New World, Old Maps

American Museum in Britain

22 March – 2 November 2014

2 for 1 entry with National Art Pass (standard entry £9)

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A display of the historic printed map collection that was formed by the museum's co-founder, Dallas Pratt, and is believed to be among the finest in existence.

Dr Pratt bought his first 16th century map in 1932 while in Paris with a friend. He recalled: 'Strolling past bookstalls which line the left bank of the Seine, my eye was caught by three quaint and colourful maps.

'One was of the world, with fat-cheeked wind-puffers, one of the western hemisphere with a cannibal’s ‘lunch’ dangling from a Brazilian woodpile, and the third depicted an upside-down Europe with south at the top. Who could resist?'

His collection – which he donated to the museum in 1988 – now stands at some 200 renaissance maps which chart how the Americas were recorded by European cartographers between the 15th and 17th centuries.

Whereas medieval maps illustrated theology rather than geography, during the Renaissance map makers learned more from navigators, who had ventured across the Atlantic in search of treasure. Returning to the classical discipline of scientifically documenting land mass, the maps they produced enabled Europe to conquer the New World territories.

But not all maps of this period were made to be used as sea charts. Artists such as Dürer and Holbein produced their own versions for buyers who preferred to venture across the oceans in their imaginations, such as merchants and princes. Exmaples of these are also represented in the exhibition.

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Among Pratt's collection is the famous Borgia World Map. The original metal plate bearing the map – now in the Vatican Library – was discovered by Cardinal Stefano Borgia in Portugal in 1774 and he had prints made. Pratt's is one of only ten surviving copies. As the original on metal is a true map (not an engraved plate made for printing) an intermediate cast had to be made in order to reproduce the design. Notably, the south is at the top and Italy is disproportionately large, while the further from Europe, the more bizarre the subjects. Giants Gog and Magog inhabit the East, Siberia is depicted as ‘the land of illustrious women’ and the Scythians in the south ‘sell their children in the market’ and worship a head on a pole.

Also included is a rare map by Hajji Ahmed. During the 16th century, cartographers of a mathematical inclination began to use a variety of shapes to depict the earth. The Arabic inscription at the top of this heart-shaped version opens with the words ‘Whoever wishes to know the true shape of the world, their minds shall be filled with light and their breast with beauty’. It has been suggested that the author was a Tunisian enslaved by Venetians, who bought his freedom by engraving the map on six blocks of pear wood.

Venue information

Opening times

17 March – 28 October

Tues – Sun 10.00am – 5.00pm. Last admission at 4.00pm

Closed Mondays except during August and Bank Holidays.

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