Maps help us to understand and manage our world. Reaching all the way back to cavemen and the Stone Age, drawings can be found depicting hunting grounds, water sources and other crucial life sustaining information. Prehistoric man marked their ‘roads’ with symbols to guide hunting parties towards their prey. Early sea-faring explorers used the stars to navigate and produced hundreds of maps in the process of discovering the ‘new world.’ Lewis & Clark spent nearly two and half years exploring and mapping the territory of the Louisiana Purchase hoping to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Today’s technology has taken mapping to a new level and there is very little, if any, uncharted territory remaining undiscovered or unphotographed. We are even making great inroads in mapping the universe, though the “end” still has not yet been found, but that’s another topic altogether!

We map our neighborhoods, our buildings, our shopping centers, our schools, our museums and everything in between. Understanding our surroundings, sharing that information, and using it to navigate and manage our lives is something we do every day. Smartphones and GPS systems immediately assimilate current traffic conditions and route us off our regular paths to avoid traffic jams and construction zones. Navigation systems track our progress and predict our arrival time – in fact, they are the quintessential backseat driver and are anxious to let you know if you’ve made a wrong turn. You can even decide whose voice does the nagging!

Hand drawn maps and globes have become a thing of the past in our modern digital world. These items are now becoming relics of a time gone by… but they are not forgotten. There are four major world map collections available to the public featuring maps, atlases and globes. Two in the U.S., one in Austria and one in Belgium. There are many other museums around the world that also include other cartographic treasures, but these are the four largest and most focused map collections available today:

  • University of Wisconsin (Milwaukee, WI)
    Little known to many, the University of Wisconsin is home to over one million mapping artifacts, readily available in its library, which were acquired in the late 1970s from the American Geographical Society.
  • Map and Atlas Museum (La Jolla, CA)
    This museum is focused on creating an educational environment for young and old to appreciate geography, history and politics through the artistic beauty of antique collectible maps and atlases.
  • Globe Museum (Vienna, Austria)
    The world’s only public museum dedicated to globes, both terrestrial and celestial, featuring tiny plum-sized to giant man-sized examples, folding fabric to fine wood specimens and much more.
  • Mercator Museum (Sint-Niklaas, Belgium)
    This museum provides a chronological story of cartography from ancient times to today, with the figure and work of Gerard De Cremer (aka Gerard Mercator, 1512-1594) placed in the spotlight.

We hope all of you have the opportunity to someday put a pin in your travel map at each of these fascinating map collections destinations.