Brussels International Map Collectors' Circle

From our Press Review

The Bulletin - 5 December 2002 - Page 28

Sea of dreams

If old maps are your thing, there's a Brussels club for you. Jonathan Murphy has the details on a map collector's conference.

"When people hear the word 'Mediterranean', they tend to think of things like holidays in the sun," says Wulf Bodenstein, president of the Brussels International Map Collectors' Circle. "We want to redress the balance a bit. We're trying to show that it's the cradle of our civilisation."

He - and 100 like-minded initiates - will be doing just that at the society's third biennial conference on December 14, at the Collège Saint Michel in Brussels. Mare Nostrum - Maps of the Mediterranean is a day of lectures and discussions devoted to the cartography of Europe's (almost) landlocked sea.

The Map Circle was founded in 1998, as a forum for the exchange of information. It has some 120 members in 10 countries, including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, the UK and Belgium. It meets several times a year, and organises trips to major European map collections. According to its German-born founder, members aren't just collectors -many are academics, historians and dealers. They publish three newsletters each year, and their working language is English.

Bodenstein bought his first map while strolling through Paris back in 1969. The idea for the circle came quite simply from the difficulty he had in meeting like-minded collectors, and of sharing information about his hobby. The club took off quickly, and an international network was soon established.

New members get a crash course in the do's and don'ts of collecting, and are taught about the pitfalls to avoid: These range from the obvious - don't try and catch a map if it falls to the ground, and don't fix tears with tape - to the more technical, like questions of paper acidity - "more important than you might think," says Bodenstein. "What really matters is how you store them. If you keep them in folders, the folder must be acid-free." The key, as in many hobbies, is learning your own limitations. "Paper restoration should be left to the experts. If a map is badly browned, there are special baths to wash the paper, but that is not something for amateurs."

One of the central goals of the Map Collectors' Circle is to show that maps are always made to a purpose. Historically, that boils down to one of two reasons - planning infrastructure (which usually produces ugly but effective maps), or waging war.

"You can do almost anything with a map," says Bodenstein. "You can lie, you can dissemble, you can make people believe things that aren't true. There are plenty of Nazi maps coloured to underline the supposed danger of separating Germany and East Prussia."

Other traditional propaganda ploys include drawing war machines massed on borders, or brightly coloured areas to indicate religious tension, like the maps highlighting what was perceived as the Muslim threat to muster opposition to the Arab world in the Mediterranean.

Maps can also be remarkable projections of desire. Early maps of North Africa between the 12th and 15th centuries show an area around modern-day Ethiopia as being the kingdom of Prester John. "He probably didn't exist," explains Bodenstein, "but he was seen as being a possible ally of the Christians, lost among the heathen Arab world. So he survived on maps until the 16th century."

Why the Mediterranean? "Because almost all the major events in cartography can be linked to it in one way or another." Major developments, he says, include, crucially, the rediscovery of the work of Ptolemy, the great second-century Alexandrian cartographer, who was the first to project a sphere onto a plane. That skill was lost for more than 1,000 years, but the 1470 reprint of his work revolutionised Mediterranean maps, holding sway until the work of cartographers like Mercator.

This year's conference features papers by academics from Malta, Iran, Paris and Naples, and speakers include the ex-head of the Map Room of the National Library in Paris, and Gunther Schilder from Utrecht, holder of Europe's only chair in Cartographic History. The papers will examine issues such the maps used by classical Islamic societies between the 10th and the 15th century and chart-making along the shores of Italy in the late 18th century.

For details of the Map Circle and the conference, contact [...]