Maps: Finding Our Place in the World

This exhibit of

Maps: Finding Our Place in the World

Field Museum, Chicago

Through Jan. 27

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This exhibit of “more than 130 exquisite original maps, globes, and artifacts” is merely the centerpiece of a citywide Festival of Maps, said Dave Hoekstra in the Chicago Sun-Times. “No map exhibition of this scale has been attempted” in at least 50 years. Galleries teem with every imaginable sort of map, from interactive displays to renditions of fictional lands, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s carefully prepared surveys of Middle-earth. Highlights include “the oldest road map of Britain,” dating to 1360, and three maps by Leonardo da Vinci, on loan from Queen Elizabeth herself. But “the exhibit deliberately sets out to expand a visitor’s definition of a map. The show’s opening gallery includes Harry Beck’s famous map of the London Underground right alongside Inuit woodcarvings that outline inlets along the coast of Greenland.

The show traces our changing relationship to the maps we create to describe our world, said Kari Lydersen in The Washington Post. Medieval maps were often as fanciful as they were useful. As European countries began to create overseas empires, “mapmaking was a way to lay down stakes.” Maps drawn by different countries’ surveyors created implicit claims to certain territories. A map from 1755 at the nearby Newberry Library “shows states such as South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia stretching infinitely west in long horizontal strips, implying an endless claim to that latitude.” As wilderness and jungles were settled, maps lost their whimsical and speculative aspects to become descriptive, technical documents. In our own time, with the rise of the Internet, maps now needn’t even be works on paper. Yet thanks to such devices as in-car navigational systems and Google Maps, “rather than distance us from cartography, technology has made mapping part of everyday life” to an unprecedented degree.

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