Published: November 27, 2007
What makes maps so hypnotic? Is it their endless detail that magically draws a viewer in? Their connection to a moment in history? Their sometimes dazzling beauty? Whatever the connection, discover unexpected new dimensions of these remarkable objects in “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World” at The Field Museum through January 28.
This may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see more than 130 of the world’s greatest maps: maps from ancient Rome and Babylonia; gorgeous, groundbreaking maps by Leonardo da Vinci and Mercator; maps borrowed from the Vatican, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the great libraries of the world.
The exhibit features the oldest road map of Britain and the map that drew the first boundaries around a new American nation. Maps that scarcely look like maps at all: mysterious forms carved in wood, landscapes fired on ceramic vessels, navigational charts composed of sticks and shells. Maps made by dreamers like J.R.R. Tolkien and by visionaries like the Internet pioneers.
Viewers will discover how early maps were made, how mapmaking has changed over centuries and see how map technology is being used by scientists today. A series of high-tech displays allow viewers to experience the latest map technologies.
“Maps: Finding Our Place in the World” has been organized by The Field Museum and The Newberry Library. In addition to maps from more than 60 lenders worldwide, it features artifacts from both organizing institutions, including more than 20 rare maps from the Newberry’s collections.
Most people think of maps as useful tools, says James Akerman, director of the Newberry Library’s Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography. “But 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.”
For example, he says, in places where river transport was of prime importance, rivers are shown as much wider than they would be if drawn to scale; maps also reveal what is not considered important to the makers and users †such as a map of colonial America that completely ignores large Indian nations.
World maps are equally revealing. In maps that represent religious or traditional views of the world, a sacred place is often at the center, and spiritual or supernatural realms may appear beside geographic locations. Navigational maps, by contrast, may focus on patterns of wind and waves, on coastlines or on measurements of latitude, longitude and angles.
The Congo artist who created the exhibition’s lukasa memory board †a conceptual map of local chiefdoms, history and politics †was concerned as much with secret knowledge of Luba genealogy as with visible places.
An Inuit paddling his kayak along a shoreline in the dark, for example, has more use for a carved object with contours he can feel than for one with carefully drawn lines of latitude and longitude or boundaries drawn precisely to scale.
One basic need addressed by maps is to convey information and knowledge. The exhibition offers many examples of mapmakers developing ways to convey knowledge about the world: visible things, like the newly discovered continents of the Americas or the great city of Tenochtitlan, and things not yet seen, like the roundness of the earth, the realms of the spirit and the geography of fictional lands.
For many, though, the most exciting displays will be those that look to the horizon and glimpse the new generation of mapping technologies. From handheld devices that guide one to the nearest pizza parlor (and even display its menu!) to in-car systems that change a driver’s route to avoid traffic jams, maps are becoming increasingly clever and powerful instruments.
Tickets to “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World” include museum admission and are available at 866-343-5303, www.fieldmuseum.org or at the box office. The museum is at 1400 South Lake Shore Drive.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm