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Thousands of maps, each revealing its maker’s worldview

By Janet Mendelsohn
Globe Correspondent / March 7, 2010

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PORTLAND - The second-graders were captivated by a map drawn in crayon, projected onto an overhead screen. As the imaginary mapmaker named Sarah crisscrossed her town, the children followed her route, shouting out the stops. When their teacher turned a page, they searched for objects hidden in Sarah’s room. Next they named relatives on her family tree.

Their field trip to the Osher Map Library had just begun but these junior explorers were already discovering how maps can reveal more than routes and terrain. If you know how to read between the lines, maps can tell us about the people who made them and what was happening at the time.

The Osher Map Library (OML) and Smith Cartographic Center at the University of Southern Maine reopened in October after being closed for two years while it was expanded. Two new public spaces - a contemporary exhibition gallery and a multipurpose room where the children started their tour - are part of a $12.3 million, three-story renovation designed by Koetter Kim & Associates of Boston. The project quadrupled the library’s size, from 4,500 to 19,500 square feet, adding advanced security systems and a 7,500-square-foot climate-controlled vault made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On the building’s facade are 104 aluminum panels whose 156-by-26-foot etching of a Dymaxion Map is possibly the largest exterior map installation in the world. The map was invented by the futurist Buckminster Fuller in 1946 to depict the globe with minimal distortion and make a political statement about the interconnectedness of continents and peoples.

The gallery is open to the public only three afternoons a week because of university budget constraints. There are no docents to guide you. But anyone with a special interest can make a specific request. If time permits, a staff member will bring selected maps down from the vault.

“Maps are universal documents,’’ says Harold Osher, the retired Portland cardiologist whose collection helped establish the library. “Maps encompass not just geography but also history, art, superstition, religion, dogma, warfare, any type of human activity, and furthermore, they do it in a graphic fashion.’’

OML has earned a national reputation for its commitment to the use of maps in kindergarten through college education. The library offers workshops and online resources for educators, scholarly conferences, and lectures and panel discussions open to the public. Exhibits of facsimile maps travel around New England. A recently expanded website has activities for grades 4-10 and a wealth of information for individual map enthusiasts.

Matthew Edney, faculty scholar in residence since 1995, says the library’s priorities for acquiring and preserving old maps begin with Maine, widening to New England, and then the United States. While most rare map libraries specialize, its education mission means OML looks for examples of different genres, periods, and methods of production.

When they are seen up close, rare maps have depth and beauty that doesn’t come across any other way. Do some homework before visiting and the maps’ histories take on new meaning. The library’s website has room to tell much more about maps in the current exhibit than fits on the gallery walls. Such catalog descriptions go back to the museum’s first exhibit in 1996, “Jerusalem 3000: Three Millennia of History.’’

One exhibit featured US roadmaps printed by oil companies since the early 1900s, which seemed out of place until Yolanda Theunissen, curator and director of the Smith Center, pointed out that in a few years we’ll all use global positioning system (GPS) and printed roadmaps will be things of the past.

An artistic and historical gem is “The Columbus Letter’’ which OML has made available online in the original Latin and English translation. One of Osher’s most prized acquisitions, the letter was written in 1493 by Christopher Columbus to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella giving his account of his discoveries in America. Written during his return trip, it was soon printed in several versions, creating excitement throughout Europe. This rare edition, published in Basel (in what is now Switzerland) in 1494, has woodcut illustrations that were the first stylized pictorial maps showing Columbus’s ship in the West Indies, making it the first printed map of any part of the New World.

The library got its start in 1986 when Eleanor Houston Smith, in memory of her husband, Lawrence M.C. Smith, gave the university a collection of antique globes, maps, and atlases they had acquired over three decades. Three years later, Osher and his wife, Peggy, donated their collection. The gifts totaled 20,000 maps printed before 1900. There also are explorers’ narratives, early travelers’ accounts, and books on navigation, history, geography, and astronomy. Many predate 1600.

Several smaller but significant collections have brought the total to 300,000 maps, and added surveying equipment. There are more than 100 antique globes.

The Smith Globe Collection is now on public display for the first time. Screens protect the collection; ask to see them. The children on their field trip seemed especially curious about a gentleman’s pocket globe, only three inches in diameter, with a spherical leather case, and a perfume-bottle globe from the 1892 World’s Fair.

The current exhibit, “American Treasures,’’ runs through Aug. 2. Its centerpiece is “Nova Totius Americae Tabula’’ (New Map of All America), made by the Dutch cartographer Frederick de Wit in 1672. The map, one of seven known to exist and one of only two in the United States, measures 60-by-77 inches.

Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at janet@janetmendelsohn.com.

If You Go

Osher Map Library and Smith Cartographic Center

University of Southern Maine

16 Bedford St., Portland

207-780-4850

www.usm.maine.edu/maps

Tuesday-Thursday 1-4 p.m.