On the map: New exhibit showcases cartographic treasures from The Bancroft Library

Visitors look at the maps and displays in the Visualizing Place exhibit at the Bancroft Gallery on Sept. 21, 2022. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)
Visitors look at the maps and displays in the Visualizing Place exhibit at the Bancroft Gallery on Sept. 21, 2022. (Photos by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

California may be known for going its own way. But did you know that Northern European cartographers once thought that the Golden State was an actual island? 

Multiple maps from the 1600s depict California as separated from the mainland by a narrow body of water, an error that would persist for more than a century. 

That cartographic conundrum is one of many explored in a new exhibit titled Visualizing Place: Maps from The Bancroft Library. The exhibit, on display through June in Bancroft’s gallery, highlights the library’s diverse, extensive — and sometimes underrated — map holdings. The exhibit is also available online.

“Folks visit the Bancroft reading room for its manuscript collection, but hopefully the exhibit will show that our map collections are also worthy of a visit,” said José Adrián Barragán-Álvarez, one of the exhibit’s co-curators and Bancroft’s curator for Latin Americana. 


Visualizing Place: Maps from The Bancroft Library

Where: The Bancroft Gallery, in Doe Annex (Or see the exhibit online.)

When: Sept. 23, 2022, through June 23, 2023, with exceptions; the gallery is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Hours and more information are in the event listing

Cost: Free


The exhibit draws on works from across Bancroft’s collections to chart the evolution of cartography from the earliest printed atlas to contemporary maps that evoke cultural, social, and even fictional narratives. Particular emphasis is given to the Bay Area, including noteworthy maps of Berkeley and San Francisco, as well as to Mexico City and its growth as a megalopolis.  

“The different ways that place is expressed is really exciting to me in this exhibition,” said Kate Donovan, director of Bancroft. “There’s handmade work. There are maps made of sticks. There are imaginary maps. I think it’s a really expansive way of thinking about who we are in various places and times.” 

Cartographic treasures

Among the many prized items on display is a nautical chart of the San Francisco Bay Area from 1776 attributed to Spanish naval officer José de Cañizares. 

The manuscript map, created with pen and ink and watercolor, is thought to be the first visualization of the Bay Area, according to Theresa Salazar, an exhibit co-curator and Bancroft’s curator for Western Americana. The work depicts many of the topographic features of the land — Alcatraz Island, Point Reyes, and the Farallones — as well as then-recent human development such as Mission Dolores.

“This hand-drawn map is very special,” Salazar said. “It is one of the high points in the exhibition, and one of my favorite items.”

A visitor looks at maps on displayA California map hangs on the wallA map galley with illustrations is on display

Top to bottom: Clockwise from left: A visitor looks at a map made of sticks; a map showing California as an island; a galley proof from Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 Infinite City

Among the many wonders of the Mexico City section of the exhibit is the impressive hand-colored Plano general de la Ciudad de México. Diego García Conde surveyed the city in 1793 and the map was produced in 1807 by several contributors: José Joaquín Fabregat engraved the nine copper plates; Rafael Ximeno y Planes, director of the Royal Academy of San Carlos, embellished it with views of the city from the east and west; and Manuel López López printed it. The map served as reference for most maps of Mexico City produced in the Americas and in Europe well into the 19th century. 

Another must-see item is a 1574 edition of Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, the world’s first atlas, created by Flemish geographer Abraham Ortelius. Originally published in 1570, the atlas represents the first time a collection of maps had been specifically engraved to be bound as a book.

An atlas from Ortelius’ contemporary Gerhard Mercator, a pioneering Flemish cartographer, is also a highlight. The Atlas Sive Cosmographicae from 1595 is considered the first complete edition of a modern scientific atlas, and the first to use the word “atlas” in its title.

These atlases are spotlighted in the section of the exhibit dedicated to landmark maps in the history of cartography, which were selected by David Faulds, Bancroft’s curator of rare books and literary manuscripts and a co-curator of the exhibit. 

Visitors also shouldn’t miss the stunning Nuremberg Chronicle, an illustrated history of the world from 1493, which is used to demonstrate how technological advances changed the way maps were made. 

Beyond geography

For the co-curators, who spent three years putting the exhibit together, it was important to include maps that pushed beyond mere geography. 

“We just wanted to be a little bit more imaginative about looking at maps in different ways,” Salazar said. “Because sometimes how they are made can tell a different story. I want people to question: ‘Why was this map created? What is its motivation? What stories can it tell me?’” 

Salazar cites a striking example. An 1885 map of San Francisco’s Chinatown seems somewhat ordinary at first glance. But the map was produced by the city’s Board of Supervisors and used by police to surveil the neighborhood, illustrating the close scrutiny of the Chinese community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

On the other end of the spectrum are the gorgeous galley proofs from Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City. Solnit’s 2010 maps examine San Francisco by theme, such as a map of Indigenous communities that inhabited the Bay Area in 1769 and another memorializing environmental activists. By collaborating with cartographers, artists, and many others, she tackles the multiple ways a city can be experienced, critiqued, and celebrated. 

Similar to Solnit’s work is a contemporary map of Mexico City done by Oakland artist Jess Garman. While the 2021 print is thematic in its approach to charting the metropolis, highlighting the popular neighborhoods, monuments, foods, and tourist traps, it also aims to capture the subjective experience of a city. 

“The wonderful print done by a local artist shows what we think of a city when we visit it, and what we remember,” Barragán-Álvarez said. 

A visitor looks at SF maps A map of Chinatown

Top to bottom: Left to right: Maps of the Bay Area hang on one wall; a map of San Francisco's Chinatown is from 1885.

The map from the place farthest from the UC Berkeley campus comes from the Marshall Islands, the archipelago nation located midway between Hawaii and Australia. Made from palm leaf sticks, seashells, and string, the early-20th-century stick chart is a tactile teaching tool that was used to instruct the next generation in the skills of navigation, according to Barragán-Álvarez. The objects on the map represent islands, currents, and swells. 

Closer to home are fire insurance maps of Berkeley, produced by the Sanborn Map Co. in the early 1900s. The maps provide detailed layouts of the city’s streets, businesses, residences, and even portions of the Cal campus. Because the maps were printed only periodically, they contain handwritten notes that reflect changes in progress. The selection displayed in the exhibition offers modern viewers a sense of how campus has evolved over time. 

Mapping the future

The exhibit itself will also evolve over time. This first part is scheduled to run through the fall and into early winter, before many of the rare items must be reshelved to avoid overexposure to light. The second half of the exhibit, in many ways an entirely unique experience, will launch in spring and include more hand-drawn maps, as well as additional materials on the mechanization of mapmaking. The portion of the exhibit detailing Mexico City will also broaden to address Mexico’s development from colony to nation. 

Donovan said that the exhibit supports Bancroft’s goal of making its materials available to as many people as possible. Another way the library does that is through its robust digitization program, which provides people everywhere with access to the extraordinary historical items in its collections, such as maps. That process is made possible through the generous support of donors, she said. 

For those who can make it to campus, the exhibit also serves as an invitation to visit the library’s reading room, Donovan said, where they can interact with the materials in person. 

“That’s what I think makes special collections libraries amazing,” she said. “We have exhibition galleries, as do museums, but we then invite everyone to come and touch the materials, and have a sort of personal engagement, and a physical engagement, that you can’t do necessarily when you go to an art museum.

“Museums don’t encourage you to touch the paintings. But in the library, we encourage you to look at the book, to turn the page, to feel the leather, to smell it, whatever you need to do to sort of satisfy your curiosity or expand your experience.”