Map quest: The eloquent silence of a fine map speaks to the future

You may remember your second-grade teacher’s old world globe, or the world atlas speckled with tiny chalk fingerprints. Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, you can print out door-to-door directions to just about anywhere on the planet via the Internet.

With more tools than ever to help consumers get around, an upcoming Field Museum exhibit will show modern-day people how maps have changed over the centuries and how various cultures have chosen to
illustrate the world.

10. Sphere Map.jpg“Maps: Finding Our Place In the World’’ will feature more than 120 famous and prized maps. Organizers are billing the Nov. 2 – Jan. 28 display at Chicago’s Field Museum as the most ambitious cartography exhibit ever in North America.

“There are closet map lovers everywhere,” said Todd Tubutis, permanent exhibit manager of the Field Museum, “and this new exhibit of some of the world’s most famous maps is designed to pique all interest levels.”

Tubutis said the show stems from a question asked by Field’s President and CEO John W. McCarter Jr., who collected old National Geographic maps and studied World War II battle maps.

“McCarter asked a friend and cartography expert: ‘Had there ever been an exhibit on the 100 greatest maps in the world?’’’ said Tubutis.

Field Museum officials were told that the last great map exhibition was in Baltimore in 1952. Museum officials became even more determined to mount their own map exhibit when they found a sponsor in Navteq, a Chicago-based provider of digital map data.

Pieces confirmed for the display include a 3,500-year-old clay tablet detailing walls, gates and palaces in the town of Nippur, in what is now Iraq; three drawings by Leonardo da Vinci rarely lent from the English royal collection; the map Charles Lindbergh carried with him on his historic flight from New York to Paris, and drawings by J.R.R. Tolkien of his fictional Middle-earth.

16. London Glove.jpg“One of the main themes of the show is how maps reflect back on us, on the people who use them,’’ said Tubutis, whose favorite exhibit map is found on an 1851 kid glove, “The glove was sold to London tourists.

Another showpiece is a rare pocket globe produced in England in the early 19th century. The globe rotates while nesting in its lizard skin case, about the size of a softball. On the top of the case is a tiny map of the solar system. On the globe itself one can trace the path of Capt. James Cook, whose expeditions of the South Pacific in the late 18th century were of great interest to British audiences.

The show’s organizers also wanted to include maps from outside the European tradition, such as a deerskin map drawn by members of an American Indian tribe, where circles connected by lines indicate political ties among communities.

Also on loan from other collections will be a small Hindu globe that depicts continents in the shape of lotus petals and an Ottoman map from the 17th century showing the Nile River flowing through Egypt, with south, instead of north, at its top. There’s also a map of the ancient Aztec Empire’s capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) based on the eyewitness accounts of Spanish conquistador Herman Cortes. The map merges European-style representations of buildings with indigenous-style pictographs to show pyramids and a rack decorated with human skulls. It’s the first printed map of any North American site.

Antiquities experts like Ed Gill and David Arnold, of Dargate Auction Gallery in Pittsburgh, Pa., report that antique maps and globes are fetching fabulous prices and spurring increased interest from a broad audience.

“People see these maps and globes as art and living history,’’ said Gill.

“They’re extremely popular with men because I think men see these artifacts as a guy thing,’’ added Arnold.

Dargate Auction Gallery recently sold a pair of Thomas Malby & Son 1847 globes for $2,500, and an 1808 hand engraved map of North America for $2,500. Lewis and Clark used a copy of the map on their voyage of discovery.

Laura Roth, who attended the Dargate sale, said the map and globe auction items inspired her to plan a visit to the upcoming Field Museum exhibit.

“My father was a geography teacher,” said Roth, a vet assistant from Bridgeville, Pa., “so I really always had this secret love affair with old maps of the world.”

Marty Switch, of Cleveland, Ohio, said he also plans to attend the Field Museum show because he hopes to be a cartographer one day. The 25-year-old construction worker said he spends his vacation days sketching detailed maps of his father’s dairy farm.

Baltimore residents also are excited about the upcoming map road show because, following the Field Museum debut, the display is scheduled to move to the Walters Art Museum from March 15 to June 8, 2008, in Baltimore, Md.