Director’s Note (Jan-Mar 2015)
In 1881, a 2,500-year-old clay tablet with inscriptions was found in Sippar, Iraq. However, it was only toward the end of that century that its significance came to light: the cuneiform on the Babylonian tablet was finally translated and read – unveiling what is probably the first map of the world.
The principle of this discovery, described in Jerry Brotton’s absorbing work A History of the World in Twelve Maps, underpins the articles in this issue devoted to map-making and, by extension, understanding the world around us. As Dr Farish A. Noor suggests in “Maps as Statements of Power and Domination”, maps are to be read in their context so as to fully comprehend their true meaning and intention. Travel accounts are invaluable complements to maps which, as Juffri Supa’at’s article “Travelog Melayu” illustrates, serve as important documents of the history of cultures.
In the days before satellite imaging, map-making was partly the result of a leap of imagination. Tan Huism postulates in “GeolGraphic: Celebrating Maps and their stories”, that all maps are mental maps that reflect the cultural and historical backgrounds as well as personal perspectives of their makers. “GeolGraphic” is the National Library’s most ambitious exhibition to date – a celebration of maps of Singapore and the region from as early as the 15th century. Additionally, four evocative art works that process data, mapping and memories to create a narrative of what lies beneath contemporary life in Singapore will be showcased as part of the exhibition.
This issue, which bears the theme “Charting Our World”, also features three articles that document personal map-making or perhaps, more accurately, sense-making efforts.
In “The Secret Maps of Singapore”, Bonny Tan sheds light on a set of colourful hand-drawn maps created by three women in the late 1980s to document Singapore’s multiethnic cultures and flavours; their occasionally quirky but always engaging perspectives come across literally in vibrant colour. Juria Toramae, creator of “Points of Departure”, a project supported by the Singapore Memory Project (SMP), superimposes old photographs – the artefacts of memories – onto their present-day locations in a disorienting map of Singapore’s past and present. In “A Nation of Islands”, another project supported by the SMP, Zakaria Zainal rediscovers Singapore’s southern islands through the stories of its former inhabitants. These stories often reveal a deep attachment to a slower, more placid island lifestyle that existed for decades before urbanisation took root.
Quite fittingly, this issue introduces the map collections of the National Library and National Archives. Senior Librarian Makeswary Periasamy highlights some of the early maps of Southeast Asia from the National Library’s rare collection, many of which illustrate the development of European cartography in the region. Archivist Kevin Khoo highlights key maps in the National Archives’ collection, which trace the history of Singapore from British colony to independent Republic, right up to the present day.
The spirit of discovery and inquiry continues in “On the Trail of Francis P. Ng”. Dr Eriko Ogihara-Schuck tracks down the elusive Francis P. Ng (or more accurately, Teo Poh Leng), author of possibly Singapore’s first book-length English poem. Dr John van Wyhe addresses the misconception over the origins of the theory of evolution and clears the air over the alleged animosity between Charles Darwin and his contemporary, Alfred Russel Wallace, in “Darwin in Cambridge and Wallace in the Malay Archipelago”.
In The Shallows, a book I continue to return to time and again for its artfully expressed history of the human mind, Nicholas Carr traces the evolution of map-making to the advances of the human intellect – from drawing what we see to drawing what we know. I would extend this idea to also drawing what we feel and aspire to.
As Dr Farish A. Noor succinctly puts it, maps are never simply maps.
Director, National Library