Map: Exploring the World

A new book from Phaidon looks at how we represent our world through maps, charting 5,000 years of cartography. Here, we look in detail at four examples – from an artistic interpretation of a national park and a 19th-century drawing of the moon, to visualisations of two very different natural disasters

For many of us, the majority of the maps we use today are digitised versions of our local terrain, viewed solely via screen or smartphone and enabled by GPS and satellites.

As Map: Exploring the World, Phaidon’s new heavyweight compendium of maps reminds us, it’s easy to forget just how new the current interactive state of cartography is and that, what went before, has actually been in place for thousands of years. Equally, any map is only ever a representation of a place, often even a distortion of it; yet, we are so used to encountering them, that we routinely take them at face value.

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According to the publishers, the 300 examples in Map were chosen by a panel of cartographers, academics, map dealers and collectors and represent over 5,000 years of cartography from all over the world.

The scope of the book means that while printed maps dominate the selection, there are also fascinating examples of physical objects – there maps made from clay tablets, pieces of bark and even an assemblage of sticks. But there are also some very recent examples, from visualisations of flight paths to Twitter usage, where digital tools have helped to change the way we see – and record – the physical world.

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Here are four very different examples from the book, each of which employs mapping techniques and technologies to achieve their ends. The texts explaining each map are based on those found alongside each entry in the book.

Hurricane Katrina Flooding Estimated Depths and Extent, 2005, NOAA/FEMA. Colour-coded satellite image, dimensions variable. NOAA Central Library Historical Collection/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce
Hurricane Katrina Flooding Estimated Depths and Extent, 2005, NOAA/FEMA. Colour-coded satellite image, dimensions variable. NOAA Central Library Historical Collection/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce

This enhanced satellite image shows the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans in 2005. The map was prepared on September 3, five days after the hurricane made landfall in Louisiana on August 29 – the yellow and green areas mark the deepest water (between four and ten feet). Images such as this can help the authorities – and the public – to grasp the severity of a national emergency. In this case, the failure of the levees and floodwalls designed to protect the city meant that seawater entered neighbourhoods along the Mississippi river, overflowing Lake Pontchartrain. As much of the city lies near or just above sea level, it was inundated.

Greater Yellowstone, 1962, Heinrich C. Berann. Printed paper, 74 x 100 cm, private collection. David Rumsey Map Collection
Greater Yellowstone, 1962, Heinrich C. Berann. Printed paper, 74 x 100 cm, private collection. David Rumsey Map Collection

The Austrian artist Heinrich C Berann has a reasonable claim as the father of ‘panoramic mapping’. He created four works for the United States National Park Service, one of which, of Greater Yellowstone, is shown above. It mimics an exaggerated view from an aeroplane and, as such, is well suited as a ‘tourist map’. It is highly distorted in both scale and representation, yet certainly communicates something of the beauty of the area. It involves drama, uses rich colours and presents an entire scene for the viewer to contemplate – enticing the visitor to one of America’s best known national parks as it does so.

A Map of Vesuvius 1832 John Auldjo. Lithograph, 29 x 34 cm, University of Otago, Dunedin. University of Otago, New Zealand
A Map of Vesuvius 1832 John Auldjo. Lithograph, 29 x 34 cm, University of Otago, Dunedin. University of Otago, New Zealand

The various coloured ‘streams’ on this map represent the direction and extent of lava flows from 27 different eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in Italy’s Gulf of Naples over a period of 200 years (1631-1831). As an early infographic, it’s a challenging map to read – yet, it accurately records the sequence of volcanic activity (the pink area is the first eruption recorded here). It was made by the British geologist John Auldjo in 1832, a time when scientists were increasingly turning to drawings to explain the seismic causes of natural catastrophes. The development of graphics and the lower costs of colour printing contributed to the emergence of geology as an academic discipline in its own right during the 19th-century.

Mappa Selenographica, 1834–36, Johann Heinrich von Mädler and Wilhelm Beer. Engraving on four sheets, private collection. Courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps
Mappa Selenographica, 1834–36, Johann Heinrich von Mädler and Wilhelm Beer. Engraving on four sheets, private collection. Courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps

The first quadrant of this map appeared in 1834 and was the most detailed image ever made of the moon’s surface (south is at the top of the image). Four years later, the completed map was published by its creators, the German astronomers Wilhelm Beer and Johann Heinrich von Mädler. Using a 3.75 inch refracting telescope, Mädler spent 600 nights mapping previously unknown craters, mountains and other surface details and used ‘stippling’ to render the dark and light shading of the moon, as visible from the Earth (naming more than 100 new features in the process). While Der Mond (The Moon), the book in which the map appeared, was never translated into English, many astronomers are still familiar with Mädler’s rather blunt observation that “The moon is no copy of the Earth”.

Map: Exploring the World is published by Phaidon and is available now (£39.95). See phaidon.com.

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