About a fifth of the way through the Field Museum's Maps exhibit, I started to feel a bit giddy. As a long-time lover of maps, I'd been looking forward to this -- the centerpiece of Chicago's Festival of Maps -- for months, and it was clear early on that I would not be disappointed. Now, after having a day to reflect, I can honestly (and emphatically) say that Maps: Finding Our Place in the World is one of the most impressive museum exhibits I have ever attended. Those are strong words, I know, so let that be my one burst of fanboy-style enthusiasm. Henceforth, I'll try to be as objective as possible.
Divided into seven sections, Maps begins by addressing what is probably the most common use of its subject matter: wayfinding. The content of this section is subdivided into two groups, the Itinerary (one route depicted) and the Network (many routes depicted together). The maps on display set the tone for the rest of the exhibit; there is a great variety of mediums, styles, and time periods represented. Highlights include a section of an ancient 60-foot Japanese scroll depicting the road from Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo), a 1940s road map of America with road trip routes taken by an anonymous family highlighted and annotated, and an original print of Harry Beck's revolutionary redesign of the London Tube map.
The second section of the exhibit displays maps that give structure to the world. While many maps may not be used directly for getting from A to B, they help us to develop a concept of the vastness of the world around us. The exhibit charts the evolution of mankind's understanding of the planet through maps, showing how they were used to record progress and redefine the world as our knowledge grew. The undisputed centerpiece of this area is a set of two large (about 4 feet in diameter, but I'm guessing) wooden globes -- one that depicts the earth as it was believed by cartographers to look (curiosities include the island of California off of North America's west coast and the near-absence of Australia and New Zealand, though overall it's surprisingly accurate) and the other showing the celestial dome above, with full-color representations of the constellations (i.e. a scorpion for Scorpio).
Maps are also used, as illustrated in the third and fourth sections of the exhibit, to show important places and "bear witness to and shape history," in the curators' words. These two collections expand quite nicely upon the logic of the first two; the most obvious uses of maps are to chart the world and the routes that people use to move around it, but with a heightened understanding of the larger world, it makes sense that people started using maps to break the larger world down into smaller parts. Privatization and land division become central foci here. Several important names pop up up in a subset of the fourth section focusing on historical maps of the US: Lewis and Clark's map of their route is here, as are land surveys by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin.
The fifth section includes even more sophisticated maps that make the invisible visible. These are highly detailed creations that bring to light intangible or hidden details about places. One of Jane Adams Hull House's famous maps of Chicago blocks broken down (and color-coded) by ethnicity and income is on display (a print of the same map is included in the Chicago History Museum's Mapping Chicago exhibit). So is a huge, vividly-colored map of the geology of Great Britain, one of the first maps of its kind. Another first here is a small, unassuming map of northern Italy that is believed to be one of the earliest uses of shading to depict topography, pre-dating its common use in recent times by several centuries. A closer look at the plaque describing this piece reveals that its creator was none other than Leonardo da Vinci. Another of his quiet pieces, a plan to canal-ize the Arno, is nearby.
The sixth area is a showcase of maps that depict imaginary places. L. Frank Baum's map of Oz is here, along with several of J.R.R. Tolkien's hand-drawn maps of Middle Earth. This section contrasts nicely with the seventh, which shows maps in rather mundane use in everyday life. A RISK board, a needlepoint map of Great Britain, a kiosk showing mapping technology on modern cell phones -- these examples point out the many ways in which maps seep into our daily routines. This last section culminates in an interactive wall of video maps where you can touch cursors on large screens and navigate satellite imagery and zoom in on your hometown. (It can be a bit tricky to get these to work -- try holding your fingers a few centimeters away from the screen).
If there is one opportunity that is really missed here, it's that Maps does not spend any time on the way that the internet is currently democratizing the field of cartography. There is no mention of mashups or group maps or even Mapquest, the launch of which really was revolutionary moment for mapping technology (though Mapquest's prominence in online mapping has since been usurped by Google and Microsoft). In fact, I kept expecting to see this theme threaded throughout the other sections of the exhibit, but it never even made an appearance.
Overall, Maps: Finding Our Place in the World is a suitably rich and creamy center to the FoM's gourmet chocolate. It's an exhibit that keeps you moving, looking forward to the next map even before you've finished reading about the last. If you don't live in the area but you've been looking for a reason to visit Chicago, this exhibit would even make a good excuse to come. If you live within driving distance and have even a passing or newfound interest in cartography, you have no excuse not to make the trip.
IF YOU GO
Maps: Finding Our Place in the World is on display at the Field Museum until January 27th, 2008. The museum is open 9:00am-4:30pm, seven days a week; the entry fee for the museum and the special exhibit is $19 for adults, $14 for students and seniors, and $9 for children under 12.
Maps: Finding Our Place in the World (Field Museum of Natural History)