1058 GMT February 18, 2020
“Some for one purpose and some for another liketh, loveth, getteth, and useth Mappes, Chartes, & Geographicall Globes.”
So explained John Dee, the occult philosopher of the Tudor era.
The mystical Dee would, perhaps, have understood the passion stirred by Geosciences Australia’s recent decision to stop producing or selling paper versions of its topographic maps in December, citing dwindling demand.
In the 21st century, digital files might be more practical, particularly for a cash-strapped federal government agency.
But not everyone loveth and getteth their maps for purely practical reasons.
Just ask Brendan Whyte. He’s a curator at the National Library of Australia, responsible for acquiring a copy of every map published in Australia, as well as managing a collection of perhaps a million or so charts and about the same number of aerial photographs.
A geographer by training, he knows that some people don’t appreciate electronic cartography.
A map, he says, needs beauty so that users want to look at it and absorb what it contains.
But that’s less about particular platforms, whether digital or otherwise, than the cartographer’s skill.
Whyte also admires the artistry of the Marshall Island stick charts from the NLA’s own collection. It’s believed to be from the early 1970s.
His favorite catalogued item might also be one of the smallest, an atlas from Queen Mary’s dollhouse.
“A lot of publishing companies and authors produced real books for her dollhouse. The famous map shop and publishers Stanfords made her the Atlas of the British Empire, reducing it to about two inches high.”
At the State Library of Victoria, the librarian Sarah Ryan also nominates an atlas – albeit a rather bigger one – as a particularly treasured item.
“It’s known as the first modern day atlas, even though it was produced in 1572: ‘Ortelius’s Mirror of the World’. The printing of that volume is beautiful and the maps are very colorful, and you’ve got lots of iconography like sea monsters and ships and compass roses.”
She agrees that, while digital maps can be more convenient, a lot of people still prefer paper, particularly for recreational uses. Ultimately, though, it’s relationships that matter.
The attribution sounds innocuous until you identify the surveyor as the John Wedge who accompanied John Batman on his expedition across Bass Strait.
The yellowing paper thus signals the plans for a township in Port Phillip – and the beginning of Indigenous dispossession.
Yet, if maps represent power, they can also show change.
It’s a point made by Kay Dancey, the CartoGIS Services Manager at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.
A cartographer by training, Dancey provides data visualization for ANU researchers, as well as managing a collection of hardcopy and digital maps. Her holdings feature items dating back to the 17th century, and include 18th-century works by the French hydrographer and philosopher Jacques-Nicolas Bellin.
“The sheer craft of how they produced these maps … They’re invariably copper engravings, and there’s such skill required in this process. And then there’s the beauty: The fabulous colors and cartouches that they employ.”
But, when asked to describe a favored map, she nominates something very different.
“There’s a lovely map here,” she says, “a wall map of Africa from the 1950s. It’s one of my favorites because it has handmade corrections to the country name Zaire or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as it is now. I particularly love that because it has been in this mapping unit for 60 years and these hand annotations have been by made by cartographers over that time. So it’s a gorgeous link back to the people who have worked as cartographers at the ANU, a reminder of changing sovereignties and what a map is: a snapshot of time and an abstraction of place.”
In that spirit, she notes the real innovations of digital technology making both data and mapping platforms more widely available, and thus facilitating what she calls “a democratizing phase of cartography”.
The maps of Adam Mattinson provide an obvious example.
By day, Mattinson works as a geospatial analyst for an engineering firm. In his own time, he uses his cartographic training to represent the local landscape in strange and fantastical forms.
In one project, he depicts a Melbourne constructed on Port Phillip as it looked in the Ice Age; in another work in progress, he imagines the city after massive rises in sea levels.
In the book ‘How to Lie with Maps’, Mark Monmonier notes what he calls “the cartographic paradox”. To present complex information from a three-dimensional world clearly in two-dimensional format, the surveyor must abstract and distort.
In other words, as Monmonier says, “to present a useful and truthful picture, an accurate map must tell white lies.”
Mattinson’s work takes that idea to its logical conclusion.
*Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster. The article was first published in The Guardian.