Nebenzahl Lectures in the History of Cartography Celebrate 50 Years | Newberry

Nebenzahl Lectures in the History of Cartography Celebrate 50 Years

The northwestern coast of Africa as it appears in this portolan chart created by Sebastiao Lopes around 1565.

October 2016

Thursday, October 27– Saturday, October 29, the Nebenzahl Lectures at the Newberry celebrate their 50th anniversary with a retrospective on cartographic scholarship as it has evolved since the first series in 1966; this year’s series focuses on the theme of “Maps, Their Collecting and Study.” The lectures, which convene distinguished scholars every two to three years, are free and open to the public, although registration is required. Anyone with an interest in the subject can register to attend through this online form.


According to Jim Akerman, the Newberry’s Curator of Maps and Director of the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography, the ambition of the 19th Nebenzahl Lectures “is not so much to reminisce as it is to take stock, and to once again look to the future of the field through the lens of map collecting.” As part of the retrospective, the lectures will also examine the impact of the Nebenzahl Lectures on the study of cartography, with a supplemental book reviewing the 50 year history of the series.


In 1966 Newberry President Lawrence W. Towner invited the Keeper of the Map Room at the British Library, R.A. Skelton, to Chicago to deliver four lectures on the history of cartography and the past, present, and future of the field. These lectures would make up the first “Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr. Lectures in Historical Cartography,” the first event of its kind in the field of cartography, bringing together cartographic scholars from across the globe. The University of Chicago Press later published Skelton’s lectures, as they would continue to do for many iterations of the series. Five years later, in 1971, the Smith Center for the History of Cartography was established at the Newberry, becoming the first research center dedicated to the historical study of maps and mapmaking.


Kenneth Nebenzahl, who with his wife, Jossy, founded the series in honor of his son, Kenneth, Jr., attributes the success of the program to the range of scholars who collaborated on the project, “beginning in 1966 with R.A. Skelton. Skelton subsequently recommended David Woodward to the Newberry’s then-Librarian, Lawrence W. (Bill) Towner, a great supporter of the series.” Woodward would go on to become the Newberry’s first Curator of Maps in 1969 and would help establish the Smith Center at the Newberry.


Thanks in part to the lectures and the scholarship that has come out of them, the field of cartography has grown and flourished at the Newberry and beyond. According to Akerman, cartography “is now embraced by every humanities field. In the 1960s, the annual output of scholarly and popular books and articles on the subject could be comfortably held in two hands. Lifting the annual corpus of cartographic scholarship now would require a forklift!”


The idea of what type of map is worthy of historical study, as well as the emphasis on the provenance of maps—when and where they were made, and by and for whom—have changed fundamentally as a result of the Nebenzahl Lectures and the work of the Smith Center.


Surrounding this year’s Nebenzahl Lectures are two other Chicago events of cartographic significance: the 34th International Symposium, sponsored by the International Map Collectors Society, and the Chicago International Map Fair. The events promise to foster a lively two weeks for cartographers.