Traveling without a Map

What can I find without a map? This was the question I was forced to ask myself this fall when I arrived in London to conduct research for my dissertation in art history and realized I had forgotten to pack a map.

The great irony is that one of the focuses of my research while in London was eighteenth century maps of the British empire. I spent days at the Greenwich Maritime Museum and the British Museum, as well as collections and archives outside London, poring over maps picturing the Atlantic world—a ring of geographic sites ranging from England to the West coast of Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies of North America surrounding the vast expanse of the ocean. This research brought me up close to the textures and images of the eighteenth-century Atlantic. With my iPad I shot detailed pictures of engraved lines, navigational marks, swirling scripts, and decorative cartouches. Some maps were hand-colored in delicate washes of green and red and blue. Others bore scribbled notes by printmakers in brown gall ink prompting their engravers to make changes.

As an art historian, the question I want to ask of these objects is not how they got people places, but how they helped people in local settings imagine the wider world of which they were a part. In my dissertation I explore how British and American peoples of the eighteenth century imagined and represented the ocean between them in art, literature, and material culture. In the period I study, navigation at sea was an uncertain and often dangerous business. Scientists and geographers were still struggling to figure out how to reliably calculate longitude on a ship. Maps were often outdated or inaccurate. The explorer James Cook complained that he and his crew could “hardly tell when we are possessed of a good sea chart until we our selves have proved it.” In other words, seafarers often didn’t know where exactly they were going, or where they even were until they were there.

The sense of being at sea that I found in the archive reflected how I felt about the state of my own research. As a graduate student, I had reached the edge of the map guiding me through completing coursework, passing my exams, and achieving doctoral candidacy. Now, at the beginning stages of my dissertation, I was a bit like a sailor uncertain of my direction, struggling to navigate with a compass and the sky.

Leaving the museum or library after hours of straining my eyes over yesterday’s maps, I found myself on the busy streets of the city, this time literally without a map of my own. While my maplessness began as an accident of ill-preparedness, it soon became a purposeful means of discovering my place in the city.
Mapless, I looked up, not down. With my feet leading, I was able to focus on what was around me. Without a map, I tramped along the banks of the Thames, encountering the sixteenth-century London of Shakespeare’s Globe and Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. Without a map, I stumbled over the cobblestones of Spitalfields, finding the eighteenth-century homes and workshops of Hugoenot silk weavers. Without a map, I puffed to the top of the Naval Observatory, stood on the Prime Meridian, and gasped at the bright green parakeets that filled the air.

At least once on every walk I would capture an image with my iPhone. Like the little boats and recordings of a ship’s trajectory that showed up on the old maps I was studying, this gesture marked my place in space and time. Looking back through all the pictures I took while in London now, I see where I was, and where I was going. Traveling without a map helped me approach my research with greater curiosity and creativity. The visual record of my wanderings in the city and the archive is a sort of map that reminds me where I have been, even as I continue to chart my course toward new waters.


CASEY.portraitEmily Casey is a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Delaware. In her research she seeks to bring global perspectives to the art, history, and material culture of the Americas. While a Smith student, Emily worked at the Smith College Museum of Art and studied abroad in Paris.

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