Map Exhibitions in Boston

“Bird’s-eye View of the Eastern Railroad Line to the White Mountains and Mt. Desert.” Boston: Rand Avery Supply Co., 1890. Harvard University Library.

Opening today at Harvard University in front of the Map Collection in Pusey Library and running until 28 February, Look but Don’t Touch: Tactile Illusions on Maps looks at the use of simulated textures in maps.

Beginning particularly in the eighteenth century, philosophers began to debate what role each of our senses has in this experience. For eighteenth-century philosophers, the crucial distinction was between sight and touch. Would we, they asked, be able to experience depth and understand size without our sense of touch? George Berkeley and Etienne Bonnot, Abbé de Condillac, among others, hypothesized that touch, in fact, was primarily responsible for our experience and understanding of space. All visual knowledge about depth and size, they suggested, derived from tactile experiences. In other words, we needed touch to teach us to see. But what happens to the map if we take seriously this challenge to a visual understanding of space?

All maps in this exhibition toy with the relationship between touch and sight. For some, their interest in touch and sight is ornamental. Either by delighting in the visual illusion of tactility or by referring to a visual cliché, these maps enliven their design—and attract buyers—by appealing to our hands. For others, their interest in touch and sight is about knowledge itself. Either by depicting cartographers’ tools and materials or by tempting us to touch what is not there, these maps play with our sense of what a map is and where it comes from. Paradoxically, they teach us visually about particular places while also questioning the basis for their own visual instruction.

The online version can be found here.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe has a review of the Leventhal’s exhibition on subsurface mapping, Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below (previously).

Author: Jonathan Crowe

I blog about maps at The Map Room, review books for AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and edit a fanzine called Ecdysis.