It’s a first for both the maps and the museum. While the museum regularly engages visitors through interactive elements, displays of this size and scope have never been developed. And this will also be the first time these maps, which have had very limited public exposure, will be accompanied by an interpretive element that allows visitors to explore their content so fully.
The most important resource the displays offer is access to extensive translations of the maps’ detailed annotations, which are written in classical Chinese. A traditional element of maps made during this time, these annotations provide intriguing details about distant lands and the people and creatures mapmakers believed inhabited them. The digital displays allow multiple users to zoom in on areas of interest and read a translation of the text in English, in some cases supplemented with curator commentary. For many visitors, the meaning of the map’s Chinese annotations would otherwise be missed entirely.
“This text is just fascinating,” says Natasha Reichle, associate curator for Southeast Asian art and a curator of the exhibition. “You get a real sense of how much the mapmakers knew about the world, and of their curiosity and wonder. At that time, maps like these were not so much tools to get somewhere but objects for your mind to explore.”
The interactive display will also feature related images, such as German artist Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1515 print of a rhinoceros, which mapmakers would have relied upon to develop their own depiction of this exotic animal, having never seen one in person. These supplementary materials provide context about the world in which these maps were made, and the kinds of resources Ricci and Verbiest had at their disposal.
Pairing the maps with a touch-screen experience was a natural fit, and a great opportunity to implement technology that museum staff had long been eager to try out, says Lorraine Goodwin, interpretive media specialist, who managed the project.
“It’s the perfect application of this technology because it really brings the content to life,” Goodwin says.