On an almost disturbingly hot sunny day in mid-September I navigated through Washington, D.C., using what I hoped would prove to be a trusty map. The PocketGuide to Washington, D.C., vol. 23 no. 3 told me I had a short walk—less than two miles—from my hotel to the Library of Congress. I followed the course—east, south, east, south, east. “This is why I’m here,” I thought to myself.

Indeed, the purpose of my visit was to witness an exhibit illustrating the impact of, as its name aptly describes, “Maps in Our Lives.” The unveiling of the long-awaited map exhibit coordinated through the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM) in the foyer of the Geography and Map Division was attended by dedicated individuals to the profession and museum staff, and later visited by the public.

An Idea Sparked

After a brainstorm one day about two years ago, ACSM’s government affairs consultant Laurence Socci found himself pitching the idea for an exhibit highlighting the geomatics professions to executive director Curt Sumner, LS. “The idea came to me after I learned that the winning maps from ACSM’s annual map competition go to the Library of Congress. I thought it would be a good idea to display those maps as an exhibit,” Socci says. Sumner, knowing that the geomatics professions are lesser known than many others, immediately latched on to the idea, contacting long-time colleague Dr. John Hébert, chief of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (LoC). Soon, members of ACSM and LoC curators found themselves at work to create a promotional and educational display exhibiting the impact of the geomatics sciences in the world.

“What can we do to help the [public] better understand what we do?” Dr. Hébert asked during the unveiling of the exhibit on September 14.

The answer is the “Maps in Our Lives” exhibit.

An Idea Implemented

The exhibit infuses, for the first time, the four member organizations of the ACSM structure—surveying, cartography, geodesy and geographic information systems—into an all-encompassing show of valuable, functional maps from past to present. The exhibit takes visitors on a virtual journey from the colonial times to today using creative and well thought-out mapping tools. Surveys of first President George Washington’s acquired property in Fairfax, Va., reveal a compelling look back to the simplicity of the late 1700s. The surveying display depicts the transformation of Washington’s purchased land. In a map dated 1760 of “Mr. Clifton’s Neck Land,” measurements are shown on a scale of “50 poles to the inch.” Washington later transformed Mt. Vernon into an 8,000-acre working plantation. A 1793 map documents his five farms (Union, Dogue Run, Muddy Hole, Mansion House and River Farm) and their crops. Several other maps from 1799 to 1995 show how Washington’s land was divided, giving the observer a true account of property transfer and accurate measurement. The selection of these maps, Sumner says, was a “really conscious decision. We wanted to include all of the elements within ACSM, not just the cartography side. Early on we identified that the survey piece would probably generate more interest if it had a historical background to encompass Washington. But at the same time we wanted to demonstrate surveying over time. We chose to use some pieces they had in-house from the [LoC] Washington collection, and then seek out the other pieces to carry it all the way through to modern time.”

“The GIS part,” Sumner continues, “was a segue from the survey work, demonstrating how GIS use that kind of information.” In this area of the exhibit, a GIS-based video is positioned next to a giant globe model near the elevators. The video explains GIS from the beginning, overlaying a plat on an aerial image and explaining how GIS answers the where, why and how of a given area. Carrying through with the Washington theme, the GIS video exemplifies the where, why and how of Fairfax County, which contains Washington’s property. By zooming in from a full Earth view to a local plat, viewers get a sense of the impact offered by digital geographic information systems.

The beauty of the exhibit, Héber says, is that it doesn’t require an observer to be progressive to reach an end. “Maps have a tendency [in which] you can just hone in on one map and you’ve got your story. Here you can go in to a piece and back out, and then go across the way to another piece that’s not directly abutting that particular piece and still get [its] story. Individual maps can do wonders. For instance, the dramatic map of the campus at the University of Oregon showing night lighting—it’s a very telling piece, and it’s a very well-illustrated item [that] at the height of cartographic work gets that story across. [There are also] pieces in your own town that you walk up to and say, ‘Gee, I never thought that would be mapped but wow, look at the way it’s done.’”

Socci says the exhibit certainly meets his expectations. “But I want to hope that it meets the satisfaction of the surveying and geospatial professionals. The exhibit really honors them,” he says.

This portion of the surveying display of the exhibit illustrates the many transformations George Washington's Mt. Vernon property has undergone since the 1700s.

An Exhibit With a Mission

Héber says one of the goals of the “Maps in Our Lives” exhibit is to “attract a general population to the library and to the map collection so that they are more readily aware of the great variety of, in most cases, contemporary mapping that impacts our lives. Maybe with that understanding maps will become less [seen as] illustrations that one puts in a book or on a wall, and become working documents that people actually understand they are using as they go forward.” He hopes the exhibit will further attract people to the extensive division offerings: 4,250,000 map sheets; 53,000 atlases; 700,000 microfilm images; 300 globes; 2,000 terrain models; 1,600,000 aerial photographs and remote sensing images; and 1,820 computer files.

Sumner says he hopes that “the general public will get a better understanding of what we in this little geospatial community do and how it affects them. If they can look at the selections in that exhibit and say, ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense’ or ‘Gee, isn’t that interesting how this map demonstrates [a certain thing],’ hopefully they’ll see what each one was intended to do, and help them [to] understand the process.”<P>
Socci hopes “the public will learn—and appreciate—the many ways that maps are a part of our lives. The good thing about the exhibit is that it shows many different types of maps, everything from a subway map to a geography-based children’s game. It will teach the value of maps and the importance of the profession.”

The collective mission of Héber, Sumner and Socci may just benefit from the exhibit’s location. “We believe we have a pretty good chance of having as many as a million people see [the exhibit],” Sumner says. The exhibit, on display through Jan. 6, 2007 in the James Madison building, is on the same floor level as the legislative offices for the state representatives; the exhibit, in fact, spans the hallway that many people take to those offices.

“[Some] people think it’s a shame to be in the basement,” Sumner says. “I like to think that we’re on the foundation level of everything.”