Week 9 Rumsey Maps

For our analysis of an online exhibit, I chose to look at the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection. A person with an affinity for maps could find themselves immersed in this website for hours just going through them, as I soon found out. I have a strong interest in geography and cartography, and in particular, how borders and states change over time (both on the map and in the perception of the mapmaker). I spent an hour just looking over maps in the Europe category from beginning to end.

The collection was large just for Europe, but the website includes an enormous amount of maps from arguably almost every category one can imagine: From all the different continents of the world and full world maps to global, celestial, geographic, geologic, and maritime. One could get as specific as maps of certain states, countries or cities, and it also includes war maps. The comprehensiveness of the collection is only rivaled by its searchability and organization. Though I would have preferred a drop down menu, the main page and the sidebar on the right provide ways not only to search for certain areas, time-periods and types of maps, but also to search by name of the mapmaker. This collection can be very significant for the historian as well as the general map enthusiast.

The interactive features offered on the website, such as Google Maps, Google Earth, Georeferencer, Second Life, and 3D GIS, are also extensive. Some are relatively easy to use, such as Google Maps and Earth, but almost all of them require the download of a plug-in or a membership. Though this is understandable, this limits the flexibility for the average user, as Jamie pointed out in his blog post.

However, my main critique is not on the interactive features for, while it maybe annoying and not always feasible to download all the software required, they are technically usable. My major problem with the website was the alarming lack of annotation of any kind. While I was looking through the maps of Europe, I noted many glaring problems that did not represent the errors or purposeful misrepresentations of the mapmakers themselves, but could confuse the modern viewer unfamiliar with antiquated conventions. As an example, I will refer to Nicholas Sanson’s Europe (1697) and Herman Moll’s Europe (1708). Both maps depict Italy as one state and do the same for Germany (Allemagne). Though the contemporaries and the mapmakers themselves understood that these were simplifications and a closer examination of the maps marks the boundaries of city-states and regions, this would not be immediately clear to the layman visitor of the website. In addition, both mapmakers address states that cross the boundary from Europe into Asia in a bizarre way. Both Moscovy and the Ottoman Empire are colored differently in Europe than in Asia. The map has the Balkans in blue and Turkey in purple, even though both were controlled by the same empire, and it does the same for European Moscovy and Asian Moscovy. Again, if one zooms in and reads the description of the region (“Turkey in Europe,” for example) or if a contemporary were viewing the map, the truth would have been clear. However, to a modern observer, this can be confusing at best and misleading at worst.

Though I understand Rumsey’s project is to collect the enormous amount of maps that he has and not to be a historian, a few notes or observations to clarify each piece is in order.

I am a first-year PhD in World History student interested in nineteenth century imperialism and colonialism, and the construction of imperial divisions such as race, gender, and culture.

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