Blog #8: Maps and Identity

One of the more interesting things I have learned in this course thus far are the variety of ways maps are used for purposes besides merely conveying information. The readings for the past few weeks have conveyed how maps can be used to build up and break down identities, support the efforts of colonialism, and construct new nations. This week the readings focused around the theme of maps shaping how its viewers see the world in relation to them, and them in relation to the world.

Harrison’s World War II-era maps are a perfect example of this. In previous years, Americans, viewing the world from a solely Mercator projection, felt themselves safe behind their vast oceans. Harrison’s creative use of perspective to show truer spatial relations between the United States and the rest of the world allowed its viewers to see the United States as a world nation, rather than a hemisphere isolated from the troubles of the rest of the world. This global viewpoint allowed Harrison to easily skewer the popular isolationist argument of the time: that the problems in Europe and Asia are far away and thus are no threat to the US, without tipping his viewers off to the argument by stating it in a text. Rather than simply state that world problems are America’s problems too, Harrison shows his readers America’s relation to the rest of the world, and how close the US really is to the problems of Europe and Asia.

Ackerman’s highway maps seem like an example of this on a smaller scale: the viewers in relation to the rest of the country. I found it interesting how maps were used to show the viewer what places were the “most interesting” and had the most tourist attractions, and by extension what places are less desirable to travel through. The road itself becomes a travel guide, taking people to what it decides is the best places to see. One can only imagine the process by which attractions and towns were included or excluded from these maps, and how much the publication of these maps and the money brought by its viewers saved or doomed many towns. When I was growing up we learned the history of the American west in grade school, and one thing I remember very vividly from that subject was how desperately towns would vie for the privilege of a railroad station, knowing that having one would bring in travelers and money, and lacking one would doom a town to wither and eventually die. Did a similar process occur for these travel maps? Or did towns just suddenly find themselves barren of visitors after these maps were published? The map has great power at the larger level, to be sure, but it has, if anything, far more power at a more local level.

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One thought on “Blog #8: Maps and Identity

  1. My parents’ hometown, a dying (hate to say it, but it’s common on the High Plains) town of under 500 people in NW Kansas, was on the Lincoln Highway. When volunteers put together a local history book for the the town’s centennial in 1993, the book included some information about the Highway and how exciting it was to be connected to the rest of the country that way. Decades later, many older residents could still recall that being on the Lincoln was noteworhy and a sign of good times to come.

    By contrast, the town I grew up in, in SE Nebraska, is just off of I-80, which makes it really easy for residents to visit Lincoln and Omaha, as well as to get to places further away like Denver or Chicago. That’s certainly far from the only reason that town is thriving, but it can’t hurt.

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