Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Charting a course to the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

By Dan Yaeger

It’s been awhile, but we finally got the chance to take another field trip. Actually, when I say “we” I mean “me,” because the rest of the NEMA staff is still digging out of the annual snowbank known as the NEMA Conference. Even though the event itself was history by mid-November, it took months to fully catch up with correspondence, reports, and projects deferred during the run-up to Hartford.

But I digress. As I said, it’s been awhile since my last foray into the field, but when Jan Spitz called to invite me over to the (relatively) new Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, I hied to Boylston Street quicker than you can say cartography.

Many know that the NBLMCBPL (hereinafter known as the Map Center) dates to 2004, when Mr. Leventhal, developer extraordinaire, donated his renowned map collection to the BPL along with an endowment, resulting in free public access to more than 200,000 maps and atlases.

Up till this past fall, the Map Center was sort of a virtual place, with a web site, school programs, and the occasional exhibition in the stacks of the BPL, but there was no there there. That all changed in October, when Leventhal and Boston Mayor Tom Menino cut the ribbon on a beautiful new first-floor space in the library’s fabled McKim Building. It was this space that I was dying to see for myself, so Jan’s invitation was fortuitous.

And let me tell you the space is fabulous. There, tucked neatly into the marbled passages of the old building, peering out onto the BPL courtyard through neoclassical fenestration, is a neat, purpose-built gallery presenting some of the most unique and compelling maps I ever laid eyes on. Gas station road maps these are not.

Jan took obviously great pleasure showing me her domain, watching my eyes widen ever further as she introduced me to treasure after treasure. First there’s a bird’s-eye map of Boston from the early 19th century, rendered in the faux-perspective common since the industrial age in maps for tourists which highlight all the hot spots. In this you notice that, while much has changed (barks and schooners once docked near what is now State Street), much has not (the golden dome of the State House still takes center stage).

She ushered me next to a world map from 1719, a fine, hand-colored print depicting all of the planet’s familiar land masses. Only they’re not quite familiar. California here is correctly located on the west coast of North America, but it’s a giant island, separated from all the rest by a wide body of water that looks like a fjord. And the continent we know as Australia is only partially mapped, its southern extremes fading off into colorful nothingness as if waiting for the next expedition to arrive and complete the job.

Jan showed me an upside-down map which vertiginously challenges my northerly biases, an illuminated Dutch celestial map featuring Christian, rather than pagan, constellations, and then she comes to the show stopper: a Ptolemaic world atlas from 1482. If you’re counting, that’s 10 years prior to Columbus’ big adventure, so on this map of the world we don’t even exist. For me, it’s a strangely philosophical moment. But I recovered, thanked Jan for her hospitality, and departed for the wind-swept expanses of Copley Square.

Later I reflected on what an extraordinary place is the Map Center, but how to define it? Clearly it’s a museum (it’s one of NEMA’s newest institutional members, so who am I to argue?), one which embraces art, history, technology, conservation, archives, education, and a whole lot of passion for its unique mission. It’s located within the BPL, but is a separate entity altogether, which surely creates interesting conversations with potential funders. And while it has a strong collection focusing on Boston and New England, its collection – and reputation – is worldwide. One of Jan’s goals, for example, is to create the world’s most comprehensive online cartographic web portal, impressively ambitious for a five-person operation.

The thought occurs to me that today, with satellite GPS so banal it’s part of everyone’s cell phones, maps like those in the NBLMCBPL are truly museum pieces, obsolete as practical tools to get us from one place to another. After all, no one any longer has bundles of road maps stuffed in the glove compartment of the family station wagon.

Maps may be obsolete, but what they represent is very much alive, especially for those of us in the museum field. Maps help us find our way, plan a route, identify key objects along the journey. We need maps for our organizations, strategic plans that guide our collective steps. We need maps for self-improvement, charting out our diets and workout schedules and reading lists and other New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes we need maps for relationships, alerting us to dangerous shoals and nasty terrain that is to be avoided (I can’t believe you forgot our anniversary again!).

January seems to be a good month for us to engage in our own internal cartography. Many thanks to Jan Spitz and the Map Center for the inspiration.

Happy mapping!