Whether you realize it or not, maps likely got you to where you are today. You’ve quizzically stared at the impossible-to-fold ones in your car on the side of the road, you’ve labeled states and capitols on a colorful America in grade school and you’ve been saved many times from first-day lateness by the “you are here” labels on the plaques in academic buildings. And while you appreciate topographical depictions when they point you in the right direction, you might not stop and think about them much otherwise.
But at the University, there are people who see maps for much more than their surface application. They create culture so big there are two major cartography collections on campus: the Map Library in Hatcher Graduate Library and the collection in the William L. Clements Library. Here, maps are valued as works of art.
Founded in 1923, the Clements Library started with alum and former regent William L. Clements’s personal collection of historic documents and manuscripts, which contained several hundred maps. Clements made a fortune supplying materials for the construction of the Panama Canal and combed auctions of private libraries and estate sales of aristocrats to obtain his obscenely large collection. The Clements Library has expanded greatly in the past 87 years and is now home to 30,000 charts of the Americas dating from the 15th century to the 20th. Nearly every pre-1820 map of the Americas is included among the originals and copies that form the collection, which is accessible for student observation through appointment.
“The map collection at Clements is a more historical map collection,” said Brian Dunnigan, curator of the Clements collection. “It documents the growth and cartographic knowledge of the Americas from the time of Columbus up until, for the most part, about 1900.”
While old maps are often valued for their historical significance, many also contain ornate designs, giving them significant artistic value as well.
“I would especially say for the manuscript maps, they are decorative — they are certainly functional for the most part — but they are definitely a form of art,” Dunnigan said.
Long before GPS and satellites, maps were often drawn and colored by hand. Pictures were used to denote landmarks and land ownership or simply to add a little flair to the document. Ships were placed in the harbors and oceans, windmills graced the countrysides and yellows, reds and blues marked divided properties. Certainly, you don’t find this ornamentation on your TomTom or Garmin.
“You can see that with printed maps, they get more scientific as you get into the late 18th, early 19th century,” Dunnigan said. “They start to lose a lot of the decorative elements that you see on the earlier maps.”
While it’s true that over time maps get more factual and less creative, it can still be argued that modern maps retain a sense of aesthetics and illustrate cultural relevance.
“I want to say (maps) stopped being art at a certain time, but they didn’t,” said Tim Utter, the access and information services librarian for the Map Library at Hatcher Graduate Library. “What happened is maps started to be more scientific. In a way, science kind of took over, and that’s fine because the maps are more accurate, and that’s great and very important. You want to have an accurate map.”
The Map Library where Utter works is on the top floor of the Hatcher. The lesser-known room on campus is full of wide filing cabinets with shallow shelves for maps of all sizes. It hosts the largest collection of maps in the state, with more than 320,000 maps (celestial, topographical, electronic and more) and 8,000 atlases, both historic and modern.
“Here at Hatcher, we collect any kind of map, anything that has to do with maps — anything,” Utter said. “It could be a baseball with a map on it. We have playing cards with maps. We have a set of playing cards from the late 1600s with maps on it.”
According to Utter, we can learn just as much from modern maps made in the last century as ones that a hundreds of years old.
“Some of my favorite maps are road maps from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s — the early years of the automobile,” Utter explained. “And what is really interesting to me are some of the advertisements and images of people on them. The intention of the oil companies was to get people off trains and into cars, which is a big cultural switch. And so they show these big, beautiful restrooms and how comfortable it would be for women to be in cars and to travel alone.”
Utter emphasizes the idea that maps can be narrative. He believes that maps tell stories of history, geography, culture and travel. One of Utter’s favorite maps tells one of the more interesting stories.
“It was done by an artist in the 1940s, a guy named Jo Mora. It’s a pictorial map of his town, Carmel-by-the-Sea,” Utter explained. “And so he has images of a lot of people in the town, his dog. He’s got the history there of the town going back to the 1700s. He’s got tourists … and he’s got little jokes. And it’s almost like a little novel about this town, but it’s done graphically. It’s a very pictorial map and his drawings are sort of cartoonish and very nice.”
The Map Library in Hatcher is open six days a week, with cartographic specialists to answer questions and pull out any map for closer observation. The public’s appreciation for map art is growing, as the library recently received a donation that will allow it to expand the collection even further. Eventually, it will move into the second floor of Hatcher, increasing its visibility and accessibility, according to Utter.
Still, what makes people look at maps when they’re not lost or planning a trip?
“There is a problem today, where people think maps exist to get you from point A to point B,” said history of art professor Celeste Brusati. “Maps had millions of purposes, and still do today. They are a sign.”
Brusati specializes in visual culture of the Netherlands — where many cartographic advancements took place, including the creation of the famous Mercator projection by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator. Brusati rejects the notion that art and science cannot intermingle, explaining that while maps are more likely to be seen in a history museum than an art gallery, there was a time when the distinction between the two wasn’t so obvious.
“In history, scientists either needed artists or needed to be artists in order to record their studies,” she explained. “Because early printed maps were very difficult to produce and created the need (for) many people, it was a collaborative process.”
While today, people are more likely to google directions or plug an address into their GPS, Utter believes maps are making a comeback as people start to recognize their historic, educational and artistic value.
“I obviously love maps, and I’m really excited now because maps seem to be very popular again, which is really nice,” Utter said. “We’re getting a lot more use and especially by artists. We’ve probably talked to five or six different art classes over the school year.”
While you’re surely already familiar with the practical applications of maps and atlases, the collections at Clements and Hatcher encourage the public to rediscover maps and develop an appreciation for cartography in the artistic sphere.
“People say art is self-expression, art is beauty,” Brusati said. “But art is also truth and there is a lot of truth in maps.”