The exhibit “An Imaginary Arctic: Speculative Cartography in the Search for the Northwest Passage” offers a close look at centuries of cartographic representations of the so-called Northwest Passage, a once mythical Arctic trade route from Europe to Asia.
It also features an unlikely curator, Melanie Langa, a recent Community High School graduate who developed the exhibit as the culmination of a four-year independent study program.
Langa’s path to the exhibit, currently on display in the Clark Library on the second floor of the Hatcher Graduate Library, began at Tappan Middle School, where she clicked with Latin teacher Mary Pedley. When Langa moved on to Community High School, she hoped to maintain a relationship with her former teacher. Pedley had by then retired from the Ann Arbor Public Schools, and was adjunct assistant curator of maps at the Clements Library, which houses original resources for the study of American history and culture from the 15th through 19th centuries.
“Creating an exhibit for the Clark Library was a great learning experience,” Langa says. “As a high school student I really appreciated the chance to display my work in such a great space.”
Community High offers independent study via a program that encourages students to create their own classes using resources within the local community. In the ninth grade, Langa began an independent course of study covering introductory topics in cartography under Pedley’s mentorship. By her junior year, Langa was studying Native American maps, which led to her senior year topic of the Northwest Passage.
As early as the 15th century, Europeans were convinced that there was a waterway between Europe and Asia that would avoid the long journey around South America. This Northwest Passage was sometimes mapped by cartographers of the yet-to-be-fully explored North Polar region, based on nothing but conjecture.
For example, Langa’s exhibit text explains that the “(French) cartographer (Jean) LeClerc showed the Northwest Passage as an open seaway in his 1602 map. He and his contemporaries represented this route regularly. It was acceptable to speculate about arctic geography because of the relative lack of knowledge at the time.”
Langa also was intrigued by the differences in Native American and European map making. Native Americans typically passed on cartographic information orally, using landmarks for directions, and drew maps only as quick and temporary illustrations; a curving chain of lakes would likely be depicted in a straight line, with prominent landmarks, and certainly not to scale.
Europeans interpreted those quick drawings literally and incorporated them into their own maps, and thus came to believe there was a water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through the Canadian arctic. In reality, the area was blocked with pack ice.
Though she began her work at the Clements Library, Langa also made use of the map collection in Hatcher, with the help of map librarian Karl Longstreth. When the time came for Langa to declare what form her final research project would take, Longstreth put forth a proposal: Would Langa be interested in creating a Clark Library exhibit about the Northwest Passage?
Langa enthusiastically agreed, and her impressive exhibit — which includes maps, images, and text — will be on display in the Clark Library through mid-August.
And the current state of the Northwest Passage? Global warming and the loss of Arctic ice have reduced the ice pack considerably. Commercial vessels began using the waterway, without the need for icebreakers, in 2009.
Langa is headed to Stanford University in the fall.