Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Mapping the Past: Historical Atlases

Mapping the Past: Historical Atlases

Acartographer makes decisions based upon what he has observed or perceived, creating the map’s ostensible story. Whatever the merits of the argument that it is necessary and possible to seek objective cartographic accounts of the modern world, it is clear that selection plays a central role in historical mapping.

Historical atlases, narrative in both form and content, offer the ultimate narrative: the past. The dynamics of this relationship can be appreciated by considering both past atlases and also current work, which is infrequently considered when looking at cartography.

Here we will follow the conventional approach and offer a narrative from past to present, presenting the opportunities and challenges, which include cost and profitability pressures on the production of the atlas, as well as problems of information (what can be mapped?) and space (what among a range of possible topics and treatments should be selected?). The interaction of these problems and opportunities during the course of historical cartography has produced changing narratives. History has been ‘‘composed’’ very differently in thematic subject (the extent to which non-political issues have been treated), scale (the balance between global, international, and regional coverage), and treatment (reflecting changing views of concepts of class, race,1 ethnography, and gender).

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