Curating a Tour of Maps – Maps @ Carleton

Frankly speaking, I am a map-lover myself. If I were to write a history of my interaction with maps, I would begin with my age of 4 when my parents were trying out every possible way to get me to learn Chinese characters. 4 was a bit late for Chinese kids to systematically learn how to read and write. Quite surprisingly, a map of China worked. I still remember the map hanging in my parents’ bedroom wall – a poly-chrome political map of China. I would have to climb up onto their bed in order to make out cities, province, roads, rivers, and most importantly, their names written in a great variety of Chinese characters. Though map was the means through which I learned characters, it definitely attracted me for reasons beyond vocab-building. That marked the beginning of my interaction with maps.

Fast forward to some 17 years later, when I, now a student of history and classics at Carleton College, registered for a class on the history of medieval and early Renaissance maps called “Mapping the World before Mercator” taught by Professor Victoria Morse. I have just finished working on a research project, also advised by Victoria, on the writings of early 19th-century British military explorers on Mount Athos. The discursive nature of their geographical imagination manifested by their interaction with the landscape of Mount Athos fascinated me. Along with reading Lucian’s fictitious prose True History (Verae Historiae), which similarly expands on the idea of journey and exploration as well as geographical and cultural encounter, I though this course about maps would take me further in investigating how people perceived space and geography throughout history.

But never have I imagined that in this course I get to interact with maps so closely – yes, I mean I get to design a tour of maps on display throughout Carleton campus! Oh I know so well what it means to “design a tour” – it means curation, nothing so essentially different than curating an exhibition in museums. Furthermore, as a tour potentially inviting participation of a much wider audience, this project involves aspects of public history. Eventually, this is a tour about maps at Carleton, but maps, what do I mean when I say “maps”? How can I convey my understanding of maps to the audience? How can I possibly ignite their interest about maps? What should they learn and feel about maps after the tour? Finally, what should they learn about Carleton as a college where “maps burgeon like spring flowers,” as I wrote on the project website?

The “three-dimensionality” of this project has always been on my mind as I was preparing for this walking tour, Maps @ Carleton.

Benton made this wonderful poster for this walking tour.

Luckily, I was honored to share this experience with my classmate Benton Franklin, a geology major and European studies minor. The collaborative and jovial dynamic between us was largely due to our shared passion for maps and looking for maps around Carleton. At first, we all wondered how many maps there actually are, for at a place where so many memorable things of our college life have happened, we have never paid enough attention to maps. Victoria and us were quite afraid that there would not be enough maps to weave together a 30-minute walking tour. So we decided to survey around.

To start with this project, our task was simple. We would walk every inch of all of the public buildings on campus and find the existence of maps. But wow, as we were exploring the existence of maps around the college campus, we “came back with much more surprises than they have expected.” All in all, we found nearly 70 maps around Carleton that are all worth presenting! That’s way enough for a 30-minute walking tour. We had to make choices concerning the practicalities of conducting a walking tour and the interdisciplinary variety of maps around Carleton campus. As a result, while we were designing a reasonable route that connects all buildings with interesting maps, we dropped a few of them, such as Willis Hall where a clock decorated with a world map is hanged in the departmental lounge of Economics and Center for Math & Computing that boasts a map of world internet topology. Eventually, we came up with an itinerary that weaves together about 50 maps widely dispersed in 7 buildings.

Next, we decided to write a short description for every map. Retrospectively, Benton and I agreed that this part was the hardest and the most time consuming part of our project. For fundamentally, there should an argument to be made about this tour. We need to convince our spectators that whatever we present as “maps” are maps. In other words, we should bridge a mutual understanding of what “maps” are between us and spectators so that eventually this tour would either echo, challenge, or expand their understanding of maps. Both of us realized the importance of textual description in organizing the maps and orienting the spectators. Just as any object standing alone or deprived of context would be mundane and ambiguous, when weaved together by a story or an argument, it becomes vivid and invites interaction with its audience. Therefore, texts that accompany every map should argue the ways in which the thing fits our understanding of maps.

However, one question emerged. While a good tour should make an explicit framing argument and let visitors walk away with it, how much of our voice, i.e. the voice of curators, should be present in the tour? As we attempted to figure out the question, we engaged in the classic debate between two modes of descriptive texts: informative texts vs. interpretive texts. The former provides necessary information to let spectators construe their own understanding what sort of maps it is, while the latter involves much interpretation on our end. However, as I have said before, we should at least convince spectators that what they have in front of them is actually a map. The difficulty arose, and we decided to balance being convincing with as much information as possible. Personally, I found the balance by highlighting aspects of the map that would make its visual representation map-like. For instance, in the case of this “Cabinet of Wonder“, one of the least map-like object I found, I had much difficulty in leaving out enough space for spectators to construct their own understanding of its map-likeness.

The Nancy Gast Riss ’77 Carleton Cabinet of Wonder
Physical display, color
Gould Library, northeastern corner of 4th-floor Libe

This cabinet of wonder, made by Jody Williams ’78 in 2004, offers a reinterpretation of a Renaissance tradition that displays how the artist reflected on her Carleton experience as once a student and now an alumna. In the cabinet there are 4 smaller maps: a map of Carleton Arboretum (left panel), a visual representation of the cosmos (upper left corner of the central panel), a periodic table (lower right corner of the central panel), and a sketch of a bird eye view (right panel). But the cabinet as a whole is a map-like display of Williams’ self-reflection: how do elements of the liberal arts and a Carleton education relate to each other, how can relationships and associations be physically represented through embracing an old Renaissance tradition? We also encourage you to spend some extra time engaging with explanatory placards and the cabinet itself. Also, this online display made by the Gould Library is worth checking out:


Borrowing a line from the Grand Budapest Hotel, I would like to keep my presence in the tour as “completely invisible, yet always in sight.” A curator should anticipate spectators’ need before the needs are needed. He or she should be implicitly but clearly inviting engagement and interactive responsiveness on the side of spectators. After all, we as storytellers are here to present rather than to forcefully tell. It is such a balance that kept us busy for an entire weekend. Eventually, besides map descriptions, we titled all of the maps and provided its basic information and the departmental context in which maps are displayed.

QR codes
QR codes invite people to actively interact with all exhibits on this tour.

When we were up to effectively organize our maps into an itinerary, we embraced the modern technology of visual tourism. Having set up a blog where we put all of our map descriptions and organized them by buildings, we created QR codes for every single one of our maps and an additional one for general introduction and orientation. QR codes – Quick Recognition codes – are surprisingly not so popular in the US; in China QR codes are everywhere, and everything could potentially be QR-codified. Holding a smartphone with a QR code reader against one of those mysterious codes, you are immediately redirected to a web-page that pops up on your phone. But the most exciting part of this process is that it resembles a treasure hunt – whatever that shows up will more or less amaze and excite you. Furthermore, it is an interactive process; it invites participation on the part of spectators to find out more information than to be overloaded with it.

All excited about this idea of treasure hunt, Benton suggested that we should also make some “maps of the maps.” I said sure, and that would potentially solve the problem of how we are to orchestrate the flow of spectators: what to see first and what’s next. We simply leave them with the liberality. While we have designed a general itinerary from one building to another, spectators are free to wander around buildings, picking and choosing what interest them and making sense of those maps themselves. However, that is not to suggest that this tour has absolutely no internal logic. Instead, we thought that physical proximity of one map to another shows an inter-map relation as well as the larger context in which both maps are displayed. For instance, four maps of London, all different from one another, along the staircase of Laird hall where the English Department is situated tell us something about what might interest frequenters of this space. They also show what maps would seem appropriate to be displayed, were maps to be displayed. Their unity in theme is balanced with the juxtaposition of their sheer differences (one is a map of London underground system, another is a colored map of London from c. 17th century, the other two are black-and-white much more detailed and extensively surveyed maps from the 19th century, but also quite different). Meanwhile, we left the potentiality of exploring internal and external connections to spectators.

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Making “maps of the maps” sounds like meta-cartography, a term I made up myself. But Benton’s idea does have a sense of epistemological and ontological meta-ness in itself! As people are exploring maps at Carleton, they have to consult maps of where those Carleton maps are. So as they attempt to understand what maps at Carleton look like by participating in our designed tour, they will be further engaging with maps by first navigating those “maps of the maps” based on their own experience and understanding of maps. But in creating this two-fold experience, Benton and I have to build on a common ground of cartographic knowledge; most, if not all, people should be able to find those Carleton maps with our “map of the maps” without difficulty (it starts to sound like a tongue twister)! Therefore, such is our most ideal epistemological process designed for this tour that visitors start by consulting “maps of the maps” to find our exhibits based on their knowledge and experience of what maps are. In the process of this tour, their understanding and experience will be gradually echoed, enhanced, challenged, surprised, or expanded in meaningful ways. Ontologically, “maps of the maps” are maps themselves! We (I really mean Benton) get to be cartographers who made them for this particular purpose. As our starting point, “maps of the maps,” as our very first couple of exhibits, initiate an interactive process of map-hunting. More importantly, people will constantly consult them after they set out for quite practical purposes – to find more maps. With those meta-maps leading and accompanying visitors throughout the tour, they engage with maps right away.

It might sound all exciting, but putting QR codes at their corresponding spots was exhausting. In the meantime, as we were preparing, Benton and I got to know much more about each other. At any rate, by April 26th at noon when we scheduled to kick off the tour, everything was well-prepared. Victoria, our professor, graciously prepared a lot of refreshments, and many people showed up for this occasion. To our surprise, participants ranged from an esteemed alumna and active member of Carleton community, Margit Johnson ’70, to a preschooler! But most of them were Carleton students. Generally, it went pretty well, and as the tour was reaching more than 40 minutes but we were just about half way done, we started to loose spectators. (of course we deserved that; we promised them only 30 minutes.) We eventually wrapped up at around 1.10 pm, 40 minutes over our proposed time, and quite satisfyingly, we walked them through most (but not all) maps that we put on our tour.

Retrospectively, I came to realize how easy it was to lead a tour than to design a tour that leads visitors itself! Woe are the QR codes – soon after the group kicked off, Benton and I took over and led the tour vocally by ourselves. After they tried out a couple of the QR codes, they seemed to be tired of this iterating gesture. We also figured that it would take too much time when all of them crowd forth to scan the code at the same time, so we started to speak. Vocal presentation proved to be much more engaging. But avoiding the necessity of vocal presentation is, if not Victoria’s expectation, my expectation. The tour should be self-evidently doable. It should also be fascinating enough to hold participants’ attention for a while. While some practical concerns of ours failed such expectation, I realized how arduous a task exhibition curators face. To successfully curate a tour that engages with spectators without any additional assistance is difficult.

So what does this tour tell us about Carleton as a college campus full of maps? As I was preparing, I thought about two things. Firstly, maps at Carleton, with its great variety of themes, forms, content, and symbolic connotations, show all of the liberal arts that the institute values – arts, sciences, and humanities. Different disciplines embrace maps to convey what they do and why (such as a plethora of maps in disciplines like history, geology, and languages). Creative and innovative spirits try out sundry of possibilities of map making and forms of display to convey thoughts and ideas (mapping imaginary spaces, concept maps, etc.). In short, maps symbolize a significant way in which knowledge is produced and disseminated here at Carleton, a college that values a true liberal arts education.

Finally, maps at Carleton take me to places where I have never been before! As those previously mentioned quartet of maps of London led me up to the third floor of Laird hall, I was astounded by an even denser existence of maps in that tiny attic (I was pretty generous to call it a “floor”) tucked away from our eyesight. Besides those maps, I found a cozy lounge surrounded by stylish pieces of furniture. Two intellectual hermits – Chris Martin and Gregory Hewett, both professors of English – have their offices up there where they enjoy this true “bliss of solitude.” I also rejoiced in spotting the wondrous “Cabinet of Wonder” on the 4th floor of Gould Library, a space I have much frequented and assumed to be very familiar with. I was more than happy to prove myself wrong in believing that Carleton is just what it seems to be. In fact, undertaking the curation of this tour, Maps @ Carleton, I ventured into the familiar and found myself constantly amazed by what is actually here. θαύμαστα!



05-05-18 drafted in Northfield, Minnesota

21-05-18 revised in Madison, Wisconsin

11-06-18 published in Nottingham, UK


Hyperlink to Maps @ Carleton blog site

Hyperlink to Magrit Johnson’s blog about the Maps @ Carleton tour

Cover image: Skinner Memorial Chapel in early spring, Carleton College

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