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Cartography in the Age of Enlightenment

September 23 – December 31, 2023


The Age of Enlightenment (1685 – 1815) was a time of tremendous human achievement as prominent thinkers made advancements in science, politics, and philosophy. A reaction to the tyranny and religious oppression of the medieval era, the Age of Enlightenment offered democratic ideals and championed civil liberties, applied scientific and industrial innovations, and ushered in the modern era, laying the foundations for society as we know it today.

The intellectual advances of the era also brought on several innovations in the discipline of cartography, or the science of drawing maps. Despite late-medieval cartographers acknowledging that the earth was indeed a sphere, medieval maps were largely localized and informed by the Scriptures of the Christian church, and advancements during this period were minor. As explorers began to discover lands across the oceans, growing European states began to sponsor scientists and cartographers as the need arose to map their territories and collect civic data. The application of projection allowed cartographers to more accurately depict the round earth on a flat surface. The mathematical concept of triangulation, used alongside the telescope to determine the length of a degree of longitude, allowed for greater geographical precision. The ornate decorations of earlier maps disappeared as the focus shifted to topographical accuracy and factual content. In general, the 17th and 18th centuries saw map production rise steeply, and thanks to the widespread use of the printing press, maps were available to people in all levels of society. 

Made up entirely of works from The Museum’s permanent collection, Cartography in the Age of Enlightenment explores the art and science of mapmaking during the “long 18th century.” Featuring over 20 maps and supplemented with several cartographical instruments, this exhibition includes maps picturing both the Old World and the New, and includes views of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and the Americas.

Cartography in the Age of Enlightenment will be on display on the ground floor in The Museum’s Works on Paper Gallery from September 23 to December 31, 2023.




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