Unfolding the map

I have long had an interest in maps – as well as being full of useful information, I like their aesthetic properties. In fact, some older ones are more beautiful than useful now – except to see how people viewed the world at certain periods in time. This doesn’t mean that I’m unaware of their use in furthering control, ownership, colonisation, and in exploiting resources. An interesting book I bought and read during my art history studies was Giselle Byrnes’ Boundary Markers: land surveying and the colonisation of New Zealand, Bridget Williams Books, 2001; in particular her chapter called ‘”As far as the eye can reach”: reading landscapes’ with its discussion of different ways of seeing landscape – commercial, scientific, etc.

I have several books relating to maps, and several map-related images on my walls.

In my MA research I got close to maps by looking at the frontispieces of a number of travel books – in particular the personifications of the continents usually depicted there. See my ‘Four parts of the World’ post for more information.

So, naturally, I had to see the recently opened exhibition on maps at the National Library of New Zealand here in Wellington. Called ‘Unfolding the Map: the cartography of New Zealand’ it includes a mixture of original maps, reproductions, and digital images. Here are a few general scenes of the exhibition.

The exhibition has five main themes: Coastal charting; Surveying and the Cadastre; Resources and the Environment; Topographical Mapping; Tourism and Recreation; and downstairs in a separate display the focus is on New Zealand place names.

Abel Tasman made the first verified chart of a section of the New Zealand coastline in 1642. In 1769, Lt James Cook circumnavigated New Zealand and his map was widely distributed. His chart of Pickersgill Harbour in Dusky Sound ‘remained in public use until 1997.’[1] One of the maps on my wall is a 1798 Italian publication of Cook’s map (naturally, a reproduction – see above photos).

I thought one of the most interesting maps in the exhibition was made by Tuki, a Maori man, in 1793. It wasn’t possible to take a good photograph of this, so I photographed the ‘possible interpretation’ panel and label (there is also a detail on the National Library website – click the exhibition link above):

One map that wasn’t in the exhibition was the 1840 plan of Wellington, a copy of which is held by the National Library. I use this in my evening class on ‘City Stories: Wellington’s architectural heritage’. Instead the exhibition featured the 1842 plan of New Plymouth – both of these were Wakefield (or New Zealand Company) settlements.

I was also particularly interested in a 1915 map of Wellington, which I may use in future in my evening class! As the label explains, this was annotated by Elsdon Best with Maori place names and some historical information.

There was also a stereoscope set up to view a map of the Island Bay area of Wellington (how fortuitous, considering I live in that suburb!)

My focus in this post has been on the Wellington or lower North Island maps, but there were other maps – of New Zealand, Auckland, Hawkes Bay, Christchurch, etc. There was also a table for people to write where they were from (or whatever they felt like writing) and a map of the world to place pins in.

A particularly beautiful digital map was of the wind patterns in the region around New Zealand and southern Australia – this was a moving, ever changing ‘video’ (I don’t know exactly how to describe it – I should have read the label better, but I was too mesmerised by the colours). As well as its beauty, however, it makes it clear why we often get strong winds around Cook Strait and Wellington!

For anyone who likes maps, or wants to learn more about them, and is in the Wellington area, this is a particularly interesting exhibition. Also on at the National Library, but upstairs in the smaller Turnbull Gallery, is an exhibition of surveyors’ views of early Wellington – also definitely worth a visit if you can! It’s on until 26 February 2016. Read more by clicking the link.


[1] From the information brochure available at the exhibition: ‘Unfolding the map: the cartography of New Zealand’, National Library of New Zealand, 2015. The inside of this map-like brochure features a reproduction of the 1873 geological map of New Zealand made by Dr James Hector, which is also on display.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s