Bending Lines, an Online Exhibition from the Leventhal Center

Bending Lines: Maps and Data From Distortion to Deception, the latest exhibition from the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, is a wide-ranging, comprehensive look at the relationship between maps and the truth. We expect maps not to lie, but maps have misled, propagandized or at the very least provided a particular perspective for as long as there have been maps.

Every map is a representation of reality, and every representation, no matter how accurate and honest, involves simplification, symbolization, and selective attention. Even when a map isn’t actively trying to deceive its readers, it still must reduce the complexity of the real world, emphasizing some features and hiding others. Compressing the round globe onto a flat sheet of paper, and converting places, people, and statistics into symbols, lines, and colors is a process inherently fraught with distortion. […]

In Bending Lines: Maps and Data From Distortion to Deception, we explore the many ways in which maps have “bent” reality and created a picture of the world that is oftentimes more real than reality itself. Some of the maps in this exhibition are deliberately nefarious, created by people or institutions who are trying to mislead or persuade. But for many of the others, the relationship between map and truth is more ambiguous. Some maps dim a certain type of truth in order to let another type of interpretation shine through, while others classify and categorize the world in ways that should raise our skepticism. And for some of the maps shown here, the persuasive goal isn’t trickery but liberation, as they seek to raise awareness of truths that were previously obscured or oppressed.

This exhibition was to have launched last month, but thanks to the pandemic has had to go fully online. Tackling everything from persuasive cartography to map projections to the sort of thing Mark Monmonier talks about in How to Lie with Maps, it’s an enormous undertaking in more than one sense. CityLab’s Laura Biss interviews the Leventhal’s curator, Garrett Dash Nelson, about the exhibition.

Update, 2 July: Harvard Magazine looks at the exhibition.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

Jonathan Crowe blogs about maps at The Map Room. His essays and reviews have been published by AE, Calafia, The New York Review of Science Fiction, the Ottawa Citizen, Strange Horizons and Tor.com. He lives in Shawville, Quebec.