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Maps and Discovery

Maps are made for a purpose and represent a point of view. This film shows how a map of North America was used to promote exploration and exploitation

In week 1, we discussed language and written texts. This week, we will look at visual sources for research, in particular photographs and maps. In this video, Phil Hatfield, of the British Library, talks about a map produced in the 18th century, which aimed to promote exploration of Northern Canada and the Arctic. By examining this map, Phil explains how we might interpret maps and map making to help our understanding of a research question.

The map shown in this film was published as part of Arthur Dobbs’s An Account of the Countries Adjoining to Hudson’s Bay (1744). The Account was created to influence Parliamentary debate in the UK on financial support for further exploration of a trading route across the north of Canada and the Arctic (the Northwest Passage).

The map used in this account looks very different to modern maps of Canada, and also when compared to maps being produced by contemporaries of Dobbs. Understanding those differences, and what motivated them, provides rich information about the economic and political context of Arctic exploration in the 18th century.

Two-dimensional maps always show a perspective of the world in their representation of a curved space. The way in which the space is represented is described as the map’s projection. Even maps which contain a large amount of detail are being highly selective in the information that they choose to show and how they represent that information. Finally, in producing a map as an objective statement of knowledge, the map-maker may be concealing areas where there is less knowledge or certainty.

As with photographs, we need to know the context within which a map was created in order to analyse and understand the information that it contains. Phil suggests three questions that we should ask about the maps that we use in our research:

  • What is the projection of the map, and how does this represent the perspective of the map maker?
  • Who made the map?
  • What were the aims of the map maker?

Comparison of a map with others produced at the same time and of the same area can help to uncover areas of contested knowledge or interpretation.

In this video, Phil explains how the Dobbs map can be used by researchers today to understand the political context for exploration of North America in the 18th century. Now think about how you might do research ABOUT a map. What information would you look for to answer the questions Phil has posed? In our discussion of photographs this week, we will consider the possibility of reading them “against the grain”, in ways that may be different from the intentions of the photographer. Can we do the same with maps?

Further reading:

Philip J Hatfield. 2016. Lines in the Ice: Exploring the Roof of the World. London: The British Library.

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