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Back in October 2020, Cecilia Harvey and Kate Hughes were hard at work in the Library's underground conservation labs, preparing rare and rarely seen precious objects from one of the world’s great map collections.
While Harvey was painstakingly coaxing fragments of backing cloth off a 1907 map of Federation-era Sydney, Hughes was restoring a wonderfully ornate map. Depicting the known world of 1671, it is decorated with biblical scenes — Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, Moses with the Ten Commandants, and Noah with his Ark.
You can judge their handiwork when you visit the Map Rooms. Continuing the Library's recent policy of bringing more of its accumulated treasures out of the vaults and into the light of public view, the Map Rooms have been made possible by the Library Foundation, thanks to the generosity of private donors. The two heritage rooms on the first floor of the Mitchell building — complete with maps and navigation instruments and pocket globes which visitors can see free of charge — were unveiled in early 2021.
As one of the last island continents to be charted by cartographers, maps have always played a crucial part in our national identity. ‘Our map collection is one of the largest in Australia, along with the National Library’s,’ explains Maggie Patton, the Library’s maps and rare books expert.
‘We’ve chosen 30 maps from our collection to be on the walls, representing five centuries of European mapmaking,’ Patton says, pointing out the Library holds over 200,000 maps, covering New South Wales, the rest of Australia, the Pacific and the Antarctic.
Some of the rarest and most interesting are housed in the drawers of the specially commissioned, beautifully crafted, Australian-made table. However, the first thing visitors will spot when they enter the smaller of the two adjoining rooms is the large copy of Nicholas-Andre Monsiau’s historic painting of flawed colonial ambition. Painted in 1911 from the 18th century original, it depicts Louis XVI of France, the indecisive last Bourbon king (still best known for being married to Marie-Antoinette). Ironically, he’s shown giving the Comte de La Pérouse sailing instructions. ‘Look’, he seems to be saying, ‘this bit of the Pacific seems to be unexplored: why not go there?’ Famously La Pérouse arrived in Botany Bay just a few days after the First Fleet, giving his name to a Sydney suburb, before mysteriously disappearing mid-adventure.
One of the more surprising inclusions in the first Map room — a newly acquired treasure — is an exquisitely crafted silver punchbowl the size of a supermarket watermelon. Commissioned by botanist Sir Joseph Banks for Cook’s second voyage, Patton says, it was probably designed to swing on a rope net in the officers’ quarters of HMS Resolution. ‘But the Admiralty threw Banks off,’ Patton continues. ‘He was just demanding to take too much on the voyage.’
The second, larger room — with a huge digital screen showing other highlights from the Library’s cartography collection — is devoted to charts and maps of early NSW and Sydney, with Flinders’ ‘Terra Australis’ taking centre stage.
Many ancient civilisations have cherished maps: ‘They show your position in the world, and where you want to be,’ Patton explains. As such they are a documentary interpretation of the human spirit. The oldest surviving ‘world map’ is generally considered to be the ancient Babylonian Imago Mundi, dating to around 600 BCE. ‘Each map tells a visual story,’ Patton continues. ‘Who commissioned the map? Why? Is the map a claim about ownership? Or documenting recent discoveries and future ambitions?’
Steve Meacham is a freelance journalist whose work regularly appears in leading Australian and British media outlets.
This story appears in Openbook Summer 2020.