Keeping our Bearings: Maps, Navigation, Shipwrecks, and the Unknown

November 13th–14th, 2015
November 15th – Related Additional Programming (optional)


Supported by Boston Marine Society.

The first cartography conference held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum examined our connection to man’s relationship to the sea over time, from medieval conceptions of the oceans as dark and monstrous places to 21st century high tech modern underwater mapping used to search for shipwrecked whaleships in the Arctic. Attendees learned how a great clock changed the world and how Marshall Islanders used stick charts that rely on swells and currents to find their way. How and why mankind learned to find solutions to navigate the oceans across different cultures and over time informs our understanding of the cultural, spiritual, physical, and intellectual challenges of marine navigation. The conference provided a series of fascinating talks by experts in cartography, navigation, and exploration to better understand the oceans around us and how we continue to strive to find our bearings. Cartography Conference Flyer (pdf)



Members $65 / Non-members $75
Students with ID $25

Friday evening only lecture: Members $20 / Non-members $25

Optional: Introduction to Astrolabes
$10 Members/$15 Non-members
Optional: Tour of Mystic Seaport Exhibition
$20 Members/$25 Non-members


Conference Schedule

FRIDAY, November 13

6:00–7:00 p.m. | Reception and book signing
7:00–8:00 p.m. | Lecture

Dava Sobel
The Quest for Longitude

portrait of Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel is the author of Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter, The Planets, and A More Perfect Heaven, which contains her play about Nicolaus Copernicus, called And the Sun Stood Still. A former science reporter for the New York Times, she is currently the Joan Lieman Jacobson Visiting NonFiction Writer at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. Her new book, The Glass Universe, is due to appear in fall 2016. Sponsored by the Samuel D. Rusitzky Lecture Fund.

Available as a separate ticket from the Conference at $20 Member/ $25 Non-member
Free for Conference Attendees


SATURDAY, November 14

9:00–10:00 a.m. | Registration with coffee and light breakfast
Books by speakers were available for purchase and signing

10:00–10:15 a.m. |  Opening Remarks by Dr. Christina Connett

10:15–11:00 | Chet Van Duzer
From the Haunt of Monsters to the Domain of the Navigator: Evolving Ideas about the Oceans
In this talk Chet will examined the evolution of European ideas about the oceans from antiquity to the Age of Exploration. Ancient and medieval writings and maps of the oceans showed that they were conceived as places of danger—dark, stormy, full of monsters, and confined by various barriers to navigation. In the late Middle Ages, ideas about the oceans slowly began to change: sailors came to realize that some of the dangers and barriers they had imagined were not real, and the seas came to be perceived as venues of opportunity rather than of danger. Improvements in navigation both enabled and accompanied this dramatic change.

?Chet Van Duzer has published extensively on medieval and Renaissance maps in journals such as Imago Mundi, Terrae Incognitae and Word & Image. He is also the author of Johann Schöner’s Globe of 1515: Transcription and Study, the first detailed analysis of one of the earliest surviving terrestrial globes that includes the New World; and (with John Hessler) Seeing the World Anew: The Radical Vision of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 & 1516 World Maps. His book Sea Monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps was published in 2013 by the British Library, and in 2014 the Library of Congress published a study of Christopher Columbus’s Book of Privileges which he co-authored with John Hessler and Daniel De Simone. His current book projects are a study of Henricus Martellus’s world map of c. 1491 at Yale University based on multispectral imagery, and the commentary for a facsimile of the 1550 manuscript world map by Pierre Desceliers, which will be published by the British Library.

?11:00–11:45 | Dick Pfelderer
Setting the Stage for Trans-Atlantic Voyaging…Advances in Navigation and Chartmaking in the Fifteenth And Sixteenth Century
In the age before the advent of printed sea charts, the primary navigational tools were the manuscript sea charts called portolan charts and rudimentary instruments including the magnetic compass, the astrolabe and the cross staff. This paper focused on the development and use of these tools and how they were applied to Atlantic voyaging in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  

Richard Pflederer is the author of Finding their Way at Sea, a general-audience study of portolan charts, as well as eight reference books and several of articles, focusing on these charts. He won the Caird Fellowship of the National Maritime Museum in 2005 and has conducted other long term research projects while resident at the British Library and the Bodleian Library. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, a member of the Editorial Advisory Council of The Portolan and a member of the Society for the History of Discoveries and the International Map Collectors’ Society. He has lectured on related subjects at venues around the world, such as London, Chicago, Washington, Miami, Guatemala City and Verona Italy. He teaches in the adult education section of the College of William & Mary and has served a member of the adjunct faculty of Old Dominion University. In 2009 he founded the Williamsburg Map Circle, a group whose aim is to promote the understanding of maps within the community. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and now shares his time between Williamsburg, Virginia and Montepulciano, Tuscany.

11:45 a.m.–12:30 p.m. |  John Bockstoce
The cartography of Bering Strait and the discovery of the Western Arctic whaling grounds
Although the early cartography of Bering Strait was based largely on speculation and verbal reports, the rivalry between Russia and Britain for domain in the Western Arctic resulted in the first accurate charts of the region.  After the discovery of the Bering Strait whaling grounds in 1848 –and the rush by the whaling fleet to exploit the new fishery– these charts became the basis for E. and G. W. Blunt’s  “Polar, Behring sea and strait, from english & russian surveys”, published in New York in 1849 and widely employed by northern mariners for half a century.

John R. Bockstoce is an independent scholar specializing in the history of the Western Arctic whaling industry and fur trade.  From 1974 to 1986 he was curator of ethnology at the Old Dartmouth Historical Society, now the New Bedford Whaling Museum.  He received his doctorate, in Arctic Archaeology, from the University of Oxford.

12:30–2:00 p.m. |  Break for lunch

2:00 – 3:00 p.m. | tour of NBWM Map Collection highlights with Chet Van Duzer and Christina Connett in the new Reading Room.

3:00 – 3:45 p.m. | John Huth
Wave piloting and stick charts of the Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands in the equatorial Pacific has a distinct navigational culture that involves the observation of wave and swell patterns for sailors to find their way among the 27 atolls in their territory.   An important part of the voyaging tradition is the use of stick charts to illustrate the patterns of waves as perturbed by atolls, both as a general-purpose chart and as a teaching aid to explain reflections, refractions, and transformations of waves/swells as they pass atolls. 

The Donner Professor of Science at Harvard, John Huth investigates cultures of navigation in collaboration with anthropologists, and is the author of the book The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, which accompanies a course he developed for the General Education offerings in the category of Science of the Physical Universe, Empirical and Mathematical Reasons, and Study of the Past at Harvard University.  A Ventures Faculty Member at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, he coordinates interdisciplinary studies, including a recent science symposium on navigation. Huth continues to study indigenous navigation techniques, with a particular focus on the Marshall Islanders tradition of wave piloting.

3:45–4:15 | Christina Connett
Charting the Whale
This lecture addressed whales in cartography, from elements of decoration to maps used for commercial exploitation, navigation, cultural celebrations and documentations of whales and whaling, and modern conservation and biological study. From medieval manuscripts of sea monsters to the plotted charts of whalers to the sound waves of whale songs to the stars in the sky. Using maps from the New Bedford Whaling Museum collection and others, the talk discussed their diversity, beauty, and intellectual value. 

Christina Connett is a cartographic art historian with a PhD in the History of Art from the University of Valencia, Spain; an MA in Art History from University of Auckland, New Zealand; and a BA from Northwestern University. Formerly a professor at UMASS Dartmouth and RISD, where she taught a variety of art history courses including the History of Cartography, she is currently the Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Her doctorate work was on 16th century Spanish imperial cartography of the Americas and she has spent a large part of her life at sea navigating the oceans.

4:15–4:30 | Mark Procknik
Research and accessibility of the NBWM map collection

4:30–5:15 | Matthew Lawrence
Mapping in Search of Whaling Shipwrecks in the Western Arctic
Sometimes, researching the rich whaling heritage of the Arctic requires more than just visiting libraries to read and carefully decipher logs and journals.  Such traditional archival research is an essential activity and offers many insights from available, first-person accounts of key events, but may be insufficient to complete the final chapters of these compelling stories.  In August 2015, a mapping mission was conducted to search for what remains of the 32 whaling ships abandoned along the coast of the Chukchi Sea in 1871, as well as the approximately 50 other whaling ships reported as lost there in the mid-19th to the early 20th Centuries.  Clearly, this place, located off Wainwright, Point Belcher, and the Seahorse Islands, has considerable historical significance within the context of the whaling heritage of the Western Arctic, and perhaps in the global whaling heritage landscape.  The data and information acquired through the use of advanced underwater mapping and video imaging technology employed during this two-week cruise offers additional documentation as to the location and state of the wrecks of these ships, and may ultimately provide some clearer sense of what transpired during the dark and ice-bound winter of 1871-1872 after these ships were abandoned.

Matthew Lawrence is a maritime archaeologist working for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary headquartered in Scituate, Massachusetts.  He has a M. A. in Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology from East Carolina University’s Program in Maritime Studies.  In addition to the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary, he has conducted archaeological fieldwork at the American Samoa, Olympic Coast, Channel Islands, Thunder Bay, and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuaries.  His professional research interests include nineteenth century steam navigation and the U.S. coasting trade.

5:15–5:30 | closing remarks: Chet van Duzer and Christina Connett


Related additional programming (optional)

SUNDAY, November 15

10:00 a.m.–12:00 p.m. |  Optional extension family friendly workshop
A Hands-On Introduction to Astrolabes
with Kristine Larsen, PhD, Professor of Astronomy at Central Connecticut State University

This hands-on workshop, with individualized attention, introduced participants to the basic astronomical principles behind a simple astrolabe. Participants were led through a series of rudimentary calculations using a cardboard instrument that was theirs to keep, and received a workbook with additional examples and problems (for their own personal instruction or for use in their classroom).
$10 Members/$15 Non-members


2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m. |  Optional extension trip to Mystic Seaport
Off-site group tour of Mystic Seaport’s new exhibition Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude.

The group met at Mystic Seaport main entrance at 2:00 for a tour of the exhibition. This exhibition tells the extraordinary story of the race to determine longitude at sea. Spurred on by the promise of rich rewards, astronomers, philosophers, and artisans, including John Harrison and his innovative timekeepers, finally solved one of the greatest technical challenges of the 18th century.
$20 for Members/ $25 for Non-members

Last modified: August 25, 2016

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