Writing the Earth: 2,000 Years of Geography and Mapping at the Bruce Museum

The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, presents the new exhibition Writing the Earth: 2,000 Years of Geography and Mapping from January 30 through May 2, 2010. The exhibition features a selection of world maps that were printed between 1511 and 1800 and are on loan from a private collection. The show also includes a small group of maps from 1570 featuring the Americas. The exhibition is supported by the Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund.

Abraham Ortelius
Abraham Ortelius, Typus Orbis Terrarum, Antwerp, 1570. Private collection

Please note that this exhibition is held in the Museum’s Bantle Lecture Gallery, which may be closed for viewing due to programs taking place. Please call ahead or check the website for non-viewing times.

Many maps are startlingly accurate; many are measures of the continuing professional progress of human ignorance. Among the most endearing qualities of any old map is the degree to which its errors vastly outnumber its truths. They are all a record – in line, graphic, color, and word – of the history of the Earth as its keener, commercially aggressive citizens understood it. Some of these maps appear precisely as they came off the press up to five centuries ago; some were hand-colored then; some were hand-colored later, a few were never colored. They are drawn on a wide variety of projections – ranging from those scientifically prescribed by Ptolemy and those honoring God and religion to absolute fantasies – each projection shaped according to the geographic trend of the day or the whim of the cartographer. Above all, these maps are pages in a wonderfully diverse, often confused, but always beautiful humanist family album of snapshots of our ever-changing world over the past half millennium.

Between 500 and 600 years ago, three European humanist “earthquakes” shook the globe, helping to create “The Renaissance” and opening a new chapter in history: the early 15th-century translations of pre-Christian Greek works including Ptole¬my’s Geo¬graphia into Latin, the rapid expansion of movable-type printing, and European voyages of discovery. Together, these events sparked a revolution in European culture and knowledge. Suddenly, volumes of science, travel, exploration, history, geography, and cosmology could be produced and purchased by wealthy citizens for their private libraries. Most publishers of maps and atlases functioned not as originators of cartography but as editors of masses of data pouring in from far-flung sources. Few publishers ever ventured forth to verify cartographic information; fewer ever went to sea. As a result, they relied on mariners’ inaccurate measurements, explorers’ dubious impressions, naturalists’ fallible observations, artists’ hasty sketches, tantalizing rumors, bits of innuendo, and not a few outright lies. These are the qualities that now, five centuries later, give an antique world map its irresistible charm.

The Bruce Museum is located at 1 Museum Drive in Greenwich, Connecticut, USA. General admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and students, and free for children under five and Bruce Museum members. Free admission to all on Tuesdays. The Museum is located near Interstate-95, Exit 3, and a short walk from the Greenwich, CT, train station. Museum hours are: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., and closed Mondays and major holidays. Groups of eight or more require advance reservations. Museum exhibition tours are held Fridays at 12:30 p.m. Free, on-site parking is available. The Bruce Museum is accessible to individuals with disabilities. For information, call the Bruce Museum at (203) 869-0376, or visit the Bruce Museum website at www.brucemuseum.org

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