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.


Charles Ellwood Jones said...

It may interest you and your readers to know that the catalogue of the Oriental Institute component:

European Cartographers and the Ottoman World, 1500–1750: Maps from the Collection of O. J. Sopranos, by Ian Manners

Oriental Institute Museum Publications 27
Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2007
Pp. 144; 53 color and 5 b/w illustrations
ISBN: 978-1-885923-53-0
ISBN: 1-885923-53-8

is available, free-of-charge, online at:

as well as for sale in hard copy.

natcase said...

I'm sorry the above got lost in the shuffle; I didn't see it until I just logged on again today. It was an excellent little show (and I will discuss it in the next proper blog post,

natcase said...

I want to mention a very through blog discussion of the Field show by pondseeker