‘Northness’ in digital collections

Karen Smith-Yoshimura has just directed our attention to a map of Europe in the Institut Cartogràfic de Catalunya. It presents an inverted vision of Europe, with Italy, Greece and Spain at the top, and England, Ireland and Scandinavia at the bottom (Scotland vanishes altogether!). Digitised map of Europe from 1558This confuses our concepts of ‘northness’, and Karen writes in an email message ‘One of the digitized maps in the Map Library of Catalonia (Fons digitals de la Cartoteca de Catalunya, one of the ContentDM collections recently added) is a 1558 map of Europe. I’m familiar with Chinese maps that had “north” in any direction but this is the first one I’ve seen where Spain comes up literally “on top”.’

Ricky, Günter and I travelled to the University of Aberdeen yesterday, where we met library, museums and archive staff. We knew we were in the north, because we arrived in a minor blizzard.

Originally uploaded to Flickr by JimJim ->

It quickly died down, however, so that the rather beautiful King’s College Chapel looked like this recent Flickr-posted image.

Over lunch, Vice-Principal Chris Gane spoke about the concept of ‘northness’. As the UK’s most northerly university (pace the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute, which is not – yet – a university) Aberdeen identifies itself with this idea, and indeed Peter Davidson, who holds the University’s Chair of Renaissance Studies, has written a book entitled The idea of North. University Principal Duncan Rice described it in a lecture in 2005 as ‘an exquisite cultural journey through northern communities in different parts of the world … Davidson’s ‘north’ is threatening but pure and clean, vigorous and rigorous, set in the tough environment against which all northern societies have struggled.’ Even if they fall off the bottom of maps which play fast and loose with northness!

The University’s museum collections have recently been awarded the status of having ‘national significance’, and are among the highest regarded of all Scottish universities. During our visit, we were given a demonstration of the Marischal Virtual Museum – a project which was recently assisted with JISC project funding. Among its significant collections is its Natural Philosophy Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (Honorary Curator John Reid in an article on the collection reminds us that ‘Natural Philosophy’ survived as the term used for ‘Physics’ in the ancient Scottish universities until the mid-1980s). These instruments were often exquisite objects, created as learning resources which have survived long enough to show up today in collections of virtual learning objects such as the Marischal Virtual Museum. Here you can view, for example, Dr. Lorimer’s dipping compass from 1764, whose metadata announces that it is an ‘Instrument for showing that a compass needle not only points to magnetic north but if freely suspended will point into the ground. This later phenomenon is known as the ‘dip’ of the compass needle.’ And north is lost once again …

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