Category Archives: review

Also in Philadelphia

A quick roundup of other highlights from my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art after looking at Mexican Modernism and Vlisco.

Jitish Kallat

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Jitish Kallat’s* Covering Letter is an interesting counterpoint to all the anti-fascist art on display in Mexican Modernism. I appreciate the ideal of appealing to peace and compassion in the face of hatred and violence. But I also like the ambiguity of the mist being both an indicator of the inability of one party to receive and understand that message and a reflection of how maybe words and compassion might not be sufficient. As with the anti-fascist artwork, Kallat’s piece is sadly extremely relevant to today’s reality.

*I’ve previously seen another of his installations in San José

This installation also really really messed with my “don’t touch the artwork” instincts. You’re supposed to walk on the projected light. You’re supposed to walk through the mist. But I found myself avoiding doing both and instead blundered into the wall a couple times until I got over that mental block.

Oki Sato

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This was actually a design installation featuring three designers. I wasn’t really feeling it with Faye Toogood* or Zanini de Zanine,** but I really liked Oki Sato’s work and the way he’s really pushing both the technical properties of how things are built as well as playing with how products are used and interact with each other.

*Her work reminded me of Droog Design but with only a superficial understanding of what made a lot of Droog’s things so smart. But I did really like the idea of listing everyone who made the clothing on the tag.

**Nice reclaimed wood furniture and very nice to see some sustainability being brought to design. But I wasn’t struck by much beyond the materials sourcing. The pieces were nice but sort of forgettable.

His dishes are great, especially in how they recognize that people do more than just eat with them. They’re meant to literally be played with and they bring a smile to my face. I especially love his chairs though. Some, like the fadeout chair, are possibly too clever. But others, such as the splinter chair, result in a complete reimagining of what’s possible with laminates, wooden rods, and joinery.

In most cases though the result is both extremely subtle while also being an in-your-face flourish. I’m not sure how he manages to do that but I’m impressed.

New South Asian Galleries

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After my experience at The Met last year, I’ve become increasingly suspicious of these encyclopedic museums—especially when it comes to art from non-white cultures. Rather than walking through “The Basement” though I was pleasantly surprised by the redone South Asian galleries and how they’re as much about the evolution of how the museum has treated the artwork as they are about the artwork itself.

In room after room, there was wall text or an interactive display about where the art came from, how it was acquired, how it used to be displayed, and what previous curators believed the goal of the museum should be with respect to the artwork. This became especially interesting given how the Philadelphia Museum went through a “collect entire rooms” phase and many of the galleries in this wing are literally entire rooms which the museum acquired.

The information about the temple hall is especially good because not only does it have a very interesting history in terms of acquisition and display* but also serves as the inspiration for acquiring other rooms to display alongside the hall.

*Originally purchased from a rubble pile, re-assembled in Philly, have gone though multiple conceptions of light levels and scholarship into how they were originally experienced.

I wish more museums follow Philadelphia’s example here. As interesting as the artwork is in terms of what it tells us about the culture it came from. the way that we’ve acquired and chosen to display things says a lot about the way our culture has evolved too.

Vlisco

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I went to Philadelphia to see Mexican Modernism. However, I came back unable to stop talking about the Vlisco show. It was one of the better shows I’ve seen in general and packing everything into a single gallery resulted in a wonderful density of subjects to cover.

First, the actual fabric itself is a fantastic illustration of globalization. This particular batik technique originated in Java. It got taken to the Netherlands by Dutch colonists where the manufacturing process became automated. The resulting fabric then got taken by the Dutch to different African countries for market. The resulting fabrics are both authentically African but also truly international.

The Dutch sold different patterns in different countries so, while there are similarities in terms everything being Vlisco, there are also distinctions between countries and the exhibition does a good job at flagging how those different patterns came to represent different countries.

At the same time, Vlisco also sold some of these patterns to The West as resortwear. So where within Africa a specific pattern corresponds to a specific country, outside of Africa westerners are encouraged to see the patterns as “African.”

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One of the fun things with the Vlisco patterns is how they get repeatedly reworked and referenced. It’s not just that a pattern gets printed and reprinted in multiple colorways—which can look completely different even if the pattern itself is the same—instead elements of the old, classic patterns are sampled years later.

So the roundels which represent the wheels on a bus pattern become a pattern of circular devices. Or the swallows in a pattern or replaced by airplanes. Or maybe the swallows themselves get sampled and turned into a tesselation. The designs and devices are in a constant state of remixing—giving the entire industry a sense of vitality and energy.

The show wasn’t just a collection of patterns over time. That would’ve been easy and obvious and kind of boring. Instead all the remixes were paired and grouped with the their sources so that the relationships could be called out and viewed. The point isn’t just the history of the fabric, it’s in how that history is constantly self-referential.

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Viewing just the patterns and how they reference each other would’ve been a decent show in its own right. But there were also a ton of dresses on display which took the entire room to a different level since many of the dresses used prints which were on display.

Being able to see the flat printed patterns makes looking at the dresses a wonderful puzzle where you can figure out how the fabric is used based on the way the print shows up in the garment. And the designers do absolutely insane things in how they embrace the printed patterns.

Some of the dresses rotate the warp/weft to get the right print alignment. Others creating the cutting/seam pattern around the print itself so as to avoid certain elements—typically words or lettering. Many of the dresses have cut the fabric along the lines of the print itself so that instead of a straight seam the edge of the garment is irregular and the fabric becomes its own trim.

The dresses also showed exactly how different the patterns can look depending on the colors they’re printed in. Again, as with the patterns on the wall, the dresses which use the same print were displayed next to each other. However, because the garments are so different, I could be looking at two dresses for minutes and not realize that they were using the same print. It’s not enough that they different when one is printed in cyan/red/navy and the other is pink/red/maroon, the resulting difference in character also suggests completely different styles of dress.

With all that, the show still managed to find space in the gallery to have a large display about the process of dying the fabric. I love seeing these in general but this display used fabric samples which were the same size as every other sample on the walls. Instead of being an afterthought or a concession, it was an integral part of the show.

Not only did the process information show how the fabric is printed, it showed the different ways that variants could be produced. It’s simple to think of different colorways as just being using different inks in each step. But steps can be omitted or added as well and the combination of these differences opens up a huge number of variants of the same print.

Anyway, history, technology, design, culture, marketing, evolution, process, fashion, fabrication, color, and pattern. All in one room. All working together so the density of information makes sense. This show was great. Too bad there wasn’t a catalog.

Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944. 45UFL14 © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Gus Palmer (Kiowa, at left), side gunner, and Horace Poolaw (Kiowa), aerial photographer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress. MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida, ca. 1944.

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

Robert “Corky” and Linda Poolaw (Kiowa/Delaware), dressed up and posed for the photo by their father, Horace. Anadarko, Oklahoma, ca. 1947.

Horace Poolaw, “Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

“Sindy Libby Keahbone (Kiowa) and Hannah Keahbone (Kiowa),” Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1930.

Left to right: Juanita Daugomah Ahtone (Kiowa), Evalou Ware Russell (center), Kiowa Tribal Princess, and Augustine Campbell Barsh (Kiowa) in the American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941. © 2014 Estate of Horace Poolaw

The American Indian Exposition parade. Anadarko, Oklahoma, 1941.

After seeing Nation to Nation, I checked out the Horace Poolaw show. Poolaw photographed his Oklahoma community for about five decades in the mid-20th century. While he operated a bit as a professional photographer doing weddings and funerals and other big events his photographs are all effectively insider images. They’re both of his community and for consumption by that community alone.

The community is one which most of us typically see only through the white gaze. The photos aren’t actively dealing with self-representation issues. They document and are an archive of people who society tends to ignore.

We rarely get to see Indians as regular people. This allows and encourages society to think of them as no longer existing in today’s world. A lot of this caused by the way that the concept of “authenticity” is linked with Indian regalia and appearances. Being Indian is either a very specific physical stereotype of dark skin and sharp features or it’s a costume which can be appropriated by anyone.

It’s weird and unexpected to see Indian clothing mixed with western clothing or settings. So seeing Indians dressed in regalia while driving or posing by modern cars just like any other mid-century American would pose is striking. The same goes with seeing soldiers wearing war bonnets with their military uniforms. Poolaw’s photos though are full of this kind of thing and we get used to seeing the mixing and matching. Even in what seems to be a straight photograph of two women in their regalia standing in front of a teepee we notice how the younger one has a modern haircut and makeup.

All too often museums present Indian culture* as a stagnant craft which exists outside of the influence of other cultures. In Poolaw’s photos we see how his culture is changing over the decades, especially with how opening up the Kiowa reservation to non-Kiowa settlers resulted in a culture where everyone is blending their heritages together. There are different Indian Nations intermarrying. There’s the whole Indians serving in the US Armed Forces and celebrating homecomings and departures with traditional ceremonies. It’s a lot of fun to see and is a necessary reminder of how all of cultures are living and growing things.

*Or any non-white culture really.

Historically, the photos are also very interesting because they cover the time from the Indian Citizenship Act to the Indian Civil Rights Act. This is a time period in which Indian Nations gain both more autonomy for themselves to eventually practice their religions and traditions as well as more rights within the United States as US citizens with protected rights.

Poolaw specifically covers the development of Indian autonomy with his photos of the events which eventually developed into the what we now know of as American Indian Pow Wows. These photos work as a celebration of being Indian, archive of how the growth of acceptance of celebrating that by general American culture, and an uneasy critique of how the growing acceptance of powwow events has also lead them to be commodities.

His photos of the participants are wonderful relaxed photos of people who are at ease with the photographer and trust that their image won’t be exploited. His photos of the increased acceptance of these events are similarly fun to see as the people are increasingly able to operate in a mixed culture. His photos of the crowds and photographers who are watching the events though demonstrate his unease with how, as the culture is able to express itself more, it’s also increasingly accessible for consumption.*

*As someone who attends and photographs these events these photos also serve as a warning to me about how I should respect the space and the participants.

While it’s good that these cultural events no longer have to be practiced in a small private setting, the big events risk taking them from being for the participants and centering the audience instead. Poolaw, by being both an Indian and a photographer is able to straddle those worlds.

Nation to Nation

“The Great Smoke” case features a series of pipes and pipe bags as part of The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian’s latest exhibition, Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations, on Tuesday, September 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. Smoking played an important role at the Horse Creek Treaty gathering. The exhibition opens to the public at the National Museum of the American Indian on September 21, 2014. (Paul Morigi/AP Images for The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian)

Since the National Museum of the American Indian has the best food of the Smithsonian institutions, it’s easy to find an excuse to visit it should I be museuming on The Mall. And once I’m inside it’s easy to stay and wander around. So after having lunch after visiting the Hirshhorn, I ended up exploring a number of the exhibits in the Museum of the American Indian.

Nation to Nation looks at the history of treaties between Indian nations and the United States, or colonies which would become the United States. I was curious and apprehensive walking in to this show since that history isn’t one which covers the United States in a lot of glory. My biggest hope was that I wouldn’t get too pissed off—whether in the brutality of the history covered or, even worse, by letting that history off the hook.

Thankfully I didn’t get too upset either way. The show is very good. It covers a whole range of treaties starting with those between the Colonies and various Indian Nations and it gets into what worked, what didn’t, and how even when things worked they only worked for maybe a generation.* It went into communication issues both in terms of how the different parties value written versus oral commitments** and how certain concepts were untranslatable.*** It covered the points of view and goals that the negotiating parties were coming from and how those points of views changed during negotiation.

*Best example here is William Penn’s treaty with the Lenape. 

**Both in the initial agreement and in how it’s remembered for the future.

***From concrete concepts like reservations to more abstract ones like who has the authority to make decisions on behalf of an entire group.

And it didn’t shy away from the repeated displacement of Indian Nations as settlers kept moving west. It details the brutality and death toll of the forced marches. It laments the loss of botanical and medicinal knowledge which accompanied moving away from native lands. It poses the difficult choice many Indians faced about staying with—and as part of—the tribe by selling their land and moving west as well or by taking that money and trying to stay “at home” even if it meant being detribalized.*

*The legacy of that choice is still complicating things today.

Nor did it ignore how the treaties often put the US Government at odds with what the local authorities wanted. In many cases, the US Government was negotiating treaties to protect the Indians from hostile states and settlers. Sometimes this worked out and prevented—or at least delayed—conflicts such as the one between Georgia and the Creek Nation. Other times, such as in California, the state was able to successfully lobby Congress to not ratify the treaty—resulting in an extermination campaign becoming part of the gold rush.

I appreciated how throughout the timeline, while centering Indian priorities, the exhibit also managed to tell the history of the United States in how its priorities changed as it matured as a country. Where the early treaties are chiefly concerned with keeping the peace and avoiding any armed conflicts that the newly-formed country couldn’t afford, later treaties become more and more explicitly about taking land and, effectively, building empire across the continent.

By the middle of the 19th century, as the military might of the US has increased to where it doesn’t have to worry about armed conflict as much, the treaty negotiations become more one-sided and the US demands become more complicated. It’s no longer just about displacing people so you can live on their land, it’s about land as an exploitable resource for mining, commercial agriculture, or transportation right of ways.

But what I appreciated most is how the exhibit follows the history all the way through to the present day. It’s very clear that, despite the history of broken promises, the fact that there were agreements between the US and Indian Nations remains an important precedent to remember. It’s why the Haudenosaunee insist on receiving the cloth from the Treaty of Canandaigua rather than accepting a monetary payment. The symbolism of the agreement and the recognition by the US Government matters more than the payment now. It’s how the preservation of fishing grounds in the Medicine Creek Treaty are still legally valid today. It’s the way that native children have to be treated as the citizens of those Indian Nations which they are.

I only wish that in the current-day sections of this show, in addition to the political/legal movements in gaining and maintaining increased Indian sovereignty, there was also information about things like the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s a real sense that most of the conflict and negotiation regarding these treaties has moved to Washington DC or is taking place inside courtrooms. That there are also conflicts on the ground is important to remember. Especially when one of the most-visible conflicts is currently occurring in territory which is covered in one of the treaties which is on display. It shouldn’t be up to the audience to make those connections.

Ragnar Kjartansson

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Performance Art is always a weird thing to experience in a museum setting. Most of the time, instead of observing the performance, the museum describes the concept and displays the evidence left behind—leaving it up the the viewer to imagine the experience itself. The Ragnar Kjartansson retrospective at the Hirshhorn is a bit different in this case. While there are still lots of notes and maquettes on display,* many of the pieces on in the exhibition feel like the performances were just part of the process for creating the artwork itself.

*I particularly liked the set models for his opera without any performers.

What I saw when looking at things like The End—Venezia, God, or The Visitors, wasn’t evidence or notes. While it was important to know how the pieces on display were created, they stood on their own as objects in and of themselves.

The End—Venezia is superficially funny but the longer you look at it and walk around all the different paintings, the more it sucks you in and becomes about the paintings rather than the performance as you start treating it as a puzzle to putting everything in order. As you look more and more at how the paintings reference each other you’re also thinking about time and how things change over a summer.

God is very similar in that it’s superficially funny while it draws you into paying attention to something completely different and unexpected. Kjartansson’s singing isn’t the part that you end up paying attention to* as your attention slowly moves to the other musicians in the performance. Whether it’s the small tempo changes from the drummer or waiting until one of the idle musicians finally joins in you’re much more aware of how the entire musical piece is constructed here.

*Though there was something about it which reminded me of Thom Yorke and Radiohead.

The Visitors is a multi-channel installation in which it’s as interesting to watch how other museum goers navigate the space as it is to watch the piece itself. How everyone picks what screen, or screens, to pay attention to as the music shifts. How, as the piece ends, everyone figures out which screens the performers are moving to  and gravitates to those screens. This isn’t evidence which encourages passive viewing, it’s been thought out and the result is a surprisingly-interactive multimedia presentation.

In all these cases, it doesn’t really matter that the original performance was a piece of Performance Art. It’s a nice touch, but for me they could just as well have been created without an audience since that aspect isn’t present in any of the installations. The results are for the museumgoing audience.

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It is nice though that there is one performance piece on display. Woman in E reminds us of how different the performance part of Performance Art is. And there is a difference. More cameras came out for this piece than any other. There’s a weird energy around staring at the performer. There’s a weird energy around not paying attention to the performer. Everyone’s conscious about how there’s a person on display.*

*I can’t help but compare the way everyone is aware of the performer with the way that they ignore the security guards but that’s a completely different blog post.

And while reacting to the piece and the gold and the weirdness of treating a young woman in strapless gown as literally an object on a pedestal is a huge part of the experience. I also wanted to know about how long the performance lasted* and whether the guitar had been modified so that she didn’t have to actually hold the chord for the entire time.

*2 and a half hours per performer, 3 performers a day according to the security guard.

Paint the Revolution

Troubled Waters, 1949 José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909–2002

Troubled Waters, 1949
José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909–2002

Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 - 1969

Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 – 1969

Cloud of Lies. José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909 - 2002.

Cloud of Lies.
José Chávez Morado, Mexican, 1909 – 2002.

Retrato de la burguesía. David Alfaro Siqueiros. 1939.

Retrato de la burguesía. 1939.
David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Deportation to Death. Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 - 1969.

Deportation to Death.
Leopoldo Méndez, Mexican, 1902 – 1969.

I just managed to catch Philadelphia’s Mexican Modernism show before it closed in early January. When I saw it I was mostly struck by the way it illustrates the development of a Mexican national identity—my notes are all about this process and the way that artists experimented in multiple styles and subjects as they developed what mexicanismo meant and looked like.

However, writing this post a month later put me a few weeks past inauguration day and into a completely different state of mind. I expected to be writing about the development of a certain look. Instead what I remembered most about the show was how quickly and strongly the Mexican artistic identity expressed itself as anti-fascist and anti-colonialist.

Mexican artists embraced an indigeneity where the peasants and the poor are now Indians being used and abused by urbanists, capitalists, and internationalists. In so many of the paintings and murals, modern society is a huge, military-industrial complex which uses the people as the literal raw material for making money. They’re busy and dark in how they blend flesh and machine, and labor and technology as components of the new way of things.

Where fascism is “colonialist procedures…applied to Europe,” Mexico has had a mixture of both power-hungry leadership and international interference which is disturbingly relevant now. That its artists have chosen to self-identify as “Indian” in order to frame and fight this dynamic is extremely interesting compared to the way that resistance in the United States still struggles with recognizing the nature of oppression that Indians and Slavery have suffered here.*

*Comparing the Mexican appropriation of either generic or Aztec indigeneity to the way Indian Nations work in the United States is something which is so far out of my area of expertise that I’m a little uncomfortable even mentioning it at all. But I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that I can’t help but see that the entire system in each country has to be different.

US resistance often feels like protesting because “if we don’t protest now it could happen to us too”—where “we” and “us” are the white middle class. It’s protesting because of something “unprecedented” happening—where the only thing unprecedented is in the who it happened to this time. There’s a disconnect where only certain protesters and victims count.

Looking at the Mexican art shows no such problems. The people are the natives whose land has been stolen and whose labor built the country. There’s no question about who the correct victims should be. The poor people. The laborers. The ones doing the most work for the least pay in the hardest conditions. They‘re all worth fighting for. All of them.

And the bad guys. Fascists are overseas trying to spread fascism across the globe. Fascists are at home killing or jailing anyone who threatens their power. Colonialists are trying to interfere in Mexican affairs so as to procure better trade relations or industrial positions. Capitalists and industrialist are getting rich by squeezing their workers as much as they can. They’re all bad and they’re all worth fighting against. All of them.

It’s a shame that the show closed right when we, as a country, can use all the references about fighting this crap that we can get. While seeing the full-size projections of the Rivera, Orozco, and Siquieros murals is impressive and there’s a ton of drama in the paintings, what I loved most was all the prints and ephemera with their multitude of pro-worker, anti-fascist messages on display.

Over and over again we see variations on the themes of fighting fascism abroad, staying educated at home, and decrying oppressions carried out by the government. That they’re on yellowing fragile paper shows how these messages were intended to be available for everyone in a way that paintings and murals, even when accessible to the public, can never be. Print is the democratic medium here and it’s exciting to see so much of it on display.

The sheer volume and variety of the prints demonstrate how deep Mexico’s visual culture is—to the point where it became obvious how Princeton’s Itinerant Languages of Photography show just scratched the surface of Mexico’s visual literacy in constantly remixing, repurposing, and recontextualizing imagery.

On the development of a National identity

Man and Woman Rufino Tamayo, Mexican, 1899 - 1991

Man and Woman
Rufino Tamayo, Mexican, 1899 – 1991

Portrait of Mrs. J. Stogdell Stokes José Diego María Rivera, Mexican, 1886 - 1957

Portrait of Mrs. J. Stogdell Stokes
José Diego María Rivera, Mexican, 1886 – 1957

Self-Portrait with Popocatépetl Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Mexican, 1875 - 1964

Self-Portrait with Popocatépetl
Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo), Mexican, 1875 – 1964

Untitled (Dancer) Emilio Amero, Mexican, 1901 - 1976

Untitled (Dancer)
Emilio Amero, Mexican, 1901 – 1976

The blog post I was originally going to write is dead but it’s still worth expanding on the notes I took. A lot of the pre 1920s work is trying different things. This is especially obvious in Diego Rivera’s work—most of which looks nothing like what he is associated with—but with all the artists there’s a lot of working within European techniques and esthetics but applying them to Mexican subjects and landscapes.

We get to see artists like Adolfo Best Maugard and Dr. Atl* develop more Mexican-specific techniques and styles. That these styles also involve appropriating pre-colonial design elements only encouraged the development of the national identity to be one which understands how colonialism is still at work everywhere in the country.

*I especially liked that Atl Color is considered a distinct medium in and of itself.

Other notes

Pottery Vendors, 1934 Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mexican, 1871–1946

Pottery Vendors, 1934
Alfredo Ramos Martínez, Mexican, 1871–1946

Beneath the Maguey. José Clemente Orozco

Beneath the Maguey, 1927
José Clemente Orozco

I was struck by how many of the paintings were under glass. This made sense with the pastels but I didn’t see the point of having that extra layer with many of the other works. I really liked how many of the paintings are on cardboard or other “cheap” materials.* This gave a certain vitality to the work since it suggested that the creation and the image was more important than the object itself.

*Like in the case of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, on pages of the Los Angeles Times.

I enjoyed seeing and thinking about how photography interacted with the painting and printmaking. While there were many non-Mexican photographers working in Mexico in the 1920s, their work doesn’t suggest that there’s a revolution going on. I couldn’t help but look at José Clemente Orozco’s Beneath the Maguey and not think of Weston’s Maguey—especially since both images are from the same time period. While that Weston image wasn’t in the show, I was pleased to see other images of his there and I was especially excited to see a lot of Tina Modotti as well.

Universe of Maps

After spending time at the Cantor Center, I wandered over to Green Library to check out the Universe of Maps exhibition. The Rumsey Map Center is a wonderful resource and I’ve long enjoyed exploring davidrumsey.com. Being able to see highlights from the collection in person was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

The exhibition is really a greatest-hits kind of show. No overarching theme, just case after case of cool shit. So I’ll just go down my notes and write about what jumped out at me.

Coloney & Fairchild's Patent Ribbon Maps ... Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

Coloney & Fairchild’s Patent Ribbon Maps … Ribbon Map of the Father of Waters. Coloney, Fairchild & Co. St. Louis: 1866

The Colony & Fairchild ribbon map of the Mississippi is impressive as both a map and an artifact. It’s an eleven-foot-long tape measure of a map which seems utterly unusable since you have to unspool it completely in order to see the headwaters. At the same time it’s a wonderful way of looking at the river and perfectly demonstrates how it functions foremost as a transportation route. What’s most important on this map is what you encounter as you go up or downstream as towns and tributaries function the way you’d expect train stations to show up on a modern transport map.

The process of straightening out the river—but not too much—is one which I’d love to learn more about too. They very clearly had to get the river to fit in a straight line but there’s still a lot of meander detail visible. I don’t know the river well enough to gauge whether or not it’s done well but I love how this map keeps a sense of riverness in the abstraction.

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

The Road from London to Aberistwith, in Britannia, Volume the First. Or an Illustration of the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales. John Ogilby. London: 1675

Similarly, the London to Aberistwith wayfinding map interested me because it’s another map built around a specific use case. As with the Mississippi map, this one is very clearly a navigational map which takes a traveler from one point to another.

These kind of maps are also interesting because while the intent of these kinds of maps is to help inexperienced travelers, they also end up describing the journey and the territory covered. Where my kids like to trace on their maps the exact route of their journey, this would be like giving them a straight-line map showing them only what they encountered.

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Photo-auto maps–Albany to New York. No. 745,744, 743, and 742, in Photo-Auto Maps. Photographs of Every Turn, Together with a Topographical Outline of Road Showing Railroad Crossings, Bridges, School Houses and All Landmarks with Accurate Distances Between. Gardner S. Chapin; Rand McNally and Company; Arthur H. Schumacher. Chicago: 1907

Seeing the Aberwistwith map paired with the Photo-auto “map” was fantastic. While I have a hard time calling this a “map” I also don’t know what else to call it. It very clearly serves the same navigational use-case as a map does. It’s probably even easier than a map for some people to use as it mimics the kind of verbal instructions that people create. When we tell people where to go we highlight waypoints and tell them what to look for. Yes, street names and cardinal directions are also helpful, but it’s really things like “second left after the gas station” which make directions useful.

This also reminded me of Google Streetview and GPS-based navigation. Very useful when you can’t get verbal directions from someone but also no sense of the overall journey. While I am grateful for step-by-step directions, I’m never satisfied unless I can also figure out how they fit in to the general area.

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

A.D. 1498. The Discovery of America, in An Historical Atlas; in a Series of Maps of the World as Known at Different Periods; Constructed upon an Uniform Scale, and Coloured According to the Political Changes of Each Period … Edward Quin. London: 1830

The historical atlas with fog-of-war to give a sense of what hasn’t been explored yet was very striking. I love the idea of “what we don’t know yet” being an integral part of the design. Instead of zooming out to reveal more of the world, it’s very obvious that there’s a lot of world out there which is unknown.

I also enjoyed how this depiction reminded me of the fog-of-war feature in Warcraft and Starcraft. As with the Street View navigation photos, it’s fun to see how old ideas have been rediscovered today.

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

Maine, in Atlas of the United States, Printed for the Use of the Blind. Samuel Gridley Howe; Samuel P. Ruggles. Boston: 1837

I don’t have much to say about the atlas for blind except to note that I was impressed that it was raised relief text rather than Braille.* It’s also just a neat artifact to see since we rarely see things like this in any museum. Even in the design exhibitions at dedicated art museums I can’t think of any pieces of accessibility design.

*That this was published the same year that Braille was developed is a nice coincidence.

Underground, in Map of London's Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

Underground, in Map of London’s Underground Railways. Underground. A New Design for an Old Map. Henry Charles Beck; London Transport. London: 1933

It’s always lovely to see a classic in the flesh. The Beck map is one of those landmarks of design. I can’t imagine the world without it as we’ve absorbed its lessons so thoroughly that this is what all subway and transport maps have as their reference now.

As is often the case with landmarks of design, I was surprised by how small this was. I know I know, of course it’s small, it’s a subway map. But because of its prominence in the history of design, I had imagined it as something bigger.

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

Panorama of the Seat of War. Birds Eye View (from) Virginia (to) Florida. John Bachmann. New York: 1861

What I like most about Bachmann’s Panorama of the East Coast of The Confederacy is that it’s a view looking West from the Atlantic ocean. In addition to not being a standard view, it also ends up being a specifically political view. Orienting the map this way makes it represent the point of view of the Union blockaders. It’s not just the seat of war it’s an “us versus them” view of that seat.

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

A Map and History of Peiping (Beijing). Frank Dorn. Tientsin-Peiping: 1936

Frank Dorn pictorial history of Beijing was just a lot of fun. It’s a reminder of how maps aren’t just about super-accurate roads and locations, they’re also a way of depicting and remembering a place. When I was a kid, these kind of pictorial maps—typically a gimmick for local advertising—where what sucked me into being interested in maps in general. The Dorn map is a much older example which is about memory instead of advertising.

This map has also gotten me thinking about trying to draw my own pictorial maps of my youth. As I’ve come to be more of a tourist in my hometown, I’ve been finding myself filling in my childhood memories and connecting where everything used to be. I’d like to be able to share these with my kids rather than be one of those dads pointing out the window while driving past where something used to be decades ago.