Contextualizing Collections

Issues to consider when working with our historic materials

Representational inequality in the collections

The collections of the Leventhal Map & Education Center and the Boston Public Library are shaped by nearly two hundred years of collectors, archivists, curators, and library administrators deciding what documents qualified as historically significant objects. Because the vast majority of objects in our collections were produced by people in positions of power—whether they were military surveyors, state bureaucrats, or wealthy estate owners—the view of the world as seen from these objects is heavily biased towards certain perspectives. Very few maps in our collections show people and groups as they see themselves, due to the fact that so many historical practitioners of cartography were housed in élite institutions.

Confronting legacies of the past

What you see on historic maps reflects the attitudes of the people who created these materials—and this includes attitudes that we today consider offensive for the ways in which they may show stereotypical, demeaning, or inaccurate depictions of people and places. It’s important to realize that the presence of such materials in our collections is documentary evidence of social, political, and cultural systems which were oftentimes based on racism, colonialism, sexism, xenophobia, and classism.

We believe in making these historic materials available to researchers and visitors in order to confront the legacies of a past which still shapes our lives today. At the same time, these materials sometimes require extra context and scrutiny to understand their complexity. In our educational programs, exhibitions, and public interpretation, we try to show how and why certain representations of the world came to provide the dominant visual language of cartography.

To learn more

See our articles and follow us on social media to read about how we’re interpreting our collections in a manner that takes a critical approach towards the absences and misrepresentations that are often embedded in the material.