Cartographies of Time at Princeton University Museum of Art
Trying to create a single history with both China’s early history and the Bible’s timeline for Noah’s flood is, practically speaking, impossible. That fact didn’t stop 15th century European Christian chronologers from trying, though! They also tried to connect the dots for the tower of Babel, histories of the Persian, Native American, Pacific islanders, or any other cultures “discovered” by Europe, and any other conflicting stories that dissented with the idea that the earth was only a few thousand years old and made in 7 days. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
Similar to the drive in physics to find a theory of everything, the chronologers never produced a theory of everytime: a linear, organized history inclusive of all culture’s pasts, but their attempts are a subject worth considering in depth.
The book Cartographies of Time, published in 2010, is a meticulous investigation into the history of chronologies starting with European manuscripts and proceeding through every generation of printing and on into contemporary art. Part celebration of the infographic and part humanist exploration of thought, these printed objects attempted to understand how and when our early ancestors lived and accidentally unlocked for us a captivating and esoteric sliver of what our more recent ancestors thought. But why talk about a book that came out last year? Because, currently there is an exhibition of some of the objects from this well-researched book at Princeton University (June- Sept 18, 2011) and a talk from the two authors this Sat, September 1oth, part of Princeton’s Memory and the Work of Art series which includes talks from Christian Boltanski, Maya Lin, and more.
It’s a foreign idea to us today, but chronologers were considered more honest than historians, who were considered temperamental. The difference was that chronologies were a collection of facts and dates rather than stories. The chronologers wrote diachronic lists of moments that all of humanity should remember, creating images of moments from our pasts they thought defined who we had become. Father of History (or lies, depending on who you ask), Herodotus is a perfect example of just how inaccurate gathering stories together can be. His Histories is more a collection of stories that he had been told than a record of events. Herodotus mentions Hecataeus and other Greek logographers in his history, all while claiming he invented the written history.
The exhibition at Princeton is filled with work from the 1470′s to the 1890′s. It includes the normal scrolls, books, and broadsides that are the dominant story for printed matter, but also included are unexpected printed objects: volvelles, board games, and portfolios that trace the chronologer’s evolution as graphic artists. The earliest object in the exhibition, a manuscript scroll of the genealogy of the Kings of France and England is young compared one of the objects reproduced in the book: a 12th century manuscript from Harvard’s Houghton Library of the genealogy of the Savior. These two scrolls seem very similar on the surface, both use tree structures to layout the information and both trace a family, but the intended function was wildly different. The history of Jesus was intended to help students who were reading the Old Testament and the genealogy of Kings is a power portrait of sorts, used to define the authority of these kings. One was a study aid for a narrow band of educated children, the other a nationalistic decree of royalty for the few to see, but all to accept.
The history written by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton is of the innovations and the hidden conflicts within these objects. Tables showing conflicting Jewish, pagan, and Christian histories are found as early as the 4th Century. Most of the European histories supported the conviction that all of history was developing to the foundation of Rome, where culture was perfected. This bias is evident all the way through the late 1800′s.
Innovators like Joseph Priestly tried to find out what makes history accessible. His Chart of Biography from 1765 revolutionized how we saw history. Instead of building up complicated twisted threads about how cultures flourished under roman law or were undone by their paganism, his breakthrough was to group like minded people together, the historians, the lawyers, the critics, the artists, the statesmen, etc and allow for cultures to mingle together. Anybody put on this chart could have neighbors from anywhere. It was an easily navigable graph showing complicated relationships between separate civilizations at a glance.
Cartographies of Time will be on view at Princeton University (June- Sept 18, 2011). Anthony T. Grafton, Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University, and Daniel Rosenberg, associate professor of history at the University of Oregon will give a lecture, Mapping History, Marking Time on Sat September 10th, 5:00 pm – 7:30 pm at Princeton University.
Bookmark / Share / Print