Brussels International Map Collectors' Circle

From our Press Review

The Bulletin - 6 June 2002 - page 67

First person - Wulf Bodenstein

Wulf Bodenstein, 66, is a retired air-traffic controller who is also president of the Brussels International Map Collectors' Circle

I'm quite an early riser, so even though we're retired, my wife and I are up before 7.30. Breakfast is a quick affair, usually corn-flakes, toast and coffee. We always listen to the news on the radio. I've lived in many countries. I was born in Hamburg and grew up in post-war Germany, where I desperately wanted to be a pilot. I learnt to fly gliders but my eyesight wasn't up to professional flying, so I did the next best thing and trained as an air-traffic controller. I did a spell in East Africa, but in the late 1960s I returned and worked for Eurocontrol, the European air-traffic control organisation. Now we divide our time between a house outside Paris in the summer, and the rest of the year here in Brussels. I retired six years ago, and I have the terrible feeling that I'm running out of time. There are so many things to do, and life goes by faster and faster, I'm the sort of person that has to keep learning. A lot of my time is taken up with the Map Circle. We've been going for four years, and have more than 100 members from 10 countries. We meet several times a year, and go on trips to major European map collections, places like the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and the Rotterdam Maritime Museum. We aren't just collectors — many of our members are academics, historians and map dealers. We provide a forum for the exchange of information, and we organise meetings where speakers present papers on aspects of historical cartography, or explain how to look after old maps. We send out three newsletters a year and our working language is English. Our main conference this December win be about old maps of the Mediterranean basin. I remember buying my first map, by Moll, of East Africa, more than 30 years ago. What struck me was how difficult it was to find out anything about it. I wanted to know where it came from, how old it was, what I should do to look after it, and I didn't know where to turn. I would never have dared just walk into a museum or a national library and ask for advice. We try to make sure our members are not intimidated like that. Cartography is fascinating because maps show how far our conception of the world is a result of cultural preoccupations. The older a map is, the more that's the case, but it's still true today — a map can make a country look hostile by using bright colouring to represent a religious or cultural threat. My particular interest is in seeing how maps tend to become more factual over time: early 16th-century maps of Africa are drawn to resemble the fanciful names — White Nile or Mountains of the Moon. Only in the last two centuries did they start to be merely topographical. I say that I'm retired but I do have a part-time job when I'm in Brussels — I'm a volunteer curator of the map room in the Stanley Pavilion at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. When I stopped work I attended classes at Utrecht University and I took a course in library cataloguing. The post is a big responsibility; I have to catalogue all the historical maps in the collection. There are some 600 pre-1850 maps, and 3,000 post-1850. I also play tenor saxophone in a jazz quintet called One More Time, and we do the circuit around Belgium. We're getting on a bit — our average age is about 40. We play standards mainly, Stan Getz and cool music like that. My hero is Ben Webster. We're often out in the evenings, but when we're not, I tend to read. My wife's more into films. I don't watch a lot of TV. Real life is enough for me.

Interview by Jonathan Murphy