Mapping Our World, National Library*

23 Nov

On Thursday, a group of bloggers and other media attended a ‘behind the scenes’ look at the Mapping Our World exhibition at the National Library. It wasn’t quite Russell Crowe, but the chance to hear from the curators–Martin Woods and Susannah Helman–was a lovely opportunity.

Other notable bloggers included the gorgeous Megan from Time After Tea, as well as walking god John Evans, who claimed that while he doesn’t read books, he certainly reads maps.

Alas, there’s no photography allowed in the exhibition. It’s a bit of a shame, but understandable given the needs of lenders who want to assure the preservation of the works on loan.

That said, the best part about exhibitions at the National Library is that there’s no ‘You can’t get close to that’. Maps by their very nature require curiosity and close study, and despite the value and how rare they are, the Library goes to brilliant lengths to allow visitors to get up close. There’re only a few maps which have a bit of rope around them (and even then, we still get close), but otherwise it’s great.

The exhibition comprises five rooms, starting from early maps (including a replica of one of the first known maps), to medieval maps where religion was the focus, to the age of enlightenment, to the discovery of Australia, and finally mapping our east coast.

Our hosts inform us that maps from these institutions around the world don’t usually get shown in collections like this, so the institutions were happy to oblige.

Some of the really interesting insights for me (any errors of fact are mine alone):

  • A lot of the early maps are south pointing, not north pointing
  • A round world map from medieval times, with Jerusalem at the centre
  • The exhibition is set at 50 per cent humidity, and none of the lights is over 50 lux
  • Some of the (best, in my opinion) maps are set on the wall like they’re floating, with glass in front of them – making it very easy to get up close
  • One of the most important and valuable maps is Gerritsz’s hand painted Map of the Pacific, showing the full expanse of the Pacific ocean, as well as a very small part of Australia; Napoleon seized this map during his annexe of the Kingdom of Holland in 1810
  • Gerritsz was also the first to do some of the more detailed maps detailing Australia
  • It’s suspected that Abel Tasman took a copy of one of the Gerritz maps with him for his navigation of Australia and Tasmania
  • the Vlamingh Plate: Dirk Hartog left a plate on the WA coast in 1616 documenting his landfall; de Vlamingh removed Hartog’s plate to Indonesia, and replaced it with his own. The Vlamingh Plate is on loan from the WA museum, and the Hartog plate is located in Amsterdam
  • charts from Captain Cook from his voyage

For me, Fra Mauro‘s map alone is worth visiting the exhibition. It has NEVER BEFORE left the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, after 600 years, and is the only surviving work of its maker. It is huge – some 10 feet tall – and so incredibly intricate. Fra Mauro tried to fit everything about the world on the one disc, rather than on two disc projections like we currently see in maps today. I could spend hours looking at this – the detail is really something else. Susannah tells us that where Venice is on the map has been smudged over time from people in Venice touching the map. There are thousands of annotations over the map, where Fra Mauro was debating sources and compiling information (synthesising, I suppose!). It was also a huge effort to transport, coming by plane (like all the works), but transported upright. Given this map’s size, it’s an incredible feat.

Like Russell Crowe, I like to think I am an amateur ‘map geek’. The works included in this exhibition (let alone the effort put in getting them here) have been worth the two years of full time work from the curators, in addition to the conception of the exhibition over many years. The works included are genuinely special, rare and meaningful in learning about how we all discovered our place in the world.

What scares me the most is that this exhibition ends in March! Time is already running out… I look forward to heading back as soon as possible!

* Note: this event was on an invitation basis, which I accepted. While not previously mentioned, as part of the ‘behind the scenes’ tour, those in attendance were provided with some tickets to allow quick access to the exhibition (noting that it is an exhibition free to everyone), rather than waiting in line. I accepted these tickets. I consider that this has not adversely affected my review, and note that my overall impression of the exhibition would not change if I had attended during public hours, save for extra information provided by the curators. You can read more about my policy regarding inducements and accepting invitations here.

  Date: Thursday, 21 November 2013

Where: National Library of Australia, Parkes Place (the exhibition is open between 10am-5pm each day until its end date in March)

Cost: Free (but bookings are required online)

Worthwhile factor: Highly worthwhile; such a great opportunity to see so many works from so many insitutions which most of us will likely never see again

Want more? The National Library of Australia website has a great deal of information, including extra information on the maps. Here is a good place to star


8 Responses to “Mapping Our World, National Library*”

  1. Olivia November 23, 2013 at 11:40 pm #

    Another amateur map geek here,I’m pretty keen to see this!

    • inthetaratory November 24, 2013 at 8:21 am #

      I reckon you will love it! I really rare but thoughtful collection.

  2. TIFFIN bitesizedfood (@TIFFINbitesized) November 26, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

    Thanks for that great round up. I knew this exhibit was on and Mr Tiffin is in love with them. We are coming to Canberra for a week over Christmas (I know! Who COMES to Canberra for Christmas?) so this has gone to the top of the list.

    ps: Also enjoyed the reference to Dirk Hartog and the Hartog plate for no other reason that I learned about him in grade 3 and always liked the sound of his name!

    • inthetaratory November 26, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

      Love it! You both will have the best time.


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    […] The Mapping Our World expo at the National Library (free, but you really should book online to avoid disappointment – here’s the linky) ends on the long weekend date of Monday, 10 March. This is only two months away. You could spend two months at this exhibition. For this reason, you need to get there and spend time with these remarkable maps as soon as possible. […]

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    […] now? The Mapping Our World exhibition at the National Library of Australia. It’s simply magnificent; the quality and range of the […]

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    […] now? The Mapping Our World exhibition at the National Library of Australia. It’s simply magnificent; the quality and range of the […]

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