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Map lovers find their place

From carved wood to digital images, maps have inspired explorers and dreamers. And all roads lead to a new cartography festival.

January 07, 2008|Kari Lydersen | Washington Post

CHICAGO -- To Inuits in the late 1800s, a map was a piece of wood with carved gnarls and pocks representing the coastal inlets of Greenland.

To ancient Greeks and early Europeans, maps were flights of fancy and horror, showing beautiful beasts and savage humans of uncharted lands.

Eighteenth-century Buddhists saw maps as moral charts juxtaposing landscapes of men's sensual desires and "infinite space." New World colonizers used maps as tools of conquest and empire, distorting size and shape to serve their self-interest.

No matter the age, maps have always inspired that human penchant for dreaming of far-off places, for locating oneself in the universe. As vessels of wishful thinking, they transform us into explorers lured by the mystery of the unknown, if not a lust to conquer it.

Pursuits and desires such as these are at the core of the Festival of Maps here, billed as the largest, most diverse cartographic exposition in U.S. history. "Maps: Finding Our Place in the World," which is one part of the Chicago festival, will open in March at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Although computer and satellite technology seem to cast a cold, hard light on our physical realm, people still turn to maps to feed their imagination, festival organizers say -- whether through collecting and studying ancient maps, using modern mapping technology in creative and interactive ways or making cartographically inspired art. Rather than distance us from cartography, technology has made mapping part of our everyday lives -- in driving, in fashion, even in political protest.

"It turns out almost any man on the street you talk to says they love maps," says Anna Siegler, who was hired to coordinate the festival by her friend Barry MacLean, one of the world's top collectors, with more than 20,000 maps.

"The advent of digital mapping -- Google, MapQuest -- means more people use maps more often, and that's stimulating interest in cartography," says Diane Dillon, a co-curator of the Newberry Library's "Mapping Manifest Destiny" exhibit. "Disciplines like geography have fallen by the wayside, but digital mapping is bringing it in through the back door. It makes geography fun."

Launched in November and continuing through mid-2008, the privately run festival involves exhibitions in more than 30 Chicago institutions, independent art galleries as well as major institutions such as the Field Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art.

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