The Materiality of Maps

Date: 23 July 2018
Time: 5:30 p.m.
Location: UVA Special Collections
Lecturer: Matthew H. Edney - Osher Professor in the History of Cartography, University of Southern Maine; Director, History of Cartography Project, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Map studies have long been bedeviled by that idealization that, as “depleted homologues” of the world, maps are fundamentally all the same. This normative map apparently captures a single moment of time and divides each cartographic act into two discrete periods: the making of the thing in one context; and then the reading or using of the thing, generally in another. The static and stable normative map is thus the archetype of Bruno Latour’s immutable mobile.

This presentation develops an alternate interpretation of the map’s materiality from the perspective of the dynamism of mapping: material maps circulate between producers and consumers. One method to reconstruct and study the processes of circulation and consumption—in light of generally fragmentary archival evidence—is through careful attention to maps’ physical characteristics and emplacement. This principle is explored through two case studies from the early mapping of New England. First, the differential placement of the map of New England within the Boston and London editions of William Hubbard’s 1677 account of King Philip’s War sustained different reading practices. Second, the teleological history of the ever increasing quality and quantity of geographical information about New England, through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, as enshrined in bibliographic works, is thoroughly disrupted by correlating their size and design with their locations in celebratory accounts, general atlases, and on walls. These examples demonstrate that the study of maps’ materiality is essential to establishing their discursive context and therefore their interpretation.