National Library of Australia's Mapping Our World exibition reveals much about our past

The earliest maps are not just (inaccurate) indicators of 'where', they also tell us 'who' in surprising detail.

When the Italian monk Fra Mauro began, sometime around 1448, to create the map that bears his name - the first ''modern map'' in history - he started with research. He worked with another cartographer, Andrea Bianco, who was also a ship's captain. He had access to other authoritative maps and bodies of work, such as the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy, an ancient Greek scholar who created a mapmakers' manual listing 8000 places in the known universe.

He was working in Venice, where much of the world came to trade, intrigue and gossip. Information flowed through the city state - and it is reflected in Fra Mauro's finished map, a lavish, four-square-metre display that's not just beautiful but crammed with information. Glance at the Fra Mauro and you'll see notes scribbled everywhere, labels affixed to nearly every spare inch of the map. It's like a 15th century, hand-painted Wikipedia.

The Fra Mauro map has spent centuries in Venice, where it now resides at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciano. It has never left Italy - until now. For the next month it is on display in Canberra for the National Library of Australia's landmark new exhibition, Mapping Our World: From Terra Incognita to Australia. The Fra Mauro is a movie star among maps, a bit like Russell Crowe, who was in town for the exhibition opening.

Crowe, a family friend of the Stokes media dynasty, who are supporting the exhibition, is a big fan of maps. He's not the only one. Dr Martin Woods, the library's curator of maps, gets it all the time from people he meets.

''It's almost like a mantra. When you're the maps curator and you talk to someone and they say, 'Oh you're a maps curator! I really like maps','' he says. But beyond that rather vague fascination, this feeling of goodwill towards maps, Woods finds that most people have no idea why they enjoy looking at maps.

''And from there it's 'OK, well let's break that down a bit, what do you like about maps?' and then you start to understand that people like the details on them, they can stand in front of maps for quite some time,'' he says.


They also like the idea of the map as a snapshot - that there's nothing left of this worldview, nothing left of a past world other than a map of it. The earliest map of Australia, or the earliest map of England, takes us right back to the edge of human awareness of place, of space, of terrain. What motivated people to map this place? Why did they mark some cities, some rivers, not others?

Mapping Our World threads the story of cartography, from what Woods calls ''mysterious climatic maps'' dating from the time of Ptolemy through to extravagant maps created for kings and faded drawings of the Australian coastline produced on board the Endeavour by a young Englishman who was destined to die off the coast of Indonesia. It ends with Matthew Flinders' map of Australia from 1814.

Nat Williams has been instrumental in putting together the exhibition (he is the library's James and Bettison Treasures curator). He says there hasn't been an exhibition like it in Australia before. There have been landmark shows in Europe before, particularly a blockbuster maps exhibition at the British Library that drew 200,000 visitors in the summer of 2010. He says people are drawn to maps and they spend more time on them than on great paintings. In the British exhibition, ''people were just feasting on them, in a way that I don't think people do,'' he says. ''I go to a lot of exhibitions … and you'll see people at the exhibitions, and they'll look at things: Monet, Renoir, boom, boom, boom.

And they literally might spend sometimes seconds looking at each piece and then they'll move out. They've got the sense, well, there's 150 people in the show and I've got to get out.''

Williams says we don't have a lot of time to indulge ourselves in many things but when it comes to looking at a map, we are transfixed because it can fix us in time and space.

''Not only does it help place you in the world and define the world and define how people have explored the world and documented it, but it actually gives you time to slow down for an hour or two,'' he says.

The point I think that's worth noting is that if you go to London, Paris, New York, Berlin, you're not going to see these maps. They're not on display.

In an era where we can Google any place on earth and our iPhones bring hundreds of maps in the palm of our hands, the idea of a map that creates mystery as well as illuminates is almost unthinkable.

''Think about the fact that [the map] wasn't actually factual, there's a lot of imagination in these maps. There was a lot of baggage brought to these maps and very imaginative and romantic ideas behind these maps.''

Exploring that baggage sends us down rabbit holes and alleyways in history. There's the Dutch renaissance, where beautiful, accurate hand-drawn maps were produced as symbols of prestige, and of the fledgling nation's golden era - and then hidden away for decades to protect the Dutch East India Company's commercial interests.

There's the human story of Sydney Parkinson, a talented artist who travelled with Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks and ended up bearing the lion's share of botanical illustrations after the original artist died. Parkinson produced the earliest known sketches of the New South Wales coastline.

"Within days of coming up the coast they're seeing smoke and see Aboriginal people at Ulladulla at Pigeon House mountain,'' says Nat Williams. ''[They realise] it's not Terra Nullius." Parkinson died of illness later in the journey near Indonesia, aged 26.

The maps in the exhibition, each one a snapshot of a particular era and world view, trace the unfurling of information and knowledge as people explored further afield. They limn the creation of Australia from a vague, partial outline at the bottom of a map to a fully realised continent with inhabitants and wildlife. Woods says the explorers who came this way experienced hitherto-theoretical concepts such as the Antipodes come to life before their eyes. ''There they were in Europe, imagining that there might be other lands across the Torrid Zone [the tropics, believed to be uninhabitable] and they might be able to travel there," he says. "And by the end of the 15th century they're able to travel, they've got long ocean-going vessels and they arrive in places like South America and the West Indies and the East Indies and finally Australia, and they see campfires. So when we were putting together the list of the discovery maps we actually identified maybe 20 maps that would be our ideal, the rarest of the rare, the ones that really told the Terra Australis Incognita story."

Nat Williams was the one charged with negotiating to bring these rare creatures to Canberra. It has taken him years. Some maps had to be struck off the list because they could only be displayed a certain number of times, others were a little too fragile. They've come from the British Library, the Vatican, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris - libraries, he points out, are intrinsically generous institutions and there's not as much competition between them as museums. "The point I think that's worth noting is that if you go to London, Paris, New York, Berlin, you're not going to see these maps," says Nat Williams. "They're not on display. The idea that people give up these things and entrust them to you, albeit with couriers and climate-controlled crates and so forth, is pretty remarkable. Because they're not shown in their own world."

Modern explorers - the geoscientists, surveyors and engineers who work full time on mapping our world have different problems, opposite to the ones faced by the men responsible for the maps in this exhibition. In a world of drones, satellite imagery and equipment that can measure the earth to the nearest millimetre, modern mappers deal with a surfeit of information and an avalanche of data to process. But, says Martin Woods, that often makes them the best-placed people to appreciate the wonder of these ancient maps. "To actually see that people were bobbing around on boats, drawing a map of a coastline, halfway across the world and that somehow was considered accurate is almost laughable in some aspects but is marvellous at the same time."

Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia is on now until March 2014 at the National Library of Australia, Parkes Place. Entry is free but bookings are essential. For more videos and content see nla.gov.au.