Popular Cartography Exhibits
The Occidental Tourist: 500 Years of Orienting Maps
Positioning north at the top of the page has, over time, become conventional on maps. The primacy of this north-up orientation on most maps likely originated with the recognition of the absolute direction of Polaris, and, after 1450, the prevalence of compass use, focused northward. But not all maps are oriented in this tradition.
The 1532 Mappamundi of Isidore of Seville has an east-up orientation, emerging out of the tradition of “T-in-O” maps. Numerous medieval Christian maps used this orientation to reinforce the Old Testament division of the post-flood world into three parts. The east-up orientation also allows the positioning of the Christ figure with the head “oriented” to the east.
first map drawn, engraved, and printed in America, John Foster’s 1677
woodcut of New England, accompanied Rev. William Hubbard's book on King
Philip’s War. While its prototypes were north-up, the map is oriented
west-up because its English audience would have regarded the New World
from the east. Also, for the settlers, the land to the west was a
region of conflict and wilderness. Historic expansion in this region
was westward, and the orientation draws the eye up in the direction of
The “upside-down” map is consciously disorienting, designed to aid travelers of the 1950s, many of whom were Northerners traveling to south to Florida. The south-up orientation mimics the landscape at the moment of use, allowing left and right turns to match the turns on the map. Seeking additional profit, Esso asked consumers to buy a “regularly” oriented map for travel back north.
The “Great Circle Map Showing Fairbanks, Alaska” map is a polar projection with no apparent orientation, but the positioning of Fairbanks, the focus of the map, in the lower center of the map, and the Alaska-facing Eurasian test, suggests that north is “up,” but for unconventional reasons. Here, the reader is asked to consider Alaska’s strategic proximity to areas such as northern Europe toward which the logical direction to navigate would be north, and not southeast, as normal-aspect cylindrical projections would lead one to believe.
This early 19th-century reproduction of a 16th-century map presents a cartographic history of the Aztec migration from their mythic homeland of Aztlán to Tenochtitlán, the site of present-day Mexico City. Represented by footsteps, the map’s orientation changes as the Aztecs divide into tribes before arriving in the Valley of Mexico. It is in the Valley that the map begins to represent roughly the geography of the area, and the changing orientation of the map thus represents a journey through time as well as space.
- Rob Edsall (Arizona State University)