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Boston exhibit maps out record of our world views

April 19, 2006|Brooke Donald | The Associated Press

BOSTON — When some of the first maps were printed in the late 15th century, they were simple diagrams of three continents and one giant ocean.

Over the next several centuries, more continents were added as European explorers traveled to the Americas, circumnavigated the southern part of Africa and reached southern and eastern parts of Asia. Technological and scientific gains meant more thorough drawings that incorporated information about the Earth's interior and ocean floor.

The changes in maps today often mean redrawing borders after conflicts.

A new exhibit at the Boston Public Library shows the evolution of world maps from the late 1400s to today. "Journeys of the Imagination" features 47 world maps, atlases and globes demonstrating the changing, and sometimes controversial, perception of the world through the centuries.

The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 18, is designed to explore how maps are used both as social and as historical documents, organizers say.

The four basic map elements -- projection, orientation, scale and symbols -- are explained, and the exhibit also examines the biases of cartographers as they express their world views.

"Historical maps are not only geographic records of the world at a particular time," said Roni Pick, director of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the library, "they are also documents that have a story to tell, both about how and why the map was created and what the map has to say about a particular culture's world view."

One map, called "What's Up? South," shows an "upside down" depiction of the world, in which Australia, Africa and Brazil are on the top of the page. It's part of a section of the exhibit challenging perceptions of the world.

Most European and Western cartographers have traditionally designated the top of the paper to represent the north, though that orientation is not universal. Many early maps created in the Medieval Judeo-Christian context have east at the top. Maps drawn in the Islamic tradition or by people living in the Southern Hemisphere will occasionally have south at the top.

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