Maps tell us where we are. The most obvious way they do this is geographical, but there is also a wealth of cultural and social information that accompanies a map. What has been labeled? What has been left blank? What kinds of decorations are included in the map? A map that takes the time to mark the estates of major landlords is indicating something about the importance that proximity to the wealthy means socially and economically; a state map that color-codes different counties is signaling that political districts are important. Maps that are heavily decorated with elaborate cartouches or cartes-à-figures tell us something about how maps were also used as ornamental features to be admired for their visual beauty.

This exhibit draws together some of the maps held in the Gary E. and Janet J. Venable Collection, which documents the history of cartography, geography, and exploration from the sixteenth through the early twentieth century. On display are European and American maps from the 1500s into the mid-1800s, grouped into galleries based on the continent(s) they depict. Special attention has been given to maps by famous cartographers or that highlight an interesting quirk in mapmaking.

The maps in the Venable Collection were drawn by Europeans and Americans, and in a very real sense, they are European creations, based on the cartographic style and technologies developed in Europe. For European science, Europe was a space that had been known and studied since antiquity. Cartographic inaccuracies pile up the farther one gets from Europe due to a lack of hard data: first-hand experiences were blended with hearsay, measurements with superstition. The maps often exoticize foreign lands with fanciful illustrations of distant peoples or add legendary locations alongside factual ones, reflecting European interests, biases, and curiosity about the world beyond their continent’s borders.

The maps in this exhibit can almost all be traced to a specific cartographer or engraver. Before the advent of satellite technology, it required considerable expertise in several branches of mathematics, to say nothing of surveying, astronomy, and (frequently) history. The names of early modern cartographers were therefore often included in the titles of the maps they produced, both as a way of claiming their work and as a selling point for the accuracy of the map. Many cartographers were also engravers and cut the plates for their maps themselves. By the nineteenth century, map publishing was becoming increasingly industrialized and the names of publishers rather than cartographers became associated with maps, so the artisanal dimension of maps receded in favor of product branding.

You can see larger versions of each map on display with a more detailed description of their background and some points of interest by clicking on each thumbnail.