8 Stunning Maps That Changed Cartography
You probably think you know what a map is. And chances are, you’re not totally wrong. Yes, maps are visual representations of how to get from A to B, but if you ask John Hessler, they’re more complex than that. “Trying to define what a map is is pretty difficult,” says Hessler. And he would know.
As a specialist in modern cartography and GIS at the Library of Congress, Hessler spends a lot of his time around maps. The Library of Congress has more than 6,000 in its collection, charting everything from Claudius Ptolemy’s earliest visions of the world to glowing representations of Facebook’s networking effects. In his new book Map: Exploring the World, Hessler outlines the history of maps and explains how they’ve simultaneously evolved and remained the same over thousands of years.
The book features 300 examples of maps that include such disparate examples as the previously mentioned Facebook network and the stick charts of Marshall Island. But Hessler says there’s a common thread that run through all of them. “What we’re looking at whenever we’re looking at a map is an abstraction,” he says. “Really what we’re doing is like any visual art or design; were taking extreme complexity that takes place in the real world and abstracting it to simple visual images that help us understand complex interactions.”
In other words, maps are simply a way to visually present a set of data. In that way, cartography, once a highly specialized trade, is now more akin to information design. “The lines are beginning to blur between what is big data analysis and what is cartography,” he says. While the earliest maps were indeed tools used for wayfinding, today maps are more often about highlighting connections in both the physical and digital worlds. Maps are no longer tied to their geographic underpinnings. Visualizations like Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns show how data can paint a picture of a place without geography being the original intent. Others, like the brain map from the Human Connectome Project, are not maps in the traditional sense, though they do rely on cartographic metaphors. “Because it’s showing connections, because it’s showing networks, it’s definitely a map,” says Hessler. “But again, it’s one of those things that pushes the definition of a map beyond its normal form.”
Still, all maps serve as some alternate form of world history. Like art, they use visuals to reveal truths about a particular time and place. Maps can act like a memory frozen in time, as seen in John Auldjo’s map of Mount Vesuvius eruptions. They can highlight the issues of the day or chart the trajectory of human exploration and advancement.
Without words, they can convey what people were concerned, curious or excited about, even if it’s something as mundane as the aromas found across Glasgow. At their core maps are, as Hessler puts it, cultural artifacts. “They tell us an awful lot about the time they were produced,” he says. “That’s their power.”