‘Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia’ @ National Library of Australia

27 01 2014

The second of the two exhibitions that brought me to Canberra was ‘Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia‘ at the National Library of Australia (NLA).

Maps interest me in how they make evident the manner in which people perceive and place themselves in the landscape, and then how they represent their three-dimensional world in two dimensions. This exhibition shows that to some small extent, though (naturally, given the title and focus) is more about how maps of the ‘modern’ centuries evolve to show snippets of what came to be called Australia.

Exhibition media: “Mapping our World is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see rare and unique cartographic treasures from around the world. Discover how European explorers unravelled the secrets of the great south land.
Highlights of the exhibition include the magnificent Fra Mauro Map of the World; the remarkable Boke of Idrography presented to Henry VIII; an intricate world map by the Benedictine monk Andreas Walsperger (1448); a fifteenth-century Ptolemy manuscript; magnificent and controversial ‘Dieppe’ charts; one of only four surviving copies of Mercator’s groundbreaking 1569 projection, and original manuscript charts by Pacific navigators including Louis de Freycinet, James Cook and Matthew Flinders.

There are some absolutely magnificent works of art here – and yes, they certainly do deserve that lofty description. The most stunning of course being the map used in media for the exhibition: the ‘Fra Mauro Map of the World‘ (1448-1453). This is the first time the map has ever left Venice … ever. If you only go for one reason, this is sufficient.

click on image for original source

click on image for original source

The above map is detailed beyond comprehension; and its counterpart could be considered to be the little map that struck me for its simplicity and design, and also its proposal of not-yet-discovered places: Macrobius’s ‘Zonal world map, in Commentary on the Dream of Scipio’, from the 11th century.

click on image for original source

click on image for original source

The most significant impact this exhibition had on me was to underscore how inadequate my primary school education had been in such matters. I was taught that Captain Cook ‘discovered’ the east coast of Australia in 1770. I don’t remember being taught anything of the Dutch reaching the west coast (it wasn’t until my thirties that I came to this knowledge, via someone raised in Perth and taught such things in school), nor that the Portuguese were more likely the first ‘Europeans’ to map the shores of the continent in the 1500s (if not earlier, as such knowledge was fiercely guarded).

Regular readers will know how I love maps; though visiting this exhibition was almost too much of a good thing. I found myself developing map-fatigue half-way through the rooms.

I’ve given this some more thought and consider it akin to compassion-fatigue (and of course closely aligned to art-fatigue, if not exactly the same): being surrounded by so many amazing objects, bombarded at each turn with a map deserving of attention and contemplation in its own right, creates such a weight that it’s overwhelming and desensitizing. An individual brilliance is dulled and suffocated by the company of many others of equal value.

Others have written more eloquently of this experience, so I won’t expand any further on it here. Though I have wondered if my ‘fatigue’ is speeding up with age – I feel I am reaching saturation point earlier in an exhibition than I did in my twenties or even just a few years ago … perhaps a larger and growing ‘back-catalogue’ of accumulated images and experiences casts a longer shadow over the new?

There is so much to appreciate in this exhibition, and it’s free.

Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia‘ is at the National Library of Australia (Canberra) until 10th March 2014.



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