Week 15: an interesting map exhibit you probably won’t see

Until late January, the Portland Art Museum has an exhibit of Korean map art called The Shape of the Land: Topographical Painting and Maps in Late Joseon Korea. The pieces, estimated to be from the nineteenth century, included showpieces like an eight part screen map of Pyeongyang showing the best places to view the moon and the unicorn lair. There were also utilitarian maps, such as one whose color ‘indicates the use of persimmon tannin to make the paper waterproof and more durable.’

In the fifteen pieces, there were elements of bureaucracy, data visualization, myth, politics and national pride to be found in the maps, with help from the descriptions. The exhibit brochure gives some additional background and provides better pictures than I.

The curator notes where the names on the map were not what was in use at the time, because of not taking a neighboring government seriously. On another maps, the note points out that ‘[c]ompared to Chinese maps produced in China, the Korean peninsula is shown larger here.’


Maps showed the wear of being folded and unfolded. The Map of Mountains of Gyeongsang Province also has circles indicating the relative population of the towns. Another has the labels colored by administrative type and province.

There was a map of a graveyard (above) and two of the eight panels from an eight panel screen (below), this of the world and of China. The place names, with a few exceptions for places in our world like Japan, Vietnam and China, were ‘imaginary locations derived from Shanhaijing (Classic of Mountains and Seas), an account of geography and myth’ from 4th century China.

These maps, like the those made in the Netherlands for merchants and in Mount View for Google are a combination of what you really need to know when going from one town to another village, what you wish were true about the world, and what is important to someone about a place.

These were works of art as well as craft.

The maps were full of the color, text, and known geographic features like roads, rivers and mountains.

I would like more accounts of geography and myth.

Note: all quotes are from the museum notes.

An additional map art from the museum, in a different exhibit, was Diane Jacob’s 2008 Global Inversion, where a small glass sphere hangs in front of a textile map of the world, south facing up. Because of optics, the globe appears ‘normally’ in the sphere.

Click any image to see a larger version.

One Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *