New World, Old Maps

In 1988 Dr. Dallas Pratt, co-founder of the American Museum in Britain, gave the Museum over 200 Renaissance maps of the New World – a collection acclaimed by scholars as one of the finest holdings of rare printed world maps in existence.  Dr. Pratt recollected when he first caught what he called the ‘map bug’:

I bought my first sixteenth-century map in 1932. It was the summer before I entered Yale, and I was in Paris with a friend. Strolling past bookstalls which line the left bank of the Seine, my eye was caught by three quaint and colourful maps. One was of the world, with fat-cheeked wind-puffers, one of the western hemisphere with a cannibal’s ‘lunch’ dangling from a Brazilian woodpile, and the third depicted an upside-down Europe with south at the top.

Who could resist?

Spurred on by thoughts of treasure, European cartographers changed the shape of the ‘New World’ as they mapped the Americas from the 15th to 17th centuries. Medieval maps had illustrated theology rather than geography; the Renaissance revived the classical discipline of scientifically mapping land mass. The pursuit of accuracy was entirely practical: only by exact measurement could the rich New World territories be claimed, plundered, and ruled by their Old World conquerors.

This exhibition features a rotating display of historic maps in the American Museum’s collection.

(From 28 November 2013)