A Map As Big As the World

Where do ideas come from? What do you look at for inspiration? Maps have always intrigued me.

Growing up I accepted that the maps I studied in school were exact representations of the lands they described. It never occurred to me that they were finely edited. Nor did I think about what could be mapped. I assumed that all maps showed land masses and ocean expanses, perhaps a celestial body or two.

In The Map Book Peter Barber, head of the Map Collection at the British Library, says maps “can be regarded as the most successful pieces of fiction ever to be created… Given the impossibility of representing the total reality, with all its complexity, on a flat surface – be it of paper, parchment, gold or tapestry – hard decisions have to be taken as to what features to select for accurate representation or indeed for representation at all…The mapmaker knows the purpose that he wants his map to serve, and beyond that he is unwittingly guided by the values and assumptions of the time in which he lives…”

antique map with Jerusalem at the center of world

Take this 16th century map by Heinrich Bunting. Guided by a religious view of the world Bunting has placed Jerusalem at the center of a cloverleaf formation of Europe, Asia and Africa. Not only is this an intriguing location but Jerusalem is also over scaled.

19th century railroad map

This 19th century rail map distorts distances and size for purposes of clarity. If the red line representing the rail system were drawn to scale it would be too small to be visible on the map. Think about what is not shown – mountains, lakes, the great expanses of the plains – all forgotten.

It’s fascinating to think about the impossibility of creating an accurate and truthful map – an area ripe for creative investigation. Writer Lewis Carol has written a story about mapmakers who make larger and larger maps in an attempt to portray the world, the final map ending up the same size as the world – a 1 to 1 ratio. Cumbersome to use, people resort to using the real thing. ‘It has never been spread out yet,’ said the professor. ‘The farmers objected; they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.’

If it’s impossible to make a map without bias then it must be possible to map all sorts of intangible things. The Heavens and Gods – of course. Moods, emotions, mythological places, memories. There are no limits.

17th century map of the world without bodies of water

In 1690 mapmakers Willelm and Jan Goeree imagined a world without water. What were they thinking? Why was this map made? What urgent need did it fulfill?

19th century map of The Falls of Eternal Despair

There was a clear need in this map from 1892, conceived by Methodist minister Martin Wells Knapp. Titled The Falls of Eternal Despair it depicts a river that flows from Holiness Heights through the Plains of Regeneration, past the Impenetrable Hedge of Sin, into the marshlands where is joins with the tributaries – the River of Murder, of Stealing, of Disobedience to Parents…, and over the Falls of Despair to Hell.

19th century map of a woman's heart

19th century map of a man's heart

It does seem essential to map the differences between a woman’s heart and a man’s heart. Her heart has an area for the love of dress and for admiration, while his heart maps a land of the love of power and the land of economy. Like all maps it’s a specific truth that’s told.

How can you not love maps when you find ones like these?

Shan map of conflict between China and Burma

WPA map of land use in Los Angeles

Map of the far side of the moon, color coded

The top map from 1889 is a Shan map showing a border dispute between Burma and China; the second map is a WPA era survey map for the City of Los Angeles; the last map is a color coded geologic map of the Central Far Side of the Moon. Regardless of the mapmakers’ intent it is the formal qualities that interest me – the use of color, line, dot, shape, rhythm, balance…

Yes, this is a blog about art and design so next week I’ll write about artists who use maps in their work.

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