Mapping our world

The Baltimore Sun

The old journalist still remembers his days as a young Scout, using a compass and topographical map to plot a course through the mountains of northeastern New Mexico. He has been in love with maps in every shape and form for most of his life. In a darkened room in Gettysburg, he watched the ebb and flow of a pivotal moment in American history as lines of tiny colored lights flickered across a room-sized map representing the famous Civil War battlefield. He remembers tracing the long folded strips of the AAA map that marked the paths of his family vacations and the surveyor's document that laid out the boundaries of the family homestead.

As the years passed, he came to realize that his passion for maps was widely shared, and that maps are vital tools for many of us as we seek to understand and navigate the complexities of the world around us.

From the hastily sketched map on an envelope to online mapping software and cheap hand-held devices, they help us plot latitude and longitude, a point of origin from which to shop for a home, assess the dangers of crime and set a course to a thousand points of interest. The Internet has us wallowing in a flood of difficult to understand information, but maps provide a way to isolate and sort useful facts from a sea of irrelevant data. Academics, developers, governments and the media all are using maps on the Internet to chart, understand and share trends and problems, whether it's the path of a canyon fire in California or murder sites in Baltimore.

Their antecedents and the roots of such exploration can be found in an array of rare maps, new and old, soon to be displayed in the galleries of the Walters Art Museum and elsewhere across the city, documents that illustrate profound changes in how we view the world.

Among the treasures is a huge and beautiful map of the fossil-embedded geological strata that underlie England and Wales. That masterpiece, published in 1815 by a pioneering geologist named William Smith, offered evidence used to support Darwin's theory of evolution and set the stage for creation-vs.-evolution debates that still rage.

Then there's the map researched by a doctor named John Snow in the 1850s. It allowed him to trace the source of a cholera outbreak in London to a well used by residents of a single neighborhood.

And there will be charts prepared by geographer Marie Tharp of the Mid-Oceanic Ridge, a mountainous rise in the mid-Atlantic seabed, based on data gathered by American submarines during World War II and later used to provide evidence of how the Earth's crust has evolved through geological time.

Just as those maps and their makers led to personal journeys and professional discoveries, several Baltimore neighborhoods are using the same tools to reimagine their place on the planet as part of Maps on Purpose, a rotating exhibit at the Walters.

Many of the neighborhood images strike a powerful emotional chord. Verona Blackstone, who recently lost her Middle East neighborhood rowhouse to redevelopment near the new Johns Hopkins research center, worked with an artist to create an image of the interior of her home being blown apart against the backdrop of a grid map of the neighborhood. It's a visual metaphor of a seismic change in Miss Blackstone's life - she is being provided with a new home but she has lost a community she loved.

Her map and four others prepared by artists helping residents offer a sort of elegy for the Middle East neighborhood, where radical change is being wrought by redevelopment.

So it goes. The maps going on display here are a rich mosaic, offering seemingly infinite ways to remember what came before and to plot what lies ahead. It is that power that drew the Scout those many years ago.

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