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Journeys and Discoveries: The Stories Maps Tell

Novi Belgii Novaeque Angliae nec non Pennsylvaniae et
partis Virginiae Tabula, ca. 1680.  Published by Justus
Danckers or Danckerts (1635–1701), Amsterdam,
Netherlands. Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives,
006-75.  Photograph by David Bohl.


Carte Tres Curieuse de la Mer du Sud…, 1719. 
Compiled and published by the Chatelain family, Zacharie
Chatelain (d. 1723) and Henri Abraham Chatelain
(1684-1743), Amsterdam, Holland. 
Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives,
001-1975 1719.  Photograph by David Bohl.


Game of the States, ca. 1960.  Manufactured by the Milton Bradley Company, Springfield, Massachusetts.  Gift of Mrs. John Willey, 2006.026.2

United States Chart of Knowledge, ca. 1931. 
Published by S.G. Bocholtz, Chart of Knowledge Co.
of America, Boston, Massachusetts.  Gift of Dorothy A.
and Albert H. Richardson, 85.53.18


March 16, 2013 - April 19, 2014


What is a map? Maps are data; layers of text, images and symbols that represent a place at a certain time. Maps can help us find our way, imagine far away places or understand political and geographical relationships. The Museum and Library, founded in 1975, counted historic maps among its first acquisitions. The 40 maps and related objects presented in a new exhibition, “Journeys and Discoveries: The Stories Maps Tell” draw on the Museum’s outstanding holdings in that area.

The exhibition is divided in to five sections, and explores the world of maps from the work of the cartographer to how students have learned from maps, how travelers used maps for real and imagined journeys, and how politicians and merchants employed maps to further their quests for power and influence.


Crafting these complicated images required the work of many hands. To create a map, a mapmaker needed a survey of the area he wished to map. A surveyor measured the land using compasses, chains and other tools and then plotted this information on a survey. A cartographer turned surveys and other information into a drawing, or manuscript map. Draftsmen and engravers translated the cartographer’s drawing onto a plate from which multiple copies of the map could be made. Printers and publishers produced, marketed and sold maps. Working together, these craftsmen left us valuable and intriguing records of the past.

Maps for Professionals and Students

In the 1600s and 1700s, pursuing certain professions required a thorough understanding of how to make and use maps. Surveyors, soldiers and sea captains needed to be able to read—and often create—maps to do their jobs. Merchants and politicians also employed maps in their work.

In the 1800s, maps became increasingly available. As the U.S. grew, surveyors and cartographers measured, explored and mapped more of the country. Advances in printing technology and brisk competition between publishers made maps more affordable and readily obtainable. Schools taught geography and map literacy to children. Educators encountered an understanding of the outlines and geographical components of the country as a way of developing citizenship and fostering a shared national identity. To these ends, many publishers produced educational and ornamental maps to help teach students, some even manufactured map-based games to help children and families learn more about the U.S. including Milton Bradley’s popular “Game of States,” which is still manufactured today.


Mapping Conflict

Many maps—from a depiction of an entire continent to a survey of a single property—were created to let people know who owns what. Many maps of North America printed in the 1700s reflect power struggles between European nations as well as Native American nations’ waning influence on the continent. The beautiful ca. 1680 Novi Belgii Novaeque Angliae… demonstrates that even as the Netherlands’ power waned in the North America, Amsterdam mapmakers continued to produce decorative maps that celebrated the Dutch mark on and understanding of the continent.

Wars also breed maps. In addition to charting political conflicts, maps can also show how battles unfolded. For example, to help British news consumers follow important events during the American Revolution, London mapmakers published many views of the far-off colonies and towns where British soldiers and colonists fought for territory as illustrated in the 1775 handsome map, “A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston ….” World War II prompted the publication of countless maps. Some helped the public stay informed, while others were designed for soldiers’ specific needs. A silk escape and evasion map of the far east owned by a Massachusetts airman is included in the exhibition.

Journeys of the Imagination

For years, explorers and adventurers have published maps to illustrate where they have been and depict what they encountered there. Some of the maps displayed in this exhibition, published with accompanying expedition narratives, took readers on journeys to the Oregon, Utah, and Northwestern Territories they could not have experienced in person. Combined with narratives, these maps helped a curious reader trace an explorer’s footsteps without ever having to leave home. These exploration and travel maps continue to spark the imagination. Looking at them, we can envision expeditions, discoveries and adventures, and—most intriguingly—the past.

Join Museum staff for free talks in the “Journeys and Discoveries” gallery. To see the dates and times of these programs, please refer to our programs page.