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Rare atlases go online

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The University of Bristol in the UK has made a collection of rare atlases dating from 1574 to the 1970s available online for the first time.

The online exhibition, 'Atlases: Poetics, Politics, and Performance', shares digitised versions of 33 atlases housed in the University of Bristol Library’s Special Collections. The collection is said to include the work of mapmakers and organisations from several countries including the Dutch laboratories of the Blaeu family in the seventeenth century, the United States’ Military Academy during the Cold War, colonial Africa and revolutionary Cuba.

Veronica della Dora, lead scholar on the project and historic map specialist in the School of Geographical Sciences, observed: 'The history of the atlas is linked to the spread of general education, the development of print culture and the emergence of a consumer culture in the Renaissance West.

'Since its original conception, the atlas has proven one of the most resilient cartographic genres, often transcending geographical learning. Over the centuries, its format has been adopted by anatomists, biologists, geologists, governments, and intelligence services alike as an effective instrument for organizing and showcasing different forms of knowledge.'

The exhibition is organised into four thematic sections. Renaissance Theatres features famous and less famous examples dating from the late sixteenth to the mid seventeenth centuries.

Rhetoric of Truth exhibits eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries geological and archaeological atlases side by side with early computer-generated examples. The aim is to stress modern science’s constant attempt to penetrate beneath the surface and unveil hidden orders.

The Colonial Gaze section focuses on atlases used to implement colonial projects, including land exploitation in Africa and in the West Indies, and the circulation of racial theories in late nineteenth-century Europe and North America.

The fourth section is National Identities and Conflict. This explores the role of atlases for visualising conflict and shaping territorial and political imaginations in the twentieth century.

Head of Special Collections Michael Richardson said: 'In the age of Google Earth, this exhibition is ultimately meant to stir public interest in the history of the atlas and of cartography in general, offering an accessible and dynamic resource for teaching, research, and, not least, virtual exploration.'