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A La Carte

Artistic maps elucidate the essential subjectivity of cartography

Our generation, according to Professor John R. Stilgoe, has a great deal of faith in our maps. But is our trust misplaced? With the  extensive resources of the nation’s oldest map collection at their free disposal, Harvard students and faculty alike have begun to study maps as  inherently subjective visual representations of space and as objets d’art in their own right.
Our generation, according to Professor John R. Stilgoe, has a great deal of faith in our maps. But is our trust misplaced? With the extensive resources of the nation’s oldest map collection at their free disposal, Harvard students and faculty alike have begun to study maps as inherently subjective visual representations of space and as objets d’art in their own right.
By Alexander E. Traub, Crimson Staff Writer

“The more beautiful the map, the more you should distrust it,” Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) Professor John R. Stilgoe warns the room at large. It is 9:25 a.m., and already the room is slowly filling for a 10 o’clock class. The digital generation listens in rapt attention as they are told they are timid and gullible; corporations, and maybe even the government, are taking advantage of their insecurities; and their faith in cartographical honesty is just the tip of the iceberg.

Only the naive, then, would see maps as pure realism, unadulterated representations of the world as it really is, rare opportunities for total objectivity. However, beneath the geographical shapes and boundary lines that constitute our image of the map lies an unseen, intricate web of decisions. These decisions—rather than the straightforward ‘content’ of maps—inform the studies and artwork of a small but vibrant cartographical community on campus. Harvard houses a world-renowned collection of antique and modern maps; many of its most compelling and original pieces have recently gone on display in an exhibition entitled “Rev. Badger’s Misfits: Deviations and Diversions” in Pusey Library.

The burgeoning activity of this community at Harvard has demonstrated that maps are not studied simply for their informational value. Rather, they are seen as vital cultural artifacts, conceptual art objects, or as purely theoretical representations. In design conceits and the inclusion of content that extends beyond mere land formation, mapmakers express more than geographical relations. Rather, they make subtle arguments about the way we conceptualize our built and natural environments.


Maps can depict more than simple geography, and yet for us to recognize a map as such we must see color patterns, borders, topography, place names, and natural features. “Schlarraffenlandes,” a piece in the “Rev. Badger” exhibit, plays with this dual reality. Its imaginary continent, which resembles a misshapen homemade pizza or denatured plant cell, could easily be mistaken for a distorted view of the Middle East. Made by Peter Schenk, a famous cartographer of the late seventeenth century, the map is modeled on a satirical poem by Sans Sachs more than a century earlier. It boasts countries with Latinate names like “Bibonia” (Land of Drunkards). Bibonia in turn features towns with idiomatic German toponyms like “Schlampen” (Guzzle) and “Schickihnheim” (Send Him Home).

“It’s a dystopia,” says Joseph Garver, the librarian in charge of map research and acquisitions. Garver, who sits at the main desk in Pusey’s map room and sports a fittingly distinguished and scraggly white beard, is the curator of the “Rev. Badger” exhibit. The exhibit displays a selection of the works that eluded categorization under the scrutiny of the map collection curator from 1889 to 1892, Rev. Henry Clay Badger. Badger was the first to impose a rigid classification system on the collection, though it dates back to the historic donation of Israel Thorndike in 1818. The university now owns more than 400,000 sheet maps, 6,000 atlases, and several thousand antiquarian maps, making its collection the oldest and one of the largest in the country.

“The collection is adequately used by faculty and graduate students, but I wish that more undergraduates would come in,” says Garver. In his experience, undergraduates tend to find the map room only during the two or three weeks before they graduate or just in order to print out a map for dorm room decoration.


While students may not know about the esoteric underground beige box that is Harvard’s world-class map collection, there has been a recent outcropping of theses and other projects that relate to maps as art. Ben C. Cosgrove ’10, a former music concentrator, made an auditory map of Massachusetts as his senior thesis. After traveling the state and conducting a series of interviews, Cosgrove composed a 20-minute piece and wrote an accompanying essay. “The central argument of the thesis was about showing the changing relationship between people and land as you travel from the western part of the state to the eastern one. It’s a balance that shifts pretty steadily,” says Cosgrove. “It worked as a pretty cool narrative arc: you start out in the mountains and work your way into the city.” The product is an auditory collage of instrumentals, interviews, and field recordings of ambient noise.

In its aesthetic conception, Cosgrove’s piece seems diametrically opposed to the traditional notion of maps as means to ends, objects only as valuable as they are useful. Cosgrove admits that “understanding a place and how you feel about a place is obviously such a subjective thing,” but argues nonetheless that “trying to represent that seems like just as noble a venture as trying to represent roads or mountains.” In fact, Cosgrove’s sonic map may be seen as no less subjective in its viewpoint than those very same road and mountain maps. “Any map is a distillation of something, of whatever the cartographer deems the relevant points of something are. It’s way of conveying points about a place, idea, or system,” he says.

The project that Rebecca A. Cooper ’11, an inactive Crimson arts writer, worked on over the summer bears more material similarity to conventional maps. Still, it is an equally significant departure from their characteristic use. Cooper walked around Manhattan handing out blank maps of the borough and asking each person she met to fill in whatever was significant to them about the city. “In order to get a complete picture of a city you need to refract it and see it from a million different views,” says Cooper. For her, pure representation of the city’s geographic and built features does not accurately depict the city as it is. “By the time I was a senior [in high school],” she says, “every street corner was loaded with emotion. To map the street just in order to get there in the future didn’t manage to capture anything that was meaningful.” Though the different mappings of New York that constitute Cooper’s piece are disparate in form and content—one map is covered in graffiti, one shows simply a workplace and home, another a series of sexual misadventures—she believes that the collection provides a holistic representation of the city’s most salient features.


Both Cosgrove’s and Cooper’s works pose a fundamental question about their medium: if their pieces count as maps, then what are the essential, unifying qualities that all maps possess? Garver elucidates the standard notion of a map, which is “a graphical representation of spatial relations.” Stilgoe subscribes to a similar concept, claiming that a map is simply any “two-dimensional representation of something three dimensional.” Paintings, photographs, and even film are included under this definition of maphood, which focuses on the necessary relationship between material and space. Under this definition, Cosgrove’s project would not be a map, due to its material irregularity; nor would Cooper’s, due to its departure from strict spatial representation.

“Etymologically, a map is just a card, a square, a surface,” says VES Professor Tom Conley, now finishing his third book on map theory entitled “An Errant Eye: Poetry and Topography in Early Modern France.” This definition, however, fails to capture the full realm of objects that count as maps. More roughly, he says, a map “is a locative mechanism that induces in its spectator a sense of place, or placeness.” Cosgrove’s and Cooper’s works fit neatly into this more abstract characterization; each project pursues an alternate but viable path towards the evocation of place.

Bill J. Rankin, a graduate student who is writing a dissertation on the transformation of territory and corresponding shift in cartography in the twentieth century, believes maps to be nothing more than a “translation of one set of things to another set.” DNA mapping, for instance, constitutes a form of mapping that has a highly tenuous relationship to any geographical foundation. For Rankin, the verb ‘to map’ is more telling than the noun ‘map’, which carries with it all sorts of unintended connotations.

The list of convincing and intelligent definitions of the concept of maps may be endless; the richness of maps may simply resist clear characterization.


What is clearer, and what definitively unites all maps, is their transcendence of mere content in a unique interpretation of the way space looks and functions. “No map is not biased,” says Cosgrove. “You can make any map using only objective facts and it doesn’t matter, you still choose what you represent… any map requires that you eliminate 99% of the information that you could put in.” Just in the content of maps, then, there is already an implicit decision-making process and thus a concrete agenda. The very notion of a concise, legible representation of the world around us is unrealistic; each representation will reflect the subjective priorities of its maker.

Because of the widely held faith in maps’ objectivity, the partiality built into every cartographic item affords an opportunity for unnoticed argumentation. “When someone shows you a map that comes up on a PDA or cellphone, you have no idea how easy it is to manipulate you… it’s really sneaky as hell,” Stilgoe says. He sees the famed Mercator globe as an example of this deception: because of the disproportional sizing of the Northern hemisphere, Stilgoe believes that it “played right into the British imperial plan.” According to Stilgoe, such overlooked psychological ploys can also be seen in the proliferation today of Google maps and Global Positioning Systems. “Nowadays, Americans are timid, afraid of being lost, and want maps that they can wholly trust,” he says. “The graphic design of contemporary maps, including these on board navigational devices, is intended to speak to that timidity and fear of being lost.”

Similarly, says Rankin, maps can be distorted by the agendas of the institutions that commission them. “There is a long-standing relationship between maps and governments,” he says. “For several hundred years, the only people who could afford to make maps were governments.” This fact means that all maps “came pre-approved by the state.” Not only does this mean that maps aligned primarily with the state’s interests, but also that government-issued maps are more often seen as canonical versions. Rankin’s point is most obvious in reference to the standard continent maps that hang in most grade school classrooms. “Every time we draw a map that shows national borders as the most important feature of a map,” he says, “we’re reinforcing certain ideas about the importance of nation-states.”


By analyzing the arguments maps present, one can gain a deep historical understanding of people, states, and cultures. Rankin, for instance, is currently studying the representations of American Indian reservations on maps. “Most maps, road atlases, and school atlases show Indian reservations in the way they do national parks or forests. The state boundaries are primary, and Indian reservations get another color,” Rankin says. And yet, the constitution qualifies Indian reservations as separate nation-states that have a international relationship with the federal government. Showing reservations as national parkland, then, seems to imply that Indians are not autonomous but rather inhabitants of demarcated areas of culture preserved for a sort of antiquarian sensibility. Maps, therefore, provide crucial insight to the psychology of average Americans towards American Indians—and possibly into the reality of those indigenous people themselves.

Conley has used the notion of maps for entirely more abstract purposes. His current studies concern the idea of cosmography and Early Modern French poetry, which he sees as an exercise in the topography of space and language. “This is what poets give us,” says Conley. “They have a tactile sense of the world…[there are] recurrent signs and markers in the abstraction [of poetry] that the perceiver will find and use to plot an itinerary.” Mapping, then, need not take place on the level of physical place; it is also appropriate on the level of emotions and objects. Just as maps are an abstract representation of geographical formations and state boundaries, so too may poems be abstract representations of the contours of human emotion and interaction.

Stilgoe also sees human subjectivity as an inherent feature of maps; after all, he pointed out, “we walk around the subway grates in front of the Holyoke Center and never think about anything, while a woman in heels knows about those grates. We all have little details of things we don’t like, things that are important to us.” In their essence, maps form individual interpretations of space. The very idea that we have the ability to plot out their towns, regions, countries and continents in supposedly definitive images implies that we have a subjective mastery and understanding over our environment, that we understand and triumph over the chaos of nature.

And yet, it is not simply that maps represent this assertion of humanity over its surrounding world. Rather, maps themselves have brought about a definitive change in human understanding. “A lot of the way people experience space is in a sort of mapping space,” says Rankin. “We visualize ourselves as being located somewhere on a map and as we move around the world we think of ourselves as moving around that map.” Their impact on our thoughts and beliefs diverges drastically from the simple supply of information.

—Staff writer Alexander E. Traub can be reached at

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