Harvard College Library

Map Exhibition Explores World History and Displays Harvard Treasures

Puzzle of the United States in 52 pieces, Milton Bradley & Co. [Springfield, Mass., 1880]. Historically, maps have not only been used to navigate but also to educate and entertain children in the form of games and puzzles.

June 6, 2003 -- A large landmass inked in black swoops up the center of a fragile map drafted over 400 years ago. Groups of huddled hills represent mountains, small tufts of grass symbolize plains, and the squiggly east and west coasts which funnel down into a cone, just barely resemble the outline of the United States. This delicate piece of paper is the first known map of North America and includes early place names for Florida and Canada, places in 1566 when the map was created that were just beginning the story of their modern history. The exhibition Cartographic Treasures at Harvard, opening June 17, uses historical cartography to trace this story for America and countries across the world.

Maps dating from as early as the 16th century, globes documenting places as far away as the stars, atlases, and scientific instruments compose the exhibition housed in both Houghton Library and Harvard Map Collection in Pusey Library. Drawing on the holdings of the Harvard Map Collection, the Graduate School of Education, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and Houghton’s Liechtenstein Collection, the exhibition features items from across Harvard brought together for the first time.

Organized geographically – of course – the exhibition begins with maps of the Americas, then moves across the Atlantic to Europe and Asia. Of particular note is a map from 19th century East Asia that includes an inscription reading, "Country of Night, belonging to Tartary, extends to the Arctic Sea. Grain does not grow here, and it is covered with snow and ice even in summer." Also of interest is a drawing overlaid in yellow and red watercolor by an anonymous witness to the 1738 siege of Kandahar, Afghanistan, depicting new palaces built south of the river for the new ruler, Nader Shah. Historic scientific instruments accompany the maps, atlases, and globes they once would have been used to create. The exhibition features a Gunter’s Quadrant used for navigation and surveying, a 1796 surveyor’s compass, and an octant, once used to observe the stars.

David Cobb, New England historical map authority and Head of Map Collection, Harvard College Library, notes, "This marks the first time that many of these maps have been gathered for public viewing. The exhibit reveals Harvard’s exceptional cartographic holdings for New England, as well as manuscripts and unique prints from around the globe."

The exhibition is part of the 20th International Conference on the History of Cartography, June 15 through June 20, cosponsored by Harvard Map Collection, Harvard College Library; Osher Map Library & Smith Center for Cartographic Education, University of Southern Maine; and Imago Mundi, Ltd. An international group of over 350 historians of cartography, science, and art, geographers, librarians, and archivists will convene for sessions featuring Donna Koepp, Head of Reference and Instructional Services for the Harvard Government Documents and Microforms Library, HCL, on Mapping a Nation; Peter Barber, Curator of Maps British Library, on the Printed Map Collection of Ferdinand Columbus; New Zealand scholar Mercedes Maroto Camino on War Souvenirs: Maps from Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Old Yugoslavia; and Australian scholar Mead T. Cain on Economic Aspects of Map Production and Publishing in Early Victorian England: The View from the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

For more information about the conference, visit http://cartography.geog.uu.nl/ichc/2003.html. For more information about Cartographic Treasures at Harvard, call 617.495.2417.

This story appears courtesy of the Harvard College Library Communications Office
Copyright © 2004 President and Fellows of Harvard College