Maps are all around us. A map of campus orients the visitor to Boston College; an old map of Boston hangs in a gilt frame; and, increasingly, a map on a handheld device points to a coffee spot, a concert hall, or a way home. In their ubiquity, maps are paradoxically more limited. We are so used to seeing those aerial views of roads and highways that it begins to seem that this, and only this, is what maps are. They show traffic routes from above; they show how to get from one place to another.
The “Making History Public” class of Spring, 2014, set out to challenge this conception. Continuing the collaboration between the History Department and the Boston College Libraries, this course was the fourth of its kind. A course on early books began the program in 2012-2013; since then, students have worked on the American history as seen through comics and the history of Boston Common. Our class, taught at the Burns Library as the others were, aimed to anchor a historical topic in the Burns collections and emerge with a substantive exhibit made up of high quality reproductions of Burns Library materials and student authored exhibit text about these particular materials.
From the start, our course attempted to broaden the conception of maps and mapping. The current notion of cartography is precisely that – current. It emerges from a set of historical circumstances. As such, it stands to reason that maps were not always conceived in the same way; people in other time periods and other cultures imagined the map differently. Our early readings stretched the idea of mapping by considering alternate conceptions, past and present. In pre-Columbian Meseoamerica, we learned, maps were less about navigation and more about narrative: they recounted history in pictorial form.
A present-day cartographer in North Carolina, we discovered, has mapped his neighborhood by where dogs bark, or where streetlights shine, or where jack-o-lanterns are placed. And maps of the early modern world, we realized, depicted places that seemed both familiar and distorted: familiar because they set the foundation for the maps we most use today, but also distorted in what they included and omitted, what they chose to emphasize, what assumptions informed the map in the first place. Maps, our class concluded, are always distortions to some degree. They cannot include everything and they always have a point of view.
Very quickly, the students in “Early Maps and Distant Places” realized that all of the maps we were considering at the Burns Library were made by Europeans. Why was this? Answering the question required exploring many difficult (and in some cases unanswerable) questions about empire, colonial history, and intellectual traditions. Sometimes the distortion is not even on the map, but it becomes visible considering maps as a collection. This is the case with the materials our class curated. We began with the notion of an exhibit demonstrating how maps from all different times and places make different kinds of arguments. Instead, we found an unexpected – and very instructive – constraint. All the maps we had on hand were in the European tradition, and they made very similar arguments. The resulting exhibit, Ordering the Unknown: The European Mapping Tradition from 1600 to 1860, considers how European cartographers of this era used maps to organize, classify, and lay claim to parts of the world imperfectly know to them. (Obviously these parts of the world were very well-known to others.) The argument these maps make, loosely summarized, is that the world can be ordered and made known. However dangerous, however strange, however distant, the intellectual tools made evident on the map, so goes the claim, are up to the challenge.
Though the direction of the exhibit caught us by surprise, the unalloyed pleasure of poring over old maps did not. Our hours spent in the wonderful Burns Library Reading Room led us to uncover every manner of cartographic treasure. There were far too many to include in our exhibit! Thanks to the invaluable guidance of Burns Library Senior Reference Librarian/Bibliographer Justine Sundaram, we found fantastic maps of all kinds in the Burns Library’s Williams, Irish and General Collections. Thanks to the inexhaustible resources suggested by O’Neill Library Senior Reference Librarian/Bibliographer Elliot Brandow, we understood precisely where the maps came from. And thanks to the imaginative work of MTS Photographer Chris Soldt and Bapst Library Exhibits Specialist/Senior Library Assistant Kevin Tringale, the maps we found will be available for all to see. The exhibit curated by the students of “Early Maps and Distant Places” is now on display in the History Department, Stokes Hall, floor 3, South. Please stop by to visit our exhibit and enjoy our cartographic findings!
To learn more about past exhibits curated by “Making History Public” students, view the BC Libraries exhibit listings. For more in-depth information about these exhibits, read Professor Virginia Reinburg’s article about the Books around the World: 1400-1800 and this article about Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s exhibit featuring the Kane Comic Collection.
For more information about the Burns library, visit libguides.bc.edu/burns. You can also like the Burns Library on Facebook, follow the Burns Library on Twitter, view Burns Library Collections on Flickr, and subscribe to the Burns blog.