Rare map restored to its former glory goes on display at National Library
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Rare map restored to its former glory goes on display at National Library

The journey undertaken by one of the rarest maps in the world is almost as interesting as the those undertaken to create it in the 1600s.

Archipelagus Orientalis (Eastern Archipelago) was created by master cartographer Joan Blaeu in 1663. It then spent hundreds of years hidden away in a warehouse in Sweden where it was found in 2010. The National Library of Australia acquired the map in 2013 and for the past four years a conservation project has restored the map to its former glory.

The National Library of Australia's curator of maps, Dr Martin Woods with Archipelagus Orientalis (Eastern Archipelago).

The National Library of Australia's curator of maps, Dr Martin Woods with Archipelagus Orientalis (Eastern Archipelago).Credit:Karleen Minney

The journey is now complete with the map going on display in Canberra on Monday at the NLA in the Treasure's Gallery.

Curator of maps at the NLA Dr Martin Woods said the map is significant because it not only documents the Dutch discovery of Australia, including the first sighting of Tasmania, but also tells a story of the time.

"It's like a giant news map, if you like," Dr Woods said.

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"There's so much information in the text around the map, from trading opportunities to details of the voyages, even the illustrations of the ships in battle, all paint a picture of what was happening."

Dr Woods said the map would have been drawn using thousands of measurements taken by perhaps a dozen Dutch voyages, primarily those of the Dutch East India company, over the course of 30 years.

"Although in this map Australia is the centre of attention, to Blaeu and his country men it was a puzzle," he said.

"They cruised the coast, they cruised the north, the south, the west, looking for trading opportunities, occasionally landing, not finding people with goods they recognised they could trade with, sailing off again.

"Some years later curiousity would get the better of them and another voyage would occur and this pattern continued until they decided to concentrate their efforts in the Spice Islands [in Indonesia] and they left this enigma of Australia alone."

When the map first arrived at the NLA Dr Woods said there was a hesitance about whether the map could be restored.

"We had to write up what our specifications were without knowing what could be achieved," he said, praising the work of the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne.

"The biggest risk was what would happen once we removed the varnish. We did a lot of research into what might happen but it was a risk we had to take."

Director General of the NLA Dr Marie-Louise Ayres remembers when she first saw the map.

"I was leaning over it looking at it and the air from my breath was moving dust particles around, that's how fragile it was," Dr Ayres said.

"The conservation team has done a superb job, beyond our hopes."

The map, measuring 1185mm x 1520mm, is considered the "birth certificate" of Australia, as it was the map upon which all maps of Australia were based until the voyages of James Cook in the late 1700s.

The eastern coastline is missing, Queensland is joined to New Guinea, because the Torres Strait is yet to be discovered, and portions of Tasmania's east and west coast are included. And there's a shadow that represents New Zealand.

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It first went on display in its original condition at the NLA in 2013 as part of the Mapping Our World: Terra Incognita to Australia exhibition which was launched by Oscar-winner Russell Crowe.

The Blaeu map will be on display until mid 2018.