On Thursday, a friend arranged for a tour of Minnesota on the Map by MSHS Acquisitions Curator and bibliophile legend Patrick Coleman. Since the exhibit closes on September 7, I jumped at the chance to learn about the show from the man who put it together at the state history center.
The show is worth a visit. The MSHS was founded before statehood and the map collection would be a gem among any collection. Coleman selected
dozens of maps, atlases and artifacts from the Society’s collection, including an atlas from 1595, displayed alongside current road, city and tourist maps. The Society’s extensive collection of early exploration and travel maps of North America includes document maps and atlases used by Europeans to understand the geography of the "new world" and illustrates how that understanding changed over time.
Perhaps that sounds dry, but the spirit of the curator's sly wit informs the exhibit. This isn't a pedant's catalog, but a lively stroll through the art and foibles of the mapmakers' culture and understanding.
The show is filled with gems, such as an 18th century globe viewable online. Coleman describes its acquisition in one of a group of podcasts that accompany the show. On our tour, Coleman pointed out that globes were fairly common at the time in Europe--only their destruction in the passage of time makes them rare today.
The globe is a pretty thing, whatever its price. That beauty is repeated throughout the show in the detailed work on the maps and the tiny cartoons that mapmakers tucked into their corners. Other pieces gain their beauty simply through the fine craft of their creators. My favorite is a 1930
A series of early modern atlases illustrates the way the middle of North America grew more distinct for Europeans--even as their understanding of the first residents laid the ground work for later tragedy. Within that picture, Coleman includes a work of humbuggery:
One of the longest and proudest traditions in early travel writing is fabrication. Among writers on North America, nobody told a bigger lie than Baron de Lahontan. He served in the French military, commanding a post near present-day Port Huron, Michigan, and was intimately acquainted with the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi territories. Eventually he deserted the French army and was thus deprived of his inheritance, which may have prompted his need to publish a popular account of his time in the New World in 1703. His biggest invention was the “Longue River” which extended straight west from the Mississippi to a range of mountains. From there another river conveniently continued west, completing the long-wished-for passage to the Pacific. Lahontan also made up non-existent tribes and villages. For 100 years respectable map makers were suckered into incorporating Lahontan falsehoods into their cartography, which you will note on many of the maps in this exhibit.
Saint Paul Board of Trade
St. Paul in the Year 1900
Maps, thank God, can have a sense of humor. In this case someone apparently had enough of the city fathers' boosterism, and took it to an absurd level. St. Paul becomes the center of the world (much like Jerusalem is the “navel of the world” in the earliest manuscript maps) with one train travelling from St. Paul, via suspension bridge, to London and another leaving St. Paul via tunnel, “. . .excavated by gophers”, to Peking.
One inside joke is the replacement of "Kandiyohi" for "Canada"north of St Paul (center of the world). Minnesota history buffs know that land for new seat for the state government was acquired in Kandiyohi County's Kandiyohi Township. The site is still known as Capital Hill. The wags put it in the far north. Funny guys.
I first stumbled across the Kandiyohi site about five years ago with the help of a prized possession, the Minnesota Atlas and Gazetteer. I should back track a bit: since I've worn out the first two I owned with rough use, the one now in my car is my third copy.
Coleman mentioned his one indulgence in the show: a volume open to a map of Le Sueur County's Tyrone Township in the 19th Century, where John Coleman's farm is noted on the sepia page. This is the old Coleman family homestead, a historical stepping stone for a family more lately associated with the city of St. Paul. My own atlas has taken me past that parcel looking for birds of a different feather. None of those sang so sweet a song as the MSHS curator, however, and I know I'll come back to explore Minnesota's wonderful library.
Maps and atlases have fascinated me since I was a kid growing up in southern Minnesota, and I can still remember the day when, still a preschooler, I made the connection between the images on a road map spread before me and the real world roads my father drove down. Add a few years of working at Ben Franklin's Library Company of Philadelphia, and you've got the perfect mark for the current MSHS exhibit.
The show can be viewed online along with study guides and podcasts crated by the Minnesota Alliance for Geographic Education (MAGE), but it's worth squeezing in a side trip from the Fair to take in the real thing by September 7.
I'll be back to play with the maps when they're out of the cases and frames. Lovely as the digital images are, there's nothing like the tactile scrutiny of a map--or informed commentary from a down home guide.