Discovering the “New World”: Maps & Sea Charts from the Age of Exploration

There is a time honored fascination with maps and sea charts. The new exhibition at the Bruce Museum is featuring maps to be admired… not for navigation!
This exhibition features more than thirty maps and charts dated between 1511 and the 1757. The maps — woodcuts or metal-plate engravings, many with original hand-applied color — represent Renaissance-period attempts by European ateliers to edify their clientele by revealing our “new” hemisphere and its approaches, as discoveries and claims came ashore from those daring enough to pack their sea bags and head for the unknown.

Today, we live in routine harmony, with cartography: on television and the Web; in newspapers, books and magazines. Satellite maps signify weather; detail maps illustrate locales of crucial events; GPS screens send us, often correctly, to new locales. On land, at sea, and in the air—digitized geography helps deliver goods and people everywhere, often without human intervention.

It was not always so. More than five hundred years ago, two European empires began daringly (and competitively) seeking the most efficient seaborne routes to the riches of Arabia and The Orient—Spain sailing west; Portugal sailing east. Mapmakers back home (nearly all landlubbers happy to sit by the fire) scrambled to gather the latest explorers’ reports to enable them to draw up-to-date maps, print them as separate sheets, and sell them largely to the wealthy as bound atlases—massive compendia that glorified leather-filled libraries and enriched cultural reputations.

But much of the news sent home was erroneous, owing to imperfect navigation, honest misreadings of reality, or deliberate misrepresentations. (As he wandered around the Caribbean Sea, for example, Columbus believed he had found India.) Altogether, these factors make historic “New World” maps a fascinating study in geographic and human progress—and occasional regression.

The Bruce Museum is open Tuesday – Sunday 10 am – 5 pm, Doors close 1/2 hour before closing, and the last admission is at 4:30 pm. For additional information call 203-869-0376 or visit

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