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Pardon me, but which way is the Kingdom of Sloth?

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 14, 2010 09:40 AM

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The Rev. Henry Clay Badger, the curator of Harvard's map collection from 1889 to 1892, created the equivalent of a Dewey Decimal System for cartography, a system of categories to aid in the storage and retrieval of documents. Most of his categories were fairly straightforward: continents, nations, cities, and the like.

But some odd-duck maps were were problematic, as they didn't neatly fit his system: depictions of imaginary or allegorical lands, for example, Too, some items in the collection hardly counted as maps at all, being more like the kind of creative graphic presentations of data championed, in our time, by Edward Tufte.

Harvard's map division recently raised the curtain on an exhibition it's calling "Rev. Badger’s Misfits: Deviations and Diversions." Among the curiosities on display are a German map, from 1730, portraying the human vices as kingdoms with Latin names (Magni Stomachi Imperium, for example: land of the large bellies). And there's a Dutch map, from 1834, which charts the world that university students must negotiate: To get to medicine you must first pass the imposing Mountains of Mathematics.

In the proto-Tufte category, there's a late-19th-century timeline that captures all of world history (as then imagined: starting point 4004 B.C.) in 24 linear feet, and an ambitious document from the early 1700s that shows the rise and fall of human empires as if they were surging and shrinking waterways in a river of time.

The research librarian Joseph Garver told the Harvard Library News that the exhibition was prompted by patrons who, from time to time, ask what kind of documents did not fit the Badger system. "That prompts me to take out one of the folders to see what is in it, and it’s always fascinating material," Garvey said.

"Rev. Badger's Misfits" is on display in Harvard's Pusey Library through January 5, 2011.


Joseph Garver examines one of the map collection's "misfits"

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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