Maps help me get to where I want to go and see where I’ve been. But they can do much more. The extraordinary new Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla serves as a reminder that they can also conjure up political dramas and illuminate paths to conquest; remind us of just how wrong human beings can be and how splendidly they can render their delusions.
This world-class collection is hidden. At least four times a week, I go to the gym in the Merrill Lynch building at 7825 Fay, a block off La Jolla’s main tourist drag. Often I have coffee on the lower level. Yet it took me 17 months to discover the map museum — tucked behind the elevator and open only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and the first and third Saturday of each month.
The limited hours belie both the stature of the collection and the generosity of Michael Stone, the financier who built it. Starting about 20 years ago with an idle purchase at a country fair, Stone since has acquired some 600 items (including atlases), of which 250 or so are displayed in the La Jolla facility. These range from a copy of what’s considered to be the first map ever printed (in 1472 – a primitive representation of the Earth) to a cheerful 1958 Southern California tourist map highlighting the region’s “Roads to Romance.”
Some items are breathtakingly rare, such as the 1493 Basel edition of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his voyage to the new world. Only the second edition of his report included a map, and only two copies of that volume are known to survive. One’s displayed here.
The museum owns one of only two known versions of the first published Gold Rush map. Near where it’s displayed, a stand-alone case holds a map of one of Benjamin Franklin’s surveys, for which Benjamin Franklin himself cut the woodblock and which he printed. An entire wall presents documents created during the two centuries in which California was believed to be an island. A few steps away is the 1816 first edition of John Melish’s map of the United States, widely considered to be one of the most influential maps in U.S. history – America’s Manifest Destiny made tangible.
Not all the museum’s holdings depict the New World. One gallery (the elegant “Purple Room”) highlights maps of Europe, the heavens, and the Holy Land. The adjoining “Yellow Room” showcases maps of Africa and Asia, including a black and white engraving depicting the route from Nagasaki to Edo in 1724. Some items in the collection are less serious. I found the map-in-a-suitcase once toted by some door-to-door San Diego real estate salesman to be particularly endearing.
The museum’s director, Richard Cloward, says one of the museum’s most popular maps is the whimsical map of San Diego created by Jacinto “Jo” Mora to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the (long-defunct) Marston’s Department Store.
Cloward says the museum will mount a special exhibition of Mora’s work in the fall, while a 2013 exhibition will celebrate the Gold Rush. Admission to all this is free, and if you have a group of five or more that wants a special tour outside the regular hours, you can arrange that – also at no cost.
Cloward says Stone’s deepest wish is for people to better appreciate the wondrous history of cartography. As much as the next person, I like using Google Maps on my computer and mobile devices. I even appreciate the crude but useful maps of my GPS. But I salute Stone’s magnanimous impulse: the creations at the Map and Atlas Museum constitute an altogether different realm of human achievement. They deserve to be not just appreciated but celebrated.