Russell Crowe stood before Canberrans and declared himself a ‘‘map geek’’ on Wednesday night.
In a masterful and commanding display, the movie star brought Hollywood glamour to the National Library of Australia as he opened a landmark new exhibition of priceless maps from across the world.
‘‘Seriously, I really love reading them,’’ he told an adoring crowd.
‘‘I love planning adventures whether they be a car journey or a bike ride or even in some circumstances guiding a boat on the sea.’’
He reminisced about looking up his home town on an atlas as a child and wishing that there would still be undiscovered lands to journey to when he grew up.
Crowe flew into Canberra at the invitation of Ryan Stokes, chairman of the library’s council. He made time for the exhibition in between trips to Turkey where he’s preparing to direct his first feature film, an Anzac war story titled The Water Diviners.
The Oscar-winner, dressed in a dapper grey three-piece suit with geek chic black-rimmed glasses, took a private tour of the exhibition with Mr Stokes ahead of the official opening, asking maps curator Martin Woods and organiser Nat Williams some searching questions about the historic maps on display.
Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia, brings together some of the world’s greatest maps, from the atlas of Ptolemy of Alexandria – the first map of the world – to Abel Tasman’s original journal and map of New Holland and James Cook’s original east coast of Australia.
Crowe said his personal love of maps stemmed from his father who took him on ‘‘long voyages of discovery’’ up the NSW coast in the late '60s and '70s.
And although there may not be any more undiscovered lands to travel to, Crowe said we’d always explore new things.
‘‘I don’t think humans ever give up on exploration, the restless mind and the intrigue of what’s possible is a natural thing for us.’’
But he still eschews GPS and satellite navigation. ‘‘You get somebody else blabbing to you while you drive and I’ve had a few exhibitions ... where you turn left into what? A brick wall?’’ he said.
‘‘I like to physically look at the map and if I can’t do that I’ll look up a map on a computer but I like to read about it first before I go. One of the things I like to do is ride my bicycle wherever I go no matter what country I’m in and one period a couple of years ago I rode around Sydney Harbour, along the Thames, the Seine, the Mississippi and circumnavigated the island of Manhattan all within a month. I like to have that knowledge within my head before I go, you get a little bit lost and start getting hazy but then you see a point of reference that you remember from the map.’’
One of the star exhibits of the show is the 700-year-old Fra Mauro, a two-metre, hand-painted disc of the world which, until now, had never left Venice.
Director of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice Maurizio Messina said seeing the work leave Italy had been “a challenge”, but that he was confident it was now in the right place and under the right conditions.
“It was disassembled in three crates, and the journey was by air freighter with couriers all together and it was really very difficult. It was a great challenge but we won it,” he said.
Head of maps at the British Library Peter Barber said an exhibition of this scale would not be seen anywhere else in the world.
“You wouldn’t get this exhibition in Europe because the institutions would never lend,” he said.
“It’s not rivalry, but there is a tendency to say, ‘If you want to see this, just pop on a train and come and see it’. To be honest, it’s not simply us being churlish. Travel is dangerous for old objects, and if you need special insurance when you’re 80 and you travel, imagine how much insurance you’d need if you were 600. “It’s worthwhile because Europeans would never have the chance to see a show like this, and it would be a great pity if Australians didn’t come and see it too.”
For the National Library’s curator of maps, Martin Woods, the exhibition was the culmination of several years of planning and negotiating. “I don’t know how much more excited I could be,” he said.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing people in here – that’s really when it’s it. At the moment, the lighting people are out, and I can see these wonderful objects for what they are from any angle, I can compare this map with that map, I can understand the cartography of the French and the British, or the Dutch and the Portuguese.”
He said the curatorial team had made a deliberate decision to open the show with some examples of indigenous Australian mapping.
“What we thought eventually was, of course, aboriginal people were here doing their own mapping, using maps to create trails,” he said.
“But these tracks were in place for thousands of years, and at the same time, ancient Greeks and others were imagining that there might be an Antipodes. So it really seemed sensible to us to open the exhibition by having the ancient mapping next to the indigenous mapping. It seemed odd at first, and then we thought, no, this is really great because it shows the two sides of the world, and this is a story of Europe rediscovering Australia.”
Crowe’s star power – perhaps combined with a packed hall and too much standing – caused one elderly woman to faint, with an ambulance summoned.
Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia opens at the National Library on November 7 and runs until March 10. Entry is free but bookings are essential. See nla.gov.au