Web-Exclusive! Communicating Through Time With Maps

March 3, 2008
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A visit to a map exhibit at The Field Museum in Chicago leads a surveyor to ponder the impact of his own mapmaking process on future generations.




My wife and I, along another couple, traveled to the Field Museum in Chicago on Dec. 22, 2007 to see the exhibit Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. As a surveyor, I felt like it was my obligation to see such a wonderful display of maps, and learn of their history. The exhibit, which ran from Nov.2, 2007 to Jan. 27, 2008, was an alliance between the Field Museum and the Newberry Library. The exhibit was also part of the Festival of Maps Chicago.  According to the Field Museum this is “a citywide celebration, made up of more than 30 cultural and scientific institutions, dedicated to exploring and understanding the discoveries and history of wayfinding across time, space, and cultures.”     

Here at the Office of the Fulton County Engineer in northwest Ohio, our office released our 2008 version of our highway map, and it made me ponder not only the process of making the map, but the items that we highlighted and the meaning behind them.  What symbols did our office use to identify features? Why was the information on the map important?  And to whom was the information important?  If it was up to me, I would have included only the survey information on the map, I would have shown the township and section lines, the section corners, etc.  My map would not have included the school districts, or the addressing blocks for houses. My map would have been more like the old plat maps showing all the properties and their owners.  I would show the GPS monuments and where the FEMA reference marks were. Obviously, my map would not have pertained to the general public. The purpose of our map is to aid in navigation, to show the major drainage courses and to show the political, township and school district boundaries. It shows the schools themselves and the outline of the different municipality boundaries and their names. It also shows the adjoining counties, townships, and the state of Michigan to the north. Sometimes, as much as we wish, the world does not end at the limits of our county. Many of our drainage courses go into the adjoining counties, and in the surveyor’s eyes, many of our closing corners are dependent on the sections within a different county, not to mention geodetic control. 

Some of the maps on exhibit at the Field Museum do indeed show the world ending at the edge of the map, and some of them also only show the features and symbols the author wanted. This was done to keep the outsiders away-or to lure people in. I like to compare our county map to “Veneti[a]e MD from Jacopo de Barbari in 1500, only without the distortion. His map is an oblique view of Venice. It was one of the most beautiful maps I saw out of the approximately 130 maps within the exhibit. The map itself is made up of six large panels and shares a bird’s-eye view facing the southwest. The map shows the entire island, not exactly to scale, but in an incredibly creative manner. Jacopo has two gods, Mercury and Neptune, in the map. Mercury, the god of commerce and trade, has written next to him in a half circle, “I Mercury shine favorably on this above and all other emporia,” and he kneels strongly atop a cloud in the top center of the map. Neptune, on the other hand, representing the god of the seas, is holding a spear with a plaque hanging from it. The plaque reads, “I Neptune reside here, smoothing the waters of this port.” He is riding on a mythical creature guarding the bay. Both gods were drawn with incredible detail and were very persuasive looking. Beyond the power of the gods, the town itself is drawn with incredible detail, even if it is not drawn to scale. According to Matthew H. Edney in “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World,” “Jacopo played with the physical spacing of islands in order to show churches and palaces clearly; conversely he simplified and even eliminated buildings of low status. He also exaggerated the heights of the buildings, and especially the bell towers, for greater visual emphasis.” After reviewing this map in great detail in the exhibit, I viewed Venice from a bird’s-eye view on Microsoft’s Local Live map. I was amazed at the accuracy in Jacopo’s depiction of the city. I encourage all to do the same and compare the two maps.    

Our county map does not have gods drawn on it. It is not an oblique view, nor is the scale distorted, but both maps share a common purpose nonetheless. We intend to show a seamless transportation network and opportunities for agricultural, commercial and industrial development. Much like “Veneti[a]e MD” we welcome outsiders to share trade with Fulton County. The map here at the county was drawn in AutoCad 2006 by our office staff and sent to a publisher for printing and folding. Great detail was taken for precision and accuracy, and the map was reviewed by the entire staff before final printing. The end result was a scaled map showing the finest of detail of one of the 88 counties within the state of Ohio in the United States of America.  This was a real product depicting a real place, utilizing the latest of map-making technology. 

Why then, would one prepare a map to the same demanding standards for a fictional place, and how would they even begin to build such a place in their imagination? This is clearly the case in a map of “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson, or “Thror’s map of the Lonely Mountain” by J.R.R. Tolkien, or my personal favorite, “The Land of Make Believe” by Jaro Hess. According to Ricardo Padron in “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World,” “It collects various characters and scenes from well-known children’s [books] into a single landscape view. Among these we find the wall that Humpty Dumpty fell from, the Emerald City of Oz, and the City of Many Towers Where the Beautiful Princess Lives.” This map was beautifully drawn, and I wanted to hang a copy of it in our nursery. This part of the exhibit also made me think of the imaginary maps that are on some of the games my nephews play on their video games. These maps are made from technology similar to what we use to make maps every day well beyond our county map. These video game maps show the tiniest amount of detail, down to the valleys and ridges and curb and gutter. These must be made in a very similar way we generate our own maps, only in a make-believe setting. 

Other personal favorites I saw while exploring the maps exhibit was one by Oronce Fine titled “Recens et integra orbis descripto.” This map of the world utilized the cordiform projection, which resembles the shape of the heart. According to Denis Cosgrove in “Maps: Finding Our Place in the World,” “The world map in the shape of a heart thus connected the image of the expanding globe to the most intimate core of the human individual, to the idea of rule, and to the majesty of monarchy and empire.” Another favorite map, which utilized a projection still in use today, was one by Gerald Mercator titled “Nova et aucta orbis terrae descripto ad usum navigantium emendate accomodata.” The amount of detail on this print was truly amazing, and it was surreal to be standing in front of such an amazing, original map dating to 1569. Other favorites were maps from Claudius Ptolemy, who was the first to portray a round earth and therefore utilized latitude and longitude.  He is recognized as being the foundation for all current maps. Other maps that stuck out to me were a 275- pound, seven-foot across, gold-trimmed atlas from 1665; an original aeronautical map with original notes from Charles Lindbergh from his flight in the Spirit of St. Louis; a Town Plan of Nippur, Mesopotamia, the first town plan drawn to scale on a clay tablet from 1300 BC; and a map of the Americas from 1562 showing America as an exotic place with Patagonian Giants, and Amazonian Cannibals.  

The exhibit was one of awe and wonder. All weekend long, I thought about my two-hour experience with all of those ancient maps. I have no doubt my wife and the other couple we were with heard enough about maps to last a lifetime. While walking through the exhibit, there was a video presentation explaining GPS and how surveyors utilize GPS to make modern maps. I caught myself feeling very proud of myself and my profession and fortunate to get paid for what I love to do. At the end of the exhibit, there was a large screen, probably twelve feet across, where you could find where you live anywhere in the world. This was a map very similar to Google Earth of Microsoft Local Live, just much bigger. I think it summed the exhibit up very well traveling from different projections of the earth, as they thought it was, to a very detailed map with aerial photography showing the finest of detail anywhere on earth. So, the next time you draw a map, whether for a county or for a boundary or topographical or ALTA survey, picture it in an exhibit 500 years from now.    

Our visit to the Field Museum was one to remember, and I encourage all to study the history of maps. As a surveyor, these exhibits made me ponder how I draw my own maps and what detail I emphasize and draw attention to. How will my maps influence history? 
 
 

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