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Finding Our Place

The Walters Art Museum navigates culture with its exhibit of cartography through the ages.

Reviewed by Diana Beechener

Ancient cultures didn’t have Global Positioning Systems. Without turn-by-turn directions, early cartographers set out to define their world by recording what they saw and what they imagined. From mountain ranges to warlord territories to monsters skulking at the edges of the world, maps depict our changing understanding of our lands and our cultures.

In Maps: Finding Our Place in the World, Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum leads you through the evolution of cartography. The Walters sets out to prove that maps are more than street lines and city dots on a piece of paper. Across time and cultures, people have made maps to define the world around them and conjecture about the unknown beyond the horizon line.

But is the exhibit worth the trip to Baltimore?

The Walters partners with Chicago’s The Field Museum and the Newberry Library to exhibit the largest cartography collection America has seen in over 50 years. Globes, maps and stone tablets fill brightly colored rooms. Ten boundaries divide the exhibit into cartography categories: travel guides, religious maps, maps that depict the entire Earth, maps of imaginary worlds, maps of neighborhoods, territory maps, city plans, nature and society maps, American history through maps and map adaptations. You’ll see maps of every scale and significance, from a clay tablet where an unknown cartographer scratched city plans for Babylon’s Nippur in 1300 bc to the annotated flight map that guided Charles Lindbergh across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.

Without aerial views and unable to travel great distances easily, early mapmakers focused on artistry. A Japanese road map from Edo to Kyoto made during late 17th or early 18th century resembles an elaborate landscape painting with open forests and cottages dotting the roadway. Indian Buddhists have their own artistic tradition, blending the human world with the divine world of the Brahma and infinite space for a vivid map that has more to with bejeweled elephants than accurate topography.

When trade routes and commerce opened up, cartographers’ understanding of their world changed. Several attempts to capture a spherical Earth on a flat surface bridge the gap between the ancient and modern worlds. A 1566 map creates a heart-shaped, cordiform world by distorting continent size.

The most ambitious global map is Pieter van den Keere’s huge New Map of the Whole Earth. Choosing a double hemisphere display, Keere sketches accurate continent information with less distortion. Surrounding his map, he draws people and places of his world. Black and white tableaus depict dancing women in Havana, African children playing and the powdered wigs of the French aristocracy.

As cartographers’ knowledge expanded, their whimsy dwindled. The Spanish and English maps of the 1700s are devoid of lurking sea monsters cresting from the water to eat explorers or merchant ships. The modern topography graphics are colorful and beautiful, but the images seem boring compared to the more imaginative and less accurate maps of the earlier centuries.

Maps of the imagination become, in later years, a genre unto themselves, mapping the minds of famous authors. You’ll see original detailed cartography from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien. L. Frank Baum’s visions of Oz are less distinct. On the inside cover of his 1914 novel The Land of Oz, Baum constructs territories through bright blocks of primary colors. Maps to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and A.A. Milne’s 100 Acre Woods give you a clear picture of what the authors imagined as they placed pen to paper.

The exhibit is reading-intensive. Large plaques explain each map in language that can feel overly technical. The dry history is redeemed by glass cases containing one-of-a-kind maps. A white glove, inscribed with the events of London’s 1851 Great Exhibits, meant that the wearer would always have directions easily at hand.

Combining colorful maps with ecological surveys and flights of fancy, Maps navigates humanity’s need to define the world across cultures and centuries. At worst, Maps has a few dry spots where clearer writing and less jargon would improve the exhibit. At best, Maps leads you on a tour of the human mind, showing the flights of fancy our minds are capable of in our urgency to fill in the unknown. Maps: Finding Our Place in the World is worth the price of admission and a quick MapQuest search for directions.

Maps: Finding Our Place in the World; 11am-5pm W-Su @ The Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles St., Baltimore. $12: 410-547-9000.

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