Order of Multitudes

Can a single atlas represent more than one viewpoint?

An atlas can definitely tell more than one story. Abraham Ortelius’s Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the first atlas from the Western world, is made up of multiple stories that Ortelius compiled. Within the atlas, there is a list of where he found his sources because the stories were not his. As a result, that atlas tells many different stories from many different parts of the Western world. But this depiction was not equal for all parts of the world. Some depicted places—for example, parts of the Ottoman empire (around modern-day Turkey), Asia, and especially parts of North and South America —escaped Ortelius’s knowledge. 

A lot of these Western atlases and compendiums were produced with propaganda in mind. Despite their religious, political, and cultural backgrounds, these atlases purport to tell the story of all peoples around the world. In the twentieth century, something like the Times Atlas of the World epitomized the Enlightenment ideal that “even if this is a British publication, we will do our best to tell the story of all peoples, as much as we can, because this atlas is viewed as a reference work.” It attempts to tell the story of all the people of the world, although with a British propagandist bent, and every country in the Commonwealth is generally portrayed quite well. On the other hand, the Nuremberg Chronicle from the fifteenth century was a Christian story at heart, resulting in a much more selective narrative. It cherry-picked the inclusion of specific cities, geographic areas, and histories, aiming at telling the one true history of Christendom and to square that history with the requisites of the Bible for the End Times to come.

Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash

Before satellites, people did not have a completely accurate conception of the Earth’s geography. There were geo-representations accurate enough for determining the shapes of continents and things of that nature. However, the depiction of more contested regions and borders, areas with man-made distinctions, can easily fall into an “us versus them” narrative, which is very common for European atlases. It remains an issue today on Google Maps. Many contested borders—such as those of Palestine, Crimea, or Pakistan and India—do not have the same thick black line as an established border. Instead, Google Maps avoids taking a political stance by not showing it on the map at all. Google tries to use dotted lines, or gray it out; it depends on the producers who make the maps. These blurred spaces can become a political tool: if the Library of Congress was seen as favoring a map that labeled the South China Sea, a very contentious geographic area, then one could argue that the United States is demonstrating the terminology that supports their ideals. But others could argue that such a stance is a threat to their sovereignty, and the blurred representations try to mediate such disputes. 

Many eighteenth- or nineteenth-century maps were produced mainly around this idea. Maps of Israel and Palestine are a case in point. In tracing a historical identity of this area to a white, Western European place for Christians, European maps reveals the Western ignorance of those places. A lot of these atlases don’t go further east than modern-day Iraq; the stories were too complicated and did not lend themselves to narratives of Western superiority. This trend persists in maps throughout world history until the 1990s. If we look with our 2020 perspective, a lot of those atlases made some glaring choices about what they included, what kind of data they used, and the coloring that they used around disputed or contested geographic regions.


Ian Fowler

Curator, New York Public Library

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Ian Fowler

Ian Fowler is the Curator of Maps and Geospatial Librarian at the New York Public Library. In addition to caring for the cartographic collections, he uses them in geographic information systems and creative pedagogy.

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