Maps: Finding Our Place In the World @ The Field Museum

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.

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)


Frank said...

There are some great old maps of Pittsburgh available at the Carnegie Library:


What blows me away is how in maps of old cities, especially eastern cities, there are rail lines everywhere. Almost every major street had a rail line down the middle--maybe one day we'll get some of those old lines back!

The Blurgh

Brendan Crain said...

One of the coolest finds at the exhibit, for me, was a map of the route from Boston to Chicago for the Columbian World Expo, which means it was from somewhere around 1893. Sure enough, Pittsburgh is labeled "Pittsburg." I'd never seen a real map from that period of the city's history before...it's a real No-H! I kind of geeked out over that. :-)

Dean said...

The University of Chicago Press has a special web feature to celebrate the publication of Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, the book that accompanies the exhibit at the Field Museum.

The online feature is called "What Is a Map?" and includes zoomable images of unusual maps from the book, including historical maps, maps of imaginary worlds, and maps on objects, such as the left-handed glove mapping the London Exhibition of 1851. Variable magnification of the images reveals details that cannot be seen otherwise.

See the web feature at www.press.uchicago.edu/books/akerman/

Anonymous said...

You can see the online version of the gallery here.


Unknown said...

36 arts and culture organizations in and around Baltimore are participating in the Festival of Maps, can you believe it? I'm so excited about all the fun things happening in Baltimore from performances to showcases to exhibits. I can't wait to see participants like Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Maryland Science Center, Port Discovery Children's Museum and so many more. Everyone should join in on the fun for Baltimore's Festival of Maps . One really interesting part is called Maps on Purpose. A group called Art on Purpose worked with the various neighborhoods of Baltimore to map how they saw their world. The results are all varied and all great statements about the value of community.

Go to www.baltimore.org/maps/baltimore_festival_of_maps.php for more info and to see videos of the curator talking about the festival.