Smithsonian exhibit maps the history of cartography

December 23, 1993|By Chuck Myers | Chuck Myers,Knight-Ridder News Service

They show us where to find the roads less traveled, which direction the river flows and how to locate the stars -- both in the heavens and their homes in Hollywood.

From cave man to cosmonaut, maps have served to satisfy centuries of curiosity about the world and universe around us. Now, the Smithsonian Institution explores the fascinating realm of maps with a remarkable exhibition that showcases many unique and rare maps and explores how the art of cartography has evolved.

"The Power of Maps," on display inside the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center, contains more than 200 maps in all shapes and sizes from many different corners of the world. It was organized by the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York City and co-curated by Lucy Fellowes, project director at the Cooper-Hewitt, and Denis Wood, professor of design at North Carolina State University.

Whether measuring several square feet or a few inches in diameter, maps have long addressed a wide range of social, political, economic and environmental interests. They have gone from simple prehistoric markings to elaborate globes, reliefs and computerized models.

The Smithsonian display greets visitors with an array of globes, many like the ones long found in homes and classrooms across the country -- and a few others with views of the ocean floors, the moon and flat planes that are anything but conventional.

Stepping back in time, a stone rubbing from 1137 A.D. offers a tTC view of China during the Sung Dynasty. Nearby, angels and astronomers ring a vivid 1708 Dutch rendition of the constellation in the Southern Hemisphere.

The oldest map on display, a clay Babylonian tablet from 1500 B.C., identifies the location of royal estates in Nippur, a religious center of ancient Mesopotamia, or modern Iraq.

A pair of well-preserved French engravings demonstrates how geographic surveys played an important part during Napoleon's military campaigns. The two early 19th century perspectives -- one of Cairo, Egypt, the other of ancient pyramids at Memphis -- were created from information gathered by the French Army during Napoleon's ill-fated military expedition to Egypt in 1798.

American history is revisited throughout the display. A map drawn by Sioux Chief Red Horse recounts his eyewitness account of Gen. George Custer's demise at the Little Big Horn. Likewise, a wonderful collection of maps drawn up by legendary explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark charts their journeys across the American West.

More than simply display guides to topographic information, the exhibit also shows how the art of graphic design has shaped our understanding of the outside world. "Design really does bridge the gap between art, history, science and technology," says Dianne H. Pilgrim, director of the Cooper-Hewitt.

Today's maps address a wide range of topics relevant to our daily informational needs. North Carolina road maps spread out over one large wall show that, as any vacationer knows, maps are hardly limited to a bound atlas. One of this country's most pressing medical concerns is chronicled on a chilling table display detailing the 11-year march of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.

Visitors can further explore the latest map technology on terminals inside a computer lab near the conclusion of the exhibit.

"The Power of Maps" will be on view until Jan. 23, 1994.

The S. Dillon Ripley Center is located at 1100 Jefferson Drive S.W. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, except Christmas Day. Admission is free.

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