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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 31.0° F  Overcast
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A treasure trove of relief maps in UW Science Hall
The university seeks to restore once-vital tools
Eurasia (1899, above) and Glacier National Park (1911) are two of the maps that have been restored.
Credit:Melanie McCalmont

Look up the Grand Canyon on Google Maps. Imagine running your fingers over your computer screen and actually feeling the topography, the jagged tip of the mountaintops, the unevenness of the rocky terrain. You trace the winding Colorado River and graze the mountainsides as you guesstimate how deep the valley must be in real life.

Now imagine doing this never having seen an aerial view of the Earth, let alone the Grand Canyon.

It's difficult to empathize with visitors of the 1876 Philadelphia World's Fair, but according to Madison geographer Melanie McCalmont, this is pretty much the position they were in. The kind of map displayed at the fair, called a relief map, was the first 3D map many of the attendees had ever seen.

"No one had ever seen the Earth from that height," says McCalmont, who received her M.S. from the UW-Madison department of geography in 2006 and is a national expert on relief maps. "They might have gone up in an air balloon, but that's limited. A view from space was almost incomprehensible for people. Can you imagine how thrilling that must have been?"

Cartographer Edwin E. Howell, who had trekked the landscape with renowned explorer John Wesley Powell, constructed the plaster model on a wooden frame only from notes and two-dimensional maps.

"It's amazing how accurate he was," McCalmont says, comparing Howell's relief to a satellite image.

So impressed was businessman Marshall Field that he bought the map, along with the accompanying minerals, bones and rocks in the exhibit, and created a room in his house for them. This collection formed the core of the Field Museum in Chicago, says McCalmont.

But see it for yourself. A replica of Howell's work hangs in UW Science Hall. The UW department of geography is home to 19 relief maps -- more than in the Library of Congress -- and 15 of them have been restored through an effort called the Relief Map Restoration Project. McCalmont, who is writing a book about the maps, remains involved with the restoration project as a volunteer, doing research and giving tours of the collection.

"The maps had puncture holes, graffiti, grime, layers of old varnish, gunk," McCalmont says. "There are two ways of restoring things. You either make it look like nothing happened, or you leave the damage to show the historical lineage."

Some of the maps in the UW's collection have been seamlessly restored; others show traces of their past. Four remain to be restored due to lack of funding.

"Maps are critically important," says Tanya Buckingham, assistant director of the UW-Madison Cartography Lab. "They help people understand patterns of information."

Buckingham says her students work on a wide array of topics, from mapping popular bike routes in Madison to international whale protection sites. "There are needs on different scales. You're going from a city to a country to the world."

Primarily, the students use tools like the ArcGIS (Geographic Information Systems) program and various Adobe Creative Suite software, which are a far cry from the mapping tools' ancestors.

The ways in which a map can be used are just as diverse as the topics they cover. The UW's Robinson Map Library houses a map of Kiska Island off Alaska that was used in military training. Lacking today's flight simulator technologies, military officials mounted a camera at a certain height over a relief map and ran it through the plaster mountain range so pilots could watch the film and become familiar with the terrain.

"The pilots would watch this over and over and get the feeling that they were in a simulator -- in a plane and flying down there and peeling away at 30 degrees," McCalmont says.

Geographer and former UW professor Arthur Robinson (after whom the library is named), who once lent his expertise to the Office of Strategic Services, discovered a way to take relief maps into the cockpit, too.

"They would make a relief map and pour foam and rubber over the top of it, and when they took it off, they'd have a [relief map] they could paint and roll up," McCalmont says.

The maps, once teaching tools, have since become something of an art exhibit. Buckingham thinks it's a shame that they are no longer used for teaching. "I'd encourage people to come look at them and experience them," she says. "These maps were used for so many years to really understand the landscape. They were meant to be touched."

Anyone interested in the Relief Map Restoration Project can visit Science Hall for a self-guided tour (explanatory plaques are affixed next to each one). Visit, or contact Buckingham at

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