Archive for Maps, Photos, and Images
Mary Kingsley, African explorer, ca 1890
For me, graduate school was a happy time, of long days in the archives and long afternoons in the Ratskeller. To be fair though there were also moments of fear: fear of discovering some document that would blow apart my thesis like a howitzer shell. Or worse, fear of finding some book that supported my thesis, indeed supported it so closely that it would render my project superfluous, a poor knock-off of the original. Neither of these happened, though I did have my queasy moments of discovery in the card catalog.
“Der Bücherworm” by Carl Spitzweg, 1850
I calmed my fears by mastering the ways of the database: Historical Abstracts, America: History and Life, the Making of America, Poole’s Periodical Database, Periodical Content Index, Dissertation Abstracts International, the American Periodical Series, etc, etc etc. Database companies market their products as tools for research and networking. And indeed they are. But for the paranoid graduate student, databases are used as radar, informing them when another scholar is flying too close. Happily those days are gone. But I still get a warm, cozy feeling inside when I find a good database. It is researcher’s version of a hot toddy.
Such was my feeling last night when I found AfricaBib, a set of three databases about Africa, the most exciting of which is Women Travelers, Explorers, and Missionaries to Africa. The databases are a thirty-year labor of love by research librarian Davis Bullwinkle who started working on the project in 1974, using, no doubt, index cards. As the project grew, Davis began to upgrade to a computer filing system, one designed by the precocious computer-whiz son of a colleague. After Bullwinkle retired in 2008, the database was taken over by the African Studies Centre (ASC) in Leiden, the Netherlands who keep it up to date. The database currently boasts 1800 items. What does this mean in terms of finding material on women explorers? Playing around with the database last night, I entered “Mary Kingsley” into the keyword search. It pulled up 109 records, including published dissertations, scholarly articles, books, and online essays. Very impressive. Nice work Davis.
Blogs are living things. They have their own cycles of growth, promiscuity, maturity, and senescence. Some rise above the tangled bank to reach the sunlight of popularity. Most crowd against each other in fits of collective navel-gazing. They soon decline in daily hits (the holy measurement of blog vigor) and die quietly in the shadows of the over-committed author. Given this instability, do blogs have the staying power to be archives?
Certainly not. While the political blog DailyKos may outrank the Library of Congress in daily web traffic, I am confident that L of C will still be hosting their Lewis and Clark materials in 2020. I don’t know what DailyKos will be doing (running a small country near Seattle perhaps). In short, blogs are not archives. Now that this is established, let me announce an amazing blog archive: Strange Maps. It is weird, historical, and snappy. If its mondo collection of bizarre maps is not exactly comprehensive, it is far-reaching in scope.
Not all of these maps have to do with exploration of course. So why feature Strange Maps here? A few weeks ago I wrote a post in which scholars weighed in on the various meanings of exploration. William Goetzmann and others view it as a process of continual re-discovery rather than a single moment of impressive flag-planting. In this spirit, Strange Maps is a place which discovers and rediscovers information about the world and projects these ideas in space. Perhaps this is an abstract and delirious way to describe the site – so to get a better idea, visit it yourself.
For the last two weeks, we’ve been on a long road trip: from Connecticut to Ohio, Illinois, upstate Michigan, and back to CT. As journeys go, it was not perhaps as impressive as, say, Scott’s trek to the South Pole. He ate pemmican, we ate cheetos. He drove sledges, we drove an Odyssey. His party suffered from scurvy, ours sunburn. Yet we achieved our own kind of glory: 2600 miles, 50 hours in a minivan, with two adults, two children, and one toddler, aged 1.5. No one perished from strangulation or defenestration, none were committed to asylums, none have talked to the press. Victory is ours.
Yesterday, at the end of a particularly long leg, we found ourselves on Rte 80 in northern Ohio, looking for a meal that would please all and could be had fast. In other words, pizza. But where to look in the rolling cornfields of Ohio? We got off 80 and asked the toll booth attendant. She couldn’t think of any place that made pizza. What planet had we landed on? Michele and I consulted our road atlas, a misshapen, parchment-colored thing, to see if we could glean a site out of the black and red lines and place names.
After some debate, we decided upon the town of Sandusky, about eight miles off of the highway from the exit. While it might have been possible to find pizza closer, it seemed unlikely to us that these small, silo-dotted towns would produce a pie to satisfy our elitist, bourgie palate. Without knowing anything else about the town of Sandusky, I liked the name, it sounded old, Polish perhaps? If so, I would imagine that it was settled in the early- or mid-19th century. Old Midwestern towns, I knew, were often built small and compact to accommodate walking traffic. These towns, with main street and thick brick commercial buildings, are now favorites of urban renovation, of ice cream shops, restaurants, and gourmet pizza. Sandusky, is this you? Moreover, the town was right on Lake Erie, at a point very close to the Canadian coast due north of the city. I saw them in my mind: hungry Canadian tourists climbing off the boat to celebrate summer at their favorite waterfront pizzeria.
This was all a wild, sherlock-holmesian, stab in the dark. There was no evidence to back up this speculative conjuring from a 1996 Ohio road map. Yet in the end, we were right to head to Sandusky. It was indeed a place we imagined: an old city with downtown, sidewalks, old buildings, and waterfront. Local residents told me that it was struggling to become the renovated, gentrified place that sometimes take root in down-on-their-luck industrial towns. More importantly, we found our parlor, the “Mona Pizza” on the main street perpendicular to the waterfront.
Mona Pizza, with its “Welcome Bikers!” sign, was was not quite the bourgie place I had imagined. But it counted where it mattered, offering up a tasty, New-York-style, thin-crust pie in 20 minutes.
All of this got me thinking about maps. Historians of many stripes are savvy in how they read visual documents, from pictures, paintings, and illustrations to maps. However precisely surveyed, however carefully rendered, maps and landscape are subjective documents, painted with the hues of culture as well as pigment. A long look at one of the landscapes of Frederic Church, for example, tells a great deal about Church’s vision of the country and of the United States as an emerging empire.
Frederic Church, “Our Banner in the Sky,” 1863
Yet it seems from what I’ve read (and from the visual analysis that I’ve done myself) that much of this analysis is focused on the object. That is, the question most commonly asked is “How do the historical artifacts carry culture?” Reading the road map of Ohio, I realized that many of our decisions had to do with our own cultural baggage as viewers, of our knowledge of Midwestern towns, our study of American history, our snooty notions of good pizza. Put more broadly, the Sandusky experience made me wonder how the individual subject encounters the map. How does the subject shape the map’s reading? This is a difficult question to answer. We all bring different things to our interpretation of maps, documents, indeed, virtually everything we come into contact with.
But it brought me back to issues of exploration.
For many academics, especially in the humanities, the world is a place divided into those-who-do (them) and those-who-interpret-what-others-do (us). Generally, relations tend to fall apart on the subject of “experience.” In the eyes of explorers, for example, historians can never fully understand events in the field because they weren’t there themselves. Historians, on the other hand, point to the importance of this distance from the field – of the biases that naturally result from close involvement in a project – in portraying events even-handedly. As one of the chronicler-class rather than the doer class, my sympathies have always been with my academic posse in this debate.
But reading the map of Sandusky, I realized the importance of the viewers’ perspective in reading the map. And in terms of my work, I realized the great gulf that separates the experience of explorers (both western and indigenous) from those of us who seek to figure them out. How, for example, did Robert Peary’s experience of the ice cap, or the Greenland ice sheet, shape the way he viewed such places inscribed on paper? How did James Cook’s knowledge of Atlantic currents shape the way he read his sketchy maps of the Pacific? Looking at these same maps, what did Cook’s Tahitian guide Omai see rendered there?
Gardner’s Comparative Heights of Mountains and Rivers, 1823
When I was a young, baby-faced graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the good fortune of attending a series of lectures by Simon Schama on his new book Landscape and Memory. Schama presented a cultural history of landscape in Europe (mountains, rivers, forests). He was compelling as a lecturer, impressive in his arguments. But man, did he have good slides. I had already begun to settle into the history of exploration as my thesis area. But I had always imagined that I would approaching this material from the world of text: logs, journals, scientific monographs, etc. As Schama delivered his lectures (they took place over three days), his slides were more than eye-candy, they were arguments. This may sound silly, but I never thought about the visual artifacts of exploration as evidence until that moment. In any event, I am always on the lookout for good expeditionary photos, engravings, etc. Over the next few posts, I hope to share some sites with good pickings for those of you who are visually inclined.
David Rumsey started digitalizing his map collection twenty years ago. He now has over 17,000 of them scanned, online, free of access to all. There are some amazing maps here, authored by Lewis and Clark, James Cook, and Alexander von Humboldt among others. You will need to download one of the specialized browsers on his site, but once this is set up you can view thousands of exploration maps in all of their hi-def grandeur and download them too. One of the best features is the document notes available with each map. Sometimes these offer secondary source notes useful for explaining context, etc.
Have fun: http://www.davidrumsey.com/