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Maps Make Mark at Area Museums

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Maps Make Mark at Area Museums

If you've spent any time in Chicago recently, you may have noticed a series of big red signs – literally dotting the city – with the proclamation "YOU ARE HERE." Now, if you've been wondering what those are all about, here's your answer. More than 30 Chicago institutions are collaborating on a city event called the Festival of Maps. And Chicago Public Radio's Gianofer Fields visited a few.

I have a pretty solid for getting lost. So it may surprise you to learn that I have a serious love Jones for maps. Maps of the city, state, country, the world and the Chicago transit system are within my reach at all times. According to Todd Tubutis curator for the Field Museum, I'm not the only one. TUBUTIS: Map lovers are coming out of the wood work.

And so are the maps. The Field Museum exhibit is called MAPS: Finding our Place in the World. Some have even done a little traveling of their own. These maps are on loan from the Greenland National Museum. They are unlike any I've ever seen; small enough to fit in a pocket and carved out of wood. Todd says that they are WAY FINDING maps.

TUBUTIS: We're not exactly sure what part of the coast of Greenland it is but all the little indentations show the little inlets parts of the coast and when you would literally flip that and go up the coast on the other side. So imagine a bunch of carvings down one side of a little board and then another series on the other side and you can follow it both ways.

FIELDS: It looks like a comb that has been through a really rough time.

TUBUTIS: It really has and the one of the islands just looks like a piece of driftwood. That you might of found with a lot of knobs on it that somebody certainly carved to those right representations of islands and other parts of Greenland. 

Some maps depict what was important to the people who used them. Like the clay tablet just around the corner. It looks like a bit of broken sidewalk. But Todd says it is so much more than that.

TUBUTIS: It's a known as the town plan of Nippur. It is a fragment from this larger piece. It is the oldest known town plan that's drawn to scale.  It's the religious center of Mesopotamia at that time and it's telling you that there is a temple which is what we have highlighted in blue there on the little diagram where the gardens were where the town walls were and the line that kind of snakes along the left side is actually the Euphrates River.

My next stop was the Newberry Library. No, I didn't use a map to get there; I took the lazy way out and flagged a cab. Heading north, from the Field, I made my own map. My markers, Buckingham Fountain, the car my cabbie nearly sideswiped or maybe the Bunnies in Grant Park. Bunnies may seem off the mark. But they're not when you consider the huge colonial maps waiting to be displayed at the Newberry Library. These two-hundred pound maps that give insight into their ideals about the new world. When I arrived at the Library, curator Bob Karrow and staff were opening the crate containing the map of North and South America. Instead of bunnies; Bob says that these maps mark the first appearance of some very cleaver beavers.

KARROW: They thought that beavers had special trades. So there is this one beaver shown he's the one that cuts down the trees. Then there are the carpenter beavers they are the carpenters and they are cutting the pieces into smaller hunks. And then there are the porter beavers and they're carrying pieces. The thing that makes the beaver map especially notable is that there's always this one beaver is carrying sticks over his shoulder which I'm told not something that actual beavers ever do. Wait…it gets better.

KARROW: See the guy that's lying on his back.

FIELDS: Is he the lazy beaver?

KARROW: No. He is passed out from work. But, not to worry because actually there are inspectors des invalids. There are actually um…

FIELDS: Beavers who inspect the invalids

KARROW: Yes, they are actually medical assistants to take care of the injured beavers.

Bob and I were joined by curator Jim Akerman. Painted in 1730 the next map is the work of Dutch artist Herman Von Loon and if the beavers were a source of joy, this map of Africa is anything but that.

KARROW: Here is the sources of the NILE and these are the black inhabitants of Senegal. And it says, what does it say Jim? It says they are very large…

FIELDS: Very large and strong

KARROW/JIM: Well, Bien Fort would be strong yeah, well made, well built yeah, French…

JIM: Well I don't think you want me to say what the rest.

FIELDS: Yeah give it to me Jim it's not like I haven't heard it before.

JIM: French so

KARROW: Without

JIM: Without intelligence

KARROW: ohhhh oh is that right

FIELDS: Very big and not smart

JIM: That want it looks like to me.

I'm not upset, I just consider the fact that this map comes from people who thought BEAVERS walked on two legs and had the ability to provide emergency medical services. My final stop on my windy city map tour lifts me off this earthly plane and into the heavens at the Adler Planetarium. The exhibit is entitled Mapping the Universe and Marv Bolt is my guide. The gallery is dark Marv says it's to protect the paper maps from light damage. From the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of something shiny and made of gold. 

BOLT: The astrolabe is a little miniature globe that has been flattened, if you will, and it rotates too to show what the sky does. So just as a globe will rotate so you can tell which stars are above the horizon or which are below. The astrolabe is sort of a squashed flattened globe. And you can do the same things with it. They are very important in the Islamic world because they would help tell the time for prayer in the morning, at noon or in the evening.

The astrolabe is also important because it was portable. Think of it as an ancient GPS system. To its left is a device also made of gold that resembles a pocket sized pop up book. It's called a Compendium. Think I phone on steroids.

BOLT: Some pages have astrological information. Some pages have sun dials, some pages have other instruments. This one can actually do a hagioscopic chart on top of it. it actually has 15 pages

FIELDS: Holy Hannah

BOLT: its called a nocturnal on the very top and you can use that to tell the time using the rotation of the sky at night. And you could tell it to within maybe ten–fifteen minutes.

Maps from all three exhibits tell of our need to know our place in the world. From sticks and clay to paper and gold, people also used maps to help them make sense of the unknown. We can see how difficult it was for our ancestors to map the land. Marv says that looking up was more than navigational.

BOLT: You begin to realize that you are part of something a lot bigger than yourself. That people are a part of a much bigger scheme of things than just things on Earth.

For me maps are more than just a way to get from here to there. They take me away from where I am, to where I want to be.

I'm Gianofer Fields, Chicago Public Radio.

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