over into a number of map-related popular accounts of the history of science, beginning with Dava Sobel's Longitude . The status of maps as scientific documents has been affirmed by the manner in which some authors have used them to expose the methodological limits of modern science, as in Lewis Carroll's allegory of the impracticality of a map of the same size as the Earth itself: "The farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map."

The desire for maps new and old, original or facsimile, is also dependent on the underlying purpose of all maps to make visible things and relationships that cannot be directly seen, to shed new light on the world and to create new meanings. Maps have thus been widely appreciated for the intellectual enjoyment and satisfaction that their comprehension brings. As Georg Braun wrote in 1572, his atlas of hundreds of city maps and views would permit the reader to enjoy all the benefits and pleasures of travel without enduring any of its hardships and depredations.

The intellectual comprehension of a map is not a rational process. It is also an act of intellectual appropriation through which the reader constructs an emotional relationship with the territory and, through old maps, with the past. This is most obvious when we examine maps of places or past times that we already know well, when the map prompts us to renew our feelings for those places and for the people who live there. Maps therefore work well as memorabilia and as tourist gimcracks. (Not for nothing can you find facsimiles of old maps in the gift shop of every cathedral, castle, local museum and stately home in Britain.) More generally, we use maps to construct a personal tie to the territories and times represented, to place ourselves in those territories and times, and to give them a realness and proximity they otherwise lack. This is why maps so often appear in works of literature set in imagined places, such as the maps of More's Utopia, Swift's Lilliput, Hardy's Wessex, Milne's Hundred Acre Wood, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Keillor's Lake Wobegon.

The persistent parallel drawn within modern Western culture between maps of land and images of (usually female) bodies - as in a promo for the forthcoming season of the US television series Nip/Tuck , with maps projected on to various naked parts of a female figure - points to the manner in which people impose their anxieties and desires through maps on to objectified territories in much the same way as they use pornography to impose their anxieties and desires on to objectified women.

There can be no doubt that maps have been widely used in the modern world to establish an unequal relationship between the reader and territory. When, for example, Clement Attlee reminisced in 1960 about his school days in the 1890s he specifically remembered the maps of the British Empire on the classroom walls and how they presented an "intoxicating vision" of power, authority and legitimacy for the public-school boys being trained to rule those huge swaths of imperial red. All too often, the prime function of modern maps seems to have been to create seductive visions of power and control for their readers, which seems to be a major factor in our fascination with maps. But maps have also served as more poetic devices to focus thoughts and emotions on distant loved ones, on personal pasts, on anticipated futures.

It is precisely such issues concerning the social and cultural contexts in which maps are made and read that have stimulated scholars from across the humanities and social sciences to re-evaluate the nature and history of maps. Maps was curated by Jim Akerman and Bob Karrow of the Newberry Library after the death of David Woodward, who had originally agreed to develop the show. It was conceived to be an updated version of The World Encompassed , North America's previous "great map exhibition" held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1952. That exhibition contained 288 maps: almost all were European, almost all from the golden age of discovery and exploration, all deemed to be great works of art and intellectual genius, and all selected and then arranged in chronological order to demonstrate the ineluctable progress of Western cartography from crude art to exact science.

Only a third of Maps comprises such "classic" maps. The remainder features maps from other cultures and other times, including derivative, popular maps generated by our own society. Moreover, Maps abandons the standard narrative of progressive map history. If other exhibitions have included non-European maps from recent times, they have tended to group them with pre-modern European maps - whether prehistoric, ancient or medieval - thereby legitimating the racist claim that other peoples are backward and cognitively deficient by comparison to the scientifically minded European. Maps , by contrast, organises its exhibits by function and theme, so that a Buddhist cosmographical map hangs next to a map of the Earth derived from satellite imagery, a "stick chart" by Marshall Islanders next to the map of the London Underground, an 18th-century Native American map of political relationships next to colonial British political maps of North America.

Implicit in such juxtapositions is a new appreciation for the cultural significance of non-modern and modern maps alike. Replacing the outmoded triumphalism of standard cartographic histories requires us to wonder why we should display certain maps. This is not to say that scholars are abandoning their visceral appreciation of maps. To paraphrase my wife, "mapheads" will still continue to "geek out over maps like Star Wars fans geek out over spaceships".

Rather, Maps embodies the move both to expand the canon of maps about which we become passionate and to question the nature of that passion. It requires us to face up to and to question our customary, comfortable emotional relationships to maps. Some relationships we might want to keep, others we should discard as detrimental to our culture. But, as with any psychoanalysis, the process is bound to be interesting.

Matthew Edney is Osher professor in the history of cartography, University of Southern Maine, and director of the History of Cartography Project, University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a member of the advisory board for the Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibition (which runs until January , 2008) and contributed a chapter to the companion volume. Full details of Chicago's Festival of Maps are available at www.festivalofmaps.com .

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