Tuesday, January 22, 2008

26 Hours at the Festival of Maps (part 1)

Just returning from the Festival of Maps in Chicago. Phew. This may take a little while to sort through, so bear with me.

First, our itinerary (my fellow-traveller was Tom Hedberg, president of Hedberg Maps):

Monday, 1/21/08:
• 3 pm Field Museum

Tuesday, 1/22/08:
• 10 am Oriental Institute
• 10:30 Regenstein Library
• 11:30 Brookfield Zoo
• 2 pm Architectural Center
• 3:45 Chicago Cultural Center
• 4:30 Encyclopedia Britannica

There were several other meetings in there, and some travel time, but that was what we saw. My overall impression? Mixed: some was absolutely stunningly great (The Field Museum), some was really good (Oriental Institute and Chicago Cultural Center), some was perfectly all right but not in the same league (Architectural Center and Encyclopedia Brittanica), and some should have been skipped (Regenstein and Brookfield).

The show at the Field Museum (Maps: Finding Our Place in the World) is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events cartographers everywhere should make an effort to see. Seriously. Unfortunately it closes in Chicago this week, but it is traveling to Baltimore in March. Go see it.

It works on a number of levels. First off, it includes any number of famous maps you have almost certainly seen in books but are unlikely to see in real life unless you travel the world visiting great museums and archives. It does not have everything (the Peutinger Table is understandably missing), but the sheer weight of unique or rare originals was (for me at least) staggering: three of Leonardo da Vinci's drawn maps from the collections of Queen Elizabeth; original surveys from each of our surveyor-presidents (that would be Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln); Charles Lindbergh's actual flight chart; a gorgeous Ptolemaic illumination from the Vatican Library... the list goes on and on. I overheard one of the curators, who happened to be there giving a tour, say how he had had shivers seeing the Inuit carved Greenland coastal chart in person after having seen it in all sorts of cartographic texts. The whole show is kind of like that.

Secondly, it is conceptually well-organized without being overbearingly argumentative. The last major museum show about maps was the Cooper-Hewitt show The Power of Maps (co-curated by Denis Wood in conjunction with his book of the same name), in 1992-93. Several of the maps shown there are shown here, but the mood has turned from the radical rethinking of maps to a gentler cross-cultural show-and-tell. The curators of the Field Museum show want us to explore and be amazed, not to deconstruct and turn upon our heads all we know. At the same time, the curatorship has absorbed the earlier show's critique (and parallel gentler critiques for example by the NY Times' Wilford Noble in his review of The Power of Maps) of old fashioned shows of maps, in which the dusty concerns of antiquarians came first. Mainly, they do this by taking the road of cross-cultural juxtaposition, an approach made easier by the slow explosion of non-European map history over the last couple decades, led by the History of Cartography Project. As in a well-done work of art, the simple placement of a Jain cosmological diagram with an Islamic one allows resonances to develop. These juxtapositions were really well done, and were done with a light touch that allowed them mostly just to sit and resonate.

Finally, the examples are of enormous variety, and so they keep startling the viewer. One of Noble's critiques of traditional map shows, is the preponderance of the old classics: the Orteliuses and Blaeus and so on. There are some of these, but there are also a lot of unusual maps: maps as 18th-century embroidery samplers; maps as raised-relief models; maps as globes and route-mapping scrolls and carved inscriptions, and...and...and...

So, I liked it. I got the catalog, and actually haven't even un-shrink-wrapped it yet. More later on that and on the rest of the shows.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Aura of Cartography

The last few posts have been setting the groundwork for what I really wanted to be approaching: the aura of cartography (should be said in a hushed whisper).

A number of writers have talked about the "power of maps" over the last few decades. J.B. Harley was the first to address it, Denis Wood wrote a book about it, and now Vincent Virga has written a breathless book about it (n
ote: I have not read the book yet, only heard the interview).

But, as will become apparent after talking a while with cartographers, we are often a little baffled by all the "power" talk. If we, cartographers, have all this power, where are the dancing girls? Where are the yachts? Heck, where are the offices with windows?

But, of course, there is something there. There is an aura of authority that has hung over published, cartographic maps for a long time. It's the authority of an encyclopedia or a dictionary, not of a uniform or an altar. The fact that it has been harnessed to temporal power doesn't mean it posesses that power inherently.

Specifically, it is an interactive authority: the cartographer does not, in principle, parcel out information only to the favored few. He/she/they publish it far and wide. And the users, when they interpret the map, are themselves holders of additional information about a territory, more than they have by simply standing within it.

And this is where I go back two essays, to the business about the author/user divide. To the extent that map users get a "rush" out of seeing the world laid out on paper beneath them (and yes, I get that rush too--I suspect all us map-lovers do), we assume it somehow reflects the intent of the map maker, and indeed some think it reflects the abilities of the map maker.

And it doesn't. Because the construction of the illusions of completeness, of continuity, of accuracy, are all projected onto the finite (considerable, but finite) work of a craftsperson, a geo-librarian, an editor. And interestingly, this is true of people in the "artsy" arts as well. Over Thanksgiving, I was listening to an excellent interview with guitarist Leo Kottke on Minnesota Public Radio. Kottke is very much an "inspiration-driven" artist; he really believes in his musical ideas coming from somewhere outside him. But the act of getting them into his repertoire is absolutely a butt-in-the-chair, hard-working attitude.

Map-makers tend not to be especially inspiration-driven. I mean, we are inspired by and driven by our love of place and geographic space, but we don't suddenly reach in to the air for motifs and riffs and turns of phrase: our modes of expression are fundamentally conscious. And that conscious working of shape and form creates the fra
mework which allows the users to experience what they experience. It's a little like designing a roller-coaster.


I talk about all this like it's a static cultural phenomenon: maps work like this, the culture works like that. But really I think this
aura of cartography is one of the casualties of the changes underway in the geo-world. Just as literacy changed they way we view people who write and desktop publishing took graphic design off its pedestal, the cultural context of cartography is getting a more rational footing. People still think it's cool if you make maps for work, but less an less do you get the baffled "but how do you make them?" sorts of questions. It's more like being a librarian, in that the systems you create and use are pretty transparent... and after all, that's the goal.