Chicago’s Festival of Maps

CHICAGO — Not much sounds more appealing than a Festival of Maps, and Chicago delivered that holiday gift (and continues to deliver it) in its multi-site ongoing exhibit and lecture series that runs the gamut from tablet to tube map.

While home for the holidays I was able to check out two exhibits, Maps, Finding Our Place in the World at the Field Museum (through Jan 27) and Mapping Chicago: The Past and the Possible at the Chicago History Museum (closed Jan 6).

Though the History Museum (nee Chicago Historical Society — I guess they didn’t think people would realize it was a museum with that name anymore) exhibit is no longer up, it was charming in its brevity and esotericism. Amidst diagrams of the Columbian Exposition and an arguably obsolete map of tuckpointing projects in the Loop 1935-6, are scattered wonderful ephemera like mass-produced change of street address postcards from days of citywide street renumbering (ah, if only they’d done that with more rationality in Toronto.) Though Chicago’s utopic ideas of the what-is-possible seem out of reach in this selfishly, angularly, racially planned city, the trip through the past and its trajectories forward was tough not to fall for. I particularly liked the bleak vision of Chicago’s “possible” cartographic vision supplied by one schoolchild whose southwest side landscape seemed particularly focused on big burger chains and a Walgreens. (Though to his or her credit they did put the toy store in the starring role.)

Over at the Field Museum, this less Chicago-centric contribution to the festival was seemingly endless. If you can fight your way through the crowds, the eccentric and almost too-encompassing selections include such highlights as a map of the ocean floor, a diagram of ARPAnet, a 100′ scroll map of Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris, whale charts, a 1755 map of Ontario’s golden horseshoe (including “the bottom of the lake”), stone tablets etched with a plan of Rome, an ornate version of the low countries of England in the shape of a lion, an original Tolkein map sketched on the back of one of his student’s exams, and a map of the Hudson River Valley inscribed upon a powder horn. Insane. Chicago and city-level stuff is also well represented here, including several stunning maps from the Hull House collection (which are also on display at several other participating fest sites) breaking down Chicago’s ethnic composition block by block in colourfields that make the city’s racial spectrum even more impressive.

If you ask me, cities should celebrate maps every day, not just during festival season, but for now, Chicago and its visitors will gladly take what they can get.

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Liz Clayton is a regular Spacing contributor now based in New York City

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