Bending Lines in Cartographic Perspectives

ArticleOur new exhibition is featured in the Cartographic Collections section of the NACIS journal

Garrett Dash Nelson
January 20, 2021
436 words

Here at the Leventhal Map & Education Center, we’re big fans of NACIS—the North American Cartographic Information Society—and their free, open-access journal Cartographic Perspectives. That journal features a recurring section called “Cartographic Collections,” which spotlights maps and geographic material that have been featured in library, museum, and research collections around the world.

The upcoming issue of Cartographic Perspectives features an article on our digital exhibition Bending Lines. In the article, I describe the process of designing the show and the challenge of how to promote a skepticism in maps that doesn’t end in paranoia. Read on for a description of the team effort to build a digital exhibition in less than two months, and to learn about why I think the term “accurate” is a useful metaphor for thinking about the social reliability of cartography.

For those who work with maps as a profession, the fraught relationship between cartographic representation and truth is a familiar problem. But for the vast majority of casual readers and users of maps, the epistemological status of maps is typically much more straightforward: maps seem to show the world as it really is. In the popular imagination, “maps don’t lie,” to borrow the maxim that appeared in the headline of a 2019 New York Times column written by Charles Blow.

Blow’s headline, written in reaction to Donald Trump’s mischievous distortion of a National Weather Service map forecasting the path of Hurricane Dorian, became the subject of much head-shaking amongst scholars steeped in the critical tradition of geographers such as J. B. Harley, Judith Tyner, and Mark Monmonier, all of whom have pointed to the ways in which maps can indeed be used to lie, deceive, cheat, and dominate (e.g., Harley 1989; Tyner 1982; Tyner 2015; Monmonier 2018). But most people are not equipped with this automatic skepticism towards maps—getting directions to the local grocery store, after all, hardly feels like the terrain on which the forces of social and political contestation are brought to bear. Maps, at least the way they appear in most people’s everyday lives, carry the stamp of trustworthiness. And it is precisely this veneer of good faith which can make maps so dangerously persuasive.

You can read the entire article for free online in HTML or PDF formats.