I am just back from a nice trip to Baltimore that ended with a visit to the temporary exhibition on maps in . The Museum displayed examples of maps coming from all over the world created through every ages and for very different reasons: itineraries from Japan, maps from China engraved on stones and reproduced for centuries, pieces of the , drawings from or for imaginary utopias such as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Da Vinci’s attempts to represent relief with colours and not to forget Ptolemy’s representation of the world.
I would like to highlight here two elements. One is an at first sight rather enigmatic Inuit map. It represents the contours and slopes of a coastal landscape.
This object raises some important questions as it is an interesting mixture of a hodological description with the curves on the wood rendering the coastal line as a traveler would see it and a representation from a bird’s eye view. But it does not share some of the inconveniences of other materials. It is not a flat surface as a piece of paper would be and does not need special conventions in order to render the relief.
My second thought is about distortion. In one of the section the exhibition emphasizes that maps sometimes represent something else than geographical features, for instance in modern times they may represent social realities. In these cases the distortion are wanted in order to illustrate a special point the creator of the map what to make. This attitude is not restricted to modern usage of maps and distortion was not always a consequence of a not-yet-accurate representation of a landscape on a flat surface. It could also be seen as resulting from assumptions, beliefs or certainties adopted by a distant civilisation and the creating techniques used for a maps often disclose these assumptions.