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Mapping Our World: National Library finds map to exhibition success

Perhaps it was the chance to get close to some of the rarest documents on the planet.

Duncan McLay and Neryl McLay from the Gold Coast are show a world map in Geographia by Claudius Ptolemy by Mapping the ...
Duncan McLay and Neryl McLay from the Gold Coast are show a world map in Geographia by Claudius Ptolemy by Mapping the World co-curator Susannah Helman. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Perhaps it was the fact that a Hollywood movie star opened the show.

Or it could just be that more people than we thought love maps.

Whatever the reason, the National Library’s blockbuster exhibition of maps, which closed on the weekend, was the library’s most successful show ever, bringing 118,264 visitors through the door.

This number surpassed the library’s last record-breaking show in 2001, Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries, which had 115,081 visitors, and legendary queues around the building.

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Since it was opened to great fanfare by self-confessed “map nerd” Russell Crowe in November, Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia has been a steady full house almost every day, and the catalogue almost sold out.

But for gallery staff, the star power from the grand opening probably had little to do with subsequent constant stream of visitors, many of whom travelled from all over Australia, and even overseas, to see some of the world’s greatest maps on display.

Visitors taking a look at the Map of the World 1448-1453 by Fra Mauro.
Visitors taking a look at the Map of the World 1448-1453 by Fra Mauro. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Assistant curator Susannah Helman said she had seen people of all ages and from all walks of life come through the show.

“I think we always knew that there were a lot of people out there who loved maps, but we’ve just been thrilled by the response to the exhibition,” she said.

“Everyone can relate to a map, and I think it’s hard to actually say what kind of person it is, but what we found is that people of all ages seem to love maps.

‘‘I think that it’s the beauty of maps, the stories behind the maps, perhaps just seeing Australia evolve on a map that people love.”

Ryan Stokes chairman of the National Library and Russell Crowe launched the exhibition.
Ryan Stokes chairman of the National Library and Russell Crowe launched the exhibition. Photo: Melissa Adams

She said while the spectacular Fra Mauro, a 700-year-old, two-metre hand-painted disc of the world which, until the show, had never left Venice, had been a hit, situated as it was in the entryway of the exhibition, there had been no particular favourite throughout the show.

“There were so many beautiful maps and intriguing things it’s hard to say which were more popular, but certainly people were amazed by the Fra Mauro, it dominated the first vista that you see,” she said.

“But I know that all kinds of maps really appeal, even things that you might not think were so attractive. It’s really hard to judge what was more of a favourite that another. I saw all the rooms of the exhibition quite crowded.”

She added that seeing all the material – much of it from international lenders in Britain and Europe - for free had been a definite drawcard.