On the Map

Lab takes cartography beyond its usual borders.
June 4, 2012

Saturday afternoon, and the lecture room is full of undergraduates, grad students, and faculty members. A large chart makes its way around the room, and the crowd of thirty dutifully marks on it. It’s not a sign-in sheet, but a map—and by the time it has made it around, it’s decorated in small doodles, words, and one ring from a coffee mug.

“Everybody can add to the map...and it will no longer be just a map,” says Katharine Harmon ’82, founder of Tributary Books and author of two books that explore real and imaginary territories. “It will also be art.” Noting looks of dubious uncertainty, she adds, “That's what artists do—they use maps as a means of personal expression.”

It’s a theme that recurs throughout “Cartography & Creativity in the Age of Global Empires,” a day-long lecture series sponsored by BorderWork(s), one of the new humanities labs organized by the Franklin Humanities Institute. A younger sibling to the 2012 pilot, the Haiti Lab, BorderWork(s) takes its name from its central focus on national and international boundaries and their effects on worldwide social and political behavior. The lab’s work will culminate in a 2013 exhibition titled “Lines of Control” at the Nasher Museum. The humanities labs are funded through a Mellon Foundation grant called Humanities Writ Large.

The lecture series, which took place in March, featured twelve speakers who explored maps as art, as ways of understanding the world, and as tools for shaping identity, enforcing power, and defining sociopolitical borders. “Maps are not just about science. They are very much about the humanities as well,” says Sumathi Ramaswamy, a professor of history and core faculty member of the BorderWork(s) lab. “The metaphor of mapping has to do with the fact that humanists are interested in people, and in places, and what happens to people as they move through different places.”