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‘Bending Lines’: Maps as deception

A new virtual exhibit from the Boston Public Library explores geography and propaganda.

A "flat earth" map featured in the Boston Public Library's exhibit "Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception" in 2020.
A "flat earth" map featured in the Boston Public Library's exhibit "Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception" in 2020.Courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Curator Garrett Dash Nelson is taking me through a new exhibition at the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, “Bending Lines: Maps and Data from Distortion to Deception.” But because this is the era of COVID-19, we’re not in a gallery — we’re on a Zoom call. Nelson opens the screensharing feature to show me one of the maps, a bird’s-eye view of Boston.

“When we put the exhibition back in person,” he notes, “this is going to be a big format.” In real life, the map takes up a whole wall. Right now, though, it’s only the size of my laptop screen. Online, everything is the same size.

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It’s another example of how the coronavirus has warped our sense of the space around us. Those lucky enough to isolate in their homes feel unmoored from geography, while others find their daily routes turned into an obstacle course of social distances. But as this exhibit shows, maps can alter our reality too.

“Bending Lines” explores the ways maps not only depict the world but shape it; they can clarify terrain but also contort it. The maps in the exhibit range from the advertorial (the bird’s-eye Boston map posits a short-lived soda factory as the center of the city and the world) to the propagandistic (a 1940s map of a future German Empire) to the farcical (a 2019 map of Hurricane Dorian’s projected route, “corrected” by the president in Sharpie).

By necessity, every map is a simplification of the space it depicts, Nelson says — but not all simplifications are equal. For example, an electoral map showing a sea of red could be “very comforting to Trump,” he says, but another map could depict the same data a different way, emphasizing how few votes actually went to the current president in 2016. And an arbitrary line drawn on a map by a powerful person can birth a civil war or create a ghetto.

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“Bending Lines” and a schedule of upcoming live talks and tours can be accessed at leventhalmap.org/exhibitions.