"Mapping Virginia" shows how our state came to be. 

Charting Our History

Mapping Virginia
Library of Virginia
Through Dec. 15

It's map season. Not just because Richmonders are charting summer trips to adventurous new places or familiar vacation spots, but because "Mapping Virginia," has recently opened at the Library of Virginia downtown. This bravura exhibition displays 150 pieces from the library's holdings of 65,000 maps along with a few choice loans from other places.

If you've ever wondered how the state of Virginia came to be — physically, politically or even economically, you could do worse than spend a few hours in the library's atrium and gallery. Every secured space is filled with prime (and often very old) examples of the cartographer's art, craft and science.

The core exhibit is arranged chronologically. The opening section is titled "Vision of Empire." It reveals how mapmakers, both on-the-scene and from Europe, beginning in the 16th and continuing into the 18th century — came to grips with charting the New World in general, and more specifically, the lands called Virginia. In those days (when some lagging folks still believed the Earth was flat) the Old Dominion's boundaries began on the Atlantic coast and extended westward well past the Appalachians. By the 18th century, as villages and towns begin to appear on maps, Virginians (like the ancients along the Nile) clung to riverbanks. Of course, waterways were the early transportation spines for both Native American and European settlers. Later, rivers and streams served the economic bloodstream.

The exhibition's second part, "Building the Commonwealth," moves beyond the natural waterfront. Maps shown in this section show landscapes being settled, transformed and tamed through technology. These maps show canals and railroads providing access to new terrain and opening up new markets.

Another section, "The Geography of Culture" explores how maps can chart things other than rivers and roads. Maps show such things as the 1860 slave population in Virginia, coal fields near Richmond and gold mines near Culpepper. One of the last objects is an early 20th century Virginia highway map.

Filling showcases that ring the light-filled atrium, smaller exhibits put human faces on mapmaking. We learn how George Washington, at 16, embarked on a surveying career that would make him a prominent landholder. We follow Claudius Crozet, an engineer for Napoleon, as he builds highways and railroad infrastructure. Another showcase shows how New Yorker Jedidiah Hotchkiss, throughout the latter half of the 19th century, charted the Shenandoah Valley and other western parts of the state to allow trains to carry coal eastward.

In addition to the geography, history and sociology these maps reveal, they are aesthetic objects in themselves. In some 18th century maps, mountain ranges rendered in ink almost look abstract. Crozet uses exquisite, rich shadowing in drawing mountains to create great depth.

This is not an exhibition to necessarily be viewed casually. The gallery lighting is dim to preserve the light-sensitive and antique pieces. And some of the details are quite small. Therefore, the serious gallery viewer might bring along a magnifying glass for close inspection.

"Virginia in Maps: Four Centuries of Settlement, Growth and Development," a large-format atlas of historical Virginia maps published by the library will be available in the fall.

"Mapping Virginia" is a fascinating look at how maps have changed as Virginia society has

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