We're moving!

Our new website is coming on June 28, 2018.
Preview the site now

You can also continue to the old site.

Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

QR Codes Reveal Hidden Messages in Maps


Le neptune françois, ou Atlas nouveau des cartes marines. Paris, Jaillot, 1693.


June 14, 2011 – Though it explores the myriad techniques that cartographers have employed for centuries to encode messages into maps, Going for Baroque: The Iconography of the Ornamental Map, the current exhibition at the Harvard Map Collection also employs new technology. It is the first Harvard College Library exhibition to use QR codes, a type of two-dimensional barcode that links visitors to additional information.

Using a smartphone or other mobile device, visitors can snap photos of the codes, which will direct them to Web pages that offer larger, more detailed images of the visual cues embedded in the map as well as in-depth descriptions of them. Each page also includes links to digitized images of the full map, and links to the HOLLIS record for each item.

Related Links


  • Facebook
  • Twitter

“This exhibition focuses on decorative elements in the maps,” Bonnie Burns, Librarian for Geographic Information Services, said. “QR codes will allow our patrons to examine these maps is much greater detail, giving them a richer, fuller experience.”

Another technology deployed as part of the exhibition will allow the Web pages to be more easily viewed on a variety of mobile devices. Using a number of open-source tools, HCL Designer/Multimedia Specialist Enrique Diaz crafted a “responsive design” for the pages. An emergent approach to Web design, “responsive” pages employ a combination of flexible layouts, images and specialized coding to detect the size of the screen they are being viewed on and automatically adjust their size and resolution for the best fit.

Technology aside, the exhibition, with more than two dozen maps and atlases ranging from the early 17th- to late 18th centuries, offers visitors a rich viewing experience.

For more than a century, the type of ornamentation that is the focus of the exhibition was commonplace on maps, said Joseph Garver, exhibition curator and Librarian for Research Services and Collection Development. Such flourishes were included as a way for map-makers to convey messages – sometimes subtly and sometimes not-to-subtly – to viewers. In some cases, the message was for the glorification of the nation depicted. In other cases, cartographers included figures like Neptune or Jupiter as a way to reinforce the authority of a map or atlas.

For Garver, creating the exhibition was an opportunity to spend time trying to crack those visual codes.

“In the era when these maps were created, people had a much more extensive visual vocabulary – they would be able to recognize various kinds of insignia and emblems easily,” Garver said. “I’ve always been fascinated by looking at title pages and frontispieces and wondering what they mean – this exhibition was a chance to examine these things in great depth. Understanding these associated parts of a map, I believe, can add a great deal to the understanding of the map as a whole.”

Among the items included in the exhibition is a 1797 map of Greece created by Velestinlēs Rēgas that depicts Greek influence reaching as far north as the Balkans and east into Asia Minor. The map’s cartouche includes the figure of Hercules fighting the Amazons, alluding to the Greek population’s struggle against Ottoman rule, and highlights Greek history with the inclusion of figures like Jason and the Argonauts. The barely-hidden messages so enraged the Ottomans that Rēgas was put to death just a year after the map was published.

Other items include a 1740 Dutch map of Japan that includes an elaborate cartouche featuring representations of Dutch interests, such as porcelain and a 1690 map of Amsterdam in which characters representing each of the continents are festooning the city’s port in acknowledgement of its importance as a center of trade.

Such visual flourishes were a regular feature of maps, Garver said, until about 1750, when the center of the map-making world shifted from Italy and the Netherlands to France. Inspired by the Enlightenment, cartographers made a conscious effort to strip away extraneous visuals, and instead focused on creating the most geographically-accurate maps possible. That desire to remove distracting elements has carried into modern maps.

“Cartographers today are very careful about making sure their map doesn’t have any bias,” Garver said. “Of course, there are always biases hidden in any map – you can’t make a map without making choices. But in the case of these maps, the choices were much more obvious.”

Going for Baroque: The Iconography of the Ornamental Map, is on display through September 30 in Map Gallery Hall in Pusey Library. Hours. Directions. An online version of the exhibition will be available later this summer.