Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Stories Maps Tell

As a supporter for all sorts of things being viewed as art, I am always excited to see a new type of "thing" be accepted into the fold by museums. In this case, the thing is maps. I've never had a problem with viewing maps as art (and, to be honest, have never really thought much about it), but apparently their value as such is new to some. In an article in the Washington Post about a new exhibit at the Walters in Baltimore, MD, Paul Richard writes,

"Not long ago, old maps weren't often seen in art museums. They mostly stayed in libraries -- rolled up among atlases, antiquarian tomes, travelers' reports -- and may not be your cup of tea. Oil paintings, it is true, are easier to see. It takes little mental effort to recognize Saint George and his dragon, or a vase of flowers. Reading maps is work. Their beauty may be visual, but it's never only visual. You have to use your mind.

"Conceptualism has helped them. Maps feel more like art now than they did long ago. They're partially abstract. They're pictures of ideas. They're conceptual art."

Now, I don't agree with that assessment 100%--in particular the bit about conceptual and abstract art, but I do agree with one point: maps are more than just pretty pictures. They're meant to serve a purpose and, as the Walters exhibit shows, that purpose varies wildly from map to map. There are road maps (including one showing all roads leading to Rome), maps meant for use by pilots, maps of the ocean floor, maps of memories, and a map of the first internet. There are maps of fictional places (Middle Earth, Treasure Island, the Hundred Acre Wood), maps which show the U.S. of A. at the center, as well as those which depict the temple at Delphi (the Omphalos of the world to the Greeks), Greenwich, Mecca, or Mount Meru as central.

Maps, just like any other historical object or text, serve now to tell us stories. They tell us what was important to the people who made them, they illuminate the beliefs held by their creators, they even provide us with very specific data:

"One map on exhibit tells a crucial truth about the Emperor Napoleon. Devised by Charles Joseph Minard in 1869, it shows a line whose thickness and extent simultaneously display the line of march he took to Moscow and the troops he took along. As the conqueror leaves France in 1812 the line is at its thickest, which represents his army of 422,000 men. When he gets back to Paris the next year, it is skinnier by far. That's because 412,000 are dead."
I don't look at the road maps crammed into my driver-side car door and see pieces of art, but who is to say that the same will be said for someone 1,000 years from now looking at them? I know that Route 95 will take me north to Maryland, straight to Baltimore, bypassing numerous smaller towns. But years from now, someone might look at the same map and conclude that this "Baltimore" place held greater significance to our people as a whole than, say, Elkton.

My point is that maps tell stories. Maybe they're not as straightforward as an oil of St. George taking down a dragon, and maybe they do require thought, but they tell stories all the same. And in the end, even if you don't put the thought into seeing the story, many maps remain simply, visually, beautiful.

The exhibit is open until June 8th.

Top Right:The Aztec Capital Tenochtitlan by Hernán Cortés, 1524
At Right: A 19th-century Jain cosmological diagram from India showing the world revolving around the mythical Mount Meru.)

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