Bending Lines, an exploration of truth and lies through centuries of maps and data, opens at Leventhal Map & Education Center September 10, 2021

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Free exhibition at the Boston Public Library Central Branch explores how maps have been used as propaganda, advertising, and arguments

From early 16th century maps to modern data visualizations, the show arrives in-person after award-winning debut as a digital presentation

BOSTON — August 24, 2021 — The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library reopens next month with “Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception,” an exhibition that takes a critical look at whether seeing is believing in the worlds of cartography and digital data. Drawn from the award-winning online exhibition that was redesigned as a digital-first experience after COVID shut down plans for a May 2020 opening, the in-person show features a stunning array of original maps and documents, some dating back more than five centuries.

Curated by the Leventhal Map and Education Center’s President and Head Curator Garrett Dash Nelson, “Bending Lines” opens to the public on Friday, September 10, 2021. Information about the in-person show and access to the digital exhibition is available at leventhalmap.org.

Exhibition overview

From a 16th-century Ptolemaic map (highlight, l.) that highlights the struggle to fit the New World into classical geography, to an infamous 2019 “Sharpie-enhanced” weather map meant to spin the politics of disaster planning, the pieces on display in “Bending Lines” show how maps can be used to persuade. By reorienting the perspective on maps from a simple question of true and false to a more complicated question of motives and values, “Bending Lines” scrutinizes how people’s choices are always part of the mapmaking process.

The exhibition shows that attempts to shape public opinion aren’t limited to election years, wartime, or advertising billboards. The wide range of objects and topics in “Bending Lines” challenges viewers to consider the social, cultural and political environments in which maps and data are created and deployed.

In addition to rare historic materials, Bending Lines includes pioneering examples of data visualization, and contemporary holdings from the BPL’s extensive map collection, which the Leventhal Map and Education Center manages. Significant documents from Massachusetts history are displayed alongside national and world treasures, and in contrast to ephemeral examples of maps in advertising and media. Interactive displays show visitors the power of persuasive mapmaking and demonstrate how subjectivity is inherent even in “objective” data.

Among the object highlights on display:

  • A 1507 map showing that European mapmakers struggled to negotiate differences between then-new discoveries and the authority of ancient geography;
  • A “new and accurate map of the world” from 1626 that promotes a geocentric view of the solar system and portrays California as an island – it is one of the first world maps to show European settlement in New England;
  • An 1820s broadside mocking Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, whose politically motivated redrawing of his Essex County senate district in 1812 spurred political rivals to coin the enduring term “Gerry-mander”;
  • World War II propaganda news maps made by the U.S. government to stir up a sense of global emergency and patriotism;
  • A groundbreaking “flow map” by 19th century French cartographer Charles Joseph Minard;
  • A selection of wartime maps including a relic from the Russo-Turkish War showing Russia as an octopus
  • A pair of historic maps promoting strikingly different political views of New York City – one from a socialist perspective and the other from a right-wing, anti-communist group; and
  • A dizzying bird’s-eye perspective on Boston, designed to sell a local soda company’s wares.

“Bending Lines focuses on the motivations and decisions of cartographers and designers about what to show and what not to show,” Nelson says. “Every choice about representing the world through symbols and images shapes a viewer’s perception.” Maps have myriad social purposes, he says: some aim to encourage land speculation or nationalism; others act as tourist boosters; still others sell products and ideas or bolster electoral campaigns. But Nelson emphasizes map-making needn’t be a discipline that comes down from on high.

“We’re showing how these types of visual rhetoric are tools not only for the powerful, but also those who challenge them,” Nelson says. “Bending Lines sheds light on the complicated conversation about who gets to decide what we believe, and how seeing is not always believing.”

Education resources

As with all Leventhal Map Center exhibitions, Bending Lines features resources that support a rich experience for educators, students, and families. A custom tour designed for young learners takes students through some of the most important critical questions to ask when evaluating the reliability of a map. These tours are available both as online follow-along guides as well as captions and stops in the gallery meant for young learners. In-gallery activities and kid-friendly captions encourage younger visitors to think about how manipulation becomes an inevitable part of the mapmaking process.

Information for visitors

  • Bending Lines is open free of charge at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. It opens Friday, September 10 and will run through February 18, 2022.
  • The Map Center gallery will be open 11am–5pm on Mon, Tue, Thu, Fri, and Sat; and 1–7 pm on Wednesday. https://www.leventhalmap.org/exhibitions/visit/
  • Masks are currently required for all Boston Public Library visitors and staff.

Funding information

Bending Lines is made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the primary source of federal support for the nation’s libraries and museums—advancing, supporting, and empowering America’s museums, libraries, and related organizations through grantmaking, research, and policy development. IMLS’s vision is “a nation where museums and libraries work together to transform the lives of individuals and communities."

Media contact

For images, interviews, previews and information about BENDING LINES, contact John Michael Kennedy jmk@jmkpr.com, 781-620-1761) or Jennifer Astin (ja@jmkpr.com, 424-333-1718).

About the Leventhal Map & Education Center

The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library is an independent nonprofit organization that promotes the public use of more than a quarter million geographic objects for the enjoyment and education of all. Uniquely positioned in a public library, the Leventhal Center offers exhibitions and public talks, groundbreaking educational programs that promote geographic and data literacy, and extensive digital resources.

The Leventhal Center is known for the size and significance of its collection, as well as its engagement with K-12 audiences. With a global scope and a regional specialization in Boston and New England, the Center is a leader in exploring the study of places, societies, landscapes and history through the lens of maps and geography.

About the Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library (BPL) provides educational, cultural, and civic enrichment free to all through its collections, services, programs, and spaces. Established in 1848, the Boston Public Library is a pioneer of public library service in America. It was the first large free municipal library in the United States, the first public library to lend books, the first to have a branch library, and the first to have a children’s room.

The Boston Public Library of today encompasses the Central Library in Copley Square, which includes the newly-renovated and vibrant Johnson Building, 25 branches, the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center, the Kirstein Business and Innovation Center, and an archival center. The Library provides access to world-class special collections of rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and prints, along with rich digital content and online services. BPL hosts thousands of free educational programs and exhibitions, and provides free library services online and in-person to millions of people each year.