A new exhibit has set its course into the Pollak Library, showcasing maps that illustrate California as an independent island apart from the rest of what is now known as the United States.
“California as an Island and Worlds That Never Were,” features select maps from the Roy V. Boswell Collection. The exhibit gives students the opportunity to come face to face with history courtesy of Cal State Fullerton’s special collections. These maps, however, have been available to students since 1971 thanks to Ernest W. Toy and Roy V. Boswell. Gallery curators Gayle Brunelle and Patricia Prestinary hope to bring not only insights into history, but also of university resources often overlooked.
“The library has been in transition,” Brunelle said. “There has been a lot of different ideas about priorities in the library, and the special collections has just never been prioritized in my view.”
One of the centerpieces of the collection is the long outdated concept of California being an island. This is represented through numerous old maps within the collection, illustrating how different perceptions of the world are compared to the years when worldwide knowledge of geography was still taking shape.
“There were very strong reasons why people would want to think about California as an island, even after there was evidence that it was not an island,” Brunelle said.
This concept originated with Spanish explorers who were traveling from Mexico around what would later be called California. Brunelle iterated that considering the area around California at the time, it was not so far-fetched to assume given the limited knowledge available.
However, sometimes discrepancies in accurate geography were intentional. Brunelle said that within some of the maps, Asia is lengthened to be closer to the United States. This was to reduce fear of traveling long distances by making the voyage to Asia from the states seem more palpable.
Similarly, North and South America were portrayed as being very skinny so that they would seem easier to bypass for travelers making the passage to Asia.
“The Boswell Collection is not a collection where you are going to look at maps and go ‘Hmm, this is what the world looks like,’” Brunelle said. “What the Boswell Collection is useful for is to understand what people thinking about the world viewed the world and saw the world at the time when they made the map.”
The collection itself features over 1,500 maps, meaning that only a small fraction of the collection could be displayed within the exhibit. Prestinary selected the maps and looked at what had been done before when they were exhibited. This was how the concept of California as an island resurfaced.
“Our maps have not been exhibited for 20 to 25 years,” Prestinary said. “The displays were curated by Boswell and Albert Vogeler who served as the collection’s curator for many years after Roy left.”
Though she had not intended it at the time of preparing for the exhibit, the concept of an isolated California holds some weight with Prestinary after the election results of last year.
“I think now more than ever, California feels like an island in some ways,” Prestinary said.
Brunelle said showing students the maps is a first step in getting them interested in the collection as a whole. After that, it is a merely a matter of making the library resources, which include digitized versions of the maps, readily accessible.
“It was a major accomplishment, especially for a budding state university at the time,” Brunelle said. “It really is an excellent collection for a university of our type and size.”
The exhibit will be open from Jan. 22 through March 29 in the Salz-Pollak Atrium Gallery.