Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Fall 2013 Newsletter

Digitization project makes enormous map accessible online

Photographer and map

Pete Smith photographs the great wall map.

Until recently, one of the largest objects in the Ransom Center collections has also been one of the least visible. Joan Blaeu's Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula (1648) is part of the Kraus map collection. Blaeu (1596–1673) was a member of a celebrated family of Dutch cartographers and is best known for his 11-volume great atlas.

Blaeu's great wall map is one of the largest ever published, measuring nearly 10 feet by 7 feet. For the past 40 years, the map has been tucked away in a large wall case on the Ransom Center's top floor. When curators considered displaying the map as a focal point for a 2005 exhibition, the map was determined to be too large to display without being damaged.

Several years ago, the staff made digital images of the map, section by section. These images were then assembled to make a medium-resolution composite image, but it was impossible to read the Latin and French at the bottom of the map. Nor was it possible to appreciate fully the wealth of graphic detail—for example, the fleets sailing in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—that is so characteristic of baroque map-making.

Ransom Center photographer Pete Smith took up photographing the map as a personal challenge. Smith photographed 120 high-resolution images, and 30 were selected to create a composite image of the huge map, a stunning 1.5 gigabyte file. While viewing a digital surrogate is no substitute for interacting with the original—and it is undeniable that one cannot comprehend the sheer scale of the great wall map by looking at it online—the digital file allows a level of interaction and manipulation that simply is not possible with an original of this size. Digitization made an essentially invisible object accessible to all.  

Explore the map online

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