Mapping Manifest Destiny @ The Newberry Library

From a curatorial standpoint, Mapping Manifest Destiny at the Newberry Library (which is in a gorgeous building, in case you were wondering) is an excellent exhibit. The gallery space where the maps are displayed is large and quiet, and the information is carefully organized into four color-coded areas that chart the history of the North American West through cartography. The four sections illustrate the progression of the continent from exotic terra nova at the edge of the world to civilized nation linked by a sophisticated network of railroads by defining the primary focus of mapmaking in four different eras of exploration. You can basically watch the centuries-long process of the formation of the United States (and Canada and Mexico, to lesser extents) take place in under an hour. In addition, scale is provided by the inclusion of maps that detail Chicago's own growth from a swampy outpost into a major transportation hub for the rapidly-growing nation. It's downright artful curation.

Oh, and the content is pretty good, too. ;-)

In fact, the collection is a perfect illustration of the fourth use of maps as explained by the Field Museum's Festival of Maps exhibit: these are maps that "bear witness to and shape history." The first two sections, which explore Maps for Empire and Maps to Serve the New Empire show the evolution of the shape of North America as ever more sophisticated cartographical methods and new knowledge about the continent became available over time. Centuries-old European maps are on hand, as are some of the earliest maps of several modern major American cities, such as San Antonio, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh (the last one being drawn and annotated by none other than the young George Washington).

Halfway through you'll find a real treat: William Clark's (of Lewis & Clark fame) original, hand-drawn map of the Corps of Discovery's exploration of the American West in search of an overland river route to the Pacific. The edges are frayed and the ink slightly faded, but this is history, staring you in the face. It almost glows; it gave me goosebumps.

While the first half of Mapping Manifest Destiny shows how the land manipulated the people that explored it, the second half shows how, once the continent had been properly charted, people then manipulated the land. This half is separated into Maps for Enlightenment and Maps for Business, and details the United States' growth into a commercial juggernaut. The gridded system of land surveying that directed property sales and distribution as the US expanded westward, spurred on by the ideology from which this exhibit takes its name, shows up here. Maps for Enlightenment features see nineteenth-century text books opened to maps (my personal favorite was the one that color-coded the world on a scale from Savage to Enlightened). Maps for Business covers Chicago's rise to dominance of the field of commercial cartography. Several maps and books by Rand McNally (the company largely responsible for the Windy City's cartographical supremacy) are on display. The Business section is rounded out by maps of the expansion of the nation's railroad system and the California gold rush.

Mapping Manifest Destiny is short, sweet, and to the point. It's certainly not the kind of thing you'd bring the kids along for (especially if they're the crying type -- the ceilings are high, and everything echoes) as the material is presented in a very mature way. But anyone interested in US history (or the art of exhibit curation) will find the Newberry Library's contribution to the FoM to be a truly enlightening experience.

Mapping Manifest Destiny is on display at the Newberry Library on Chicago's Near North Side until February 16th, 2008. The library's exhibit galleries are open Monday, Friday, and Saturday from 8:15 am - 5:30 pm, and Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday 8:15 am- 7:30 pm; the galleries are free and open to the public. While you're there, check out Ptolemy's Geography and Renaissance Masters in the gallery across the lobby. A short bus ride down LaSalle Street is Encyclopedia Britannica's US headquarters; the building's lobby is host to a variety of maps from the Britannica collection, marking the company's contribution to the FoM.

Mapping Manifest Destiny (Newberry Library)

Ptolemy's Geography and Renaissance Masters (Newberry Library)

Encyclopedia Britannica

Festival of Maps

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