View all news

Rare atlases provide intimate picture of history

Detail of the Indian Ocean and Asia, from 1690s Danckerts atlas

Detail of the Indian Ocean and Asia, from 1690s Danckerts atlas

Atlas holding up the celestial spheres, from 1690s Danckerts atlas

Atlas holding up the celestial spheres, from 1690s Danckerts atlas

Press release issued: 28 February 2011

Several hundred rare and beautiful images, some dating back as far as the 16th century and recording a graphic account of everything from the anatomy of the human body to a CIA record of Soviet-bloc military installations, are being brought together in a new digital exhibition.

More than 300 images, many of them never seen outside of the University of Bristol’s Special Collections library, have been identified by a team of geographical scientists and specialists who hope to open up part of the archive to a wider audience.

Almost 30 atlases have been selected as suitable for digitisation, ranging in topic and scope from Vesalius’s early human anatomical atlas (1543), to geological atlases of the UK (ex. Smith 1750s), to colonial atlases (ex. of the Caribbean Dankerts, 1760s), early archaeological atlases of human fossils and tools (1850s), a Moravian missionary atlas (1850s), a Cuban revolutionary atlas (1960s), a Chinese economic reform atlas, and a fascinating dual narrative in both Arabic and English of the Iranian White Revolution from 1971.

The collection has gradually amassed over the past 60 years, through several donations of people’s personal libraries.  Some of the atlases are one of a handful that remain in their edition, with replicas only otherwise held by several key libraries around the world, including the British Library. In some cases, the atlases include annotated notes that exist nowhere else.

Like much of the material stored by Special Collections, the atlases can currently be viewed by scholars and the public, but only by appointment and only in Bristol.  Having gathered this series of atlases into a collection, the University is now working with cartographers and photographers with the aim of creating an online digitised exhibition which will reach a wider audience. 

Dr Mark Jackson, from the School of Geographical Sciences, said: “Ideally, we would like for people to be able to see and touch the books, however that isn’t always possible.  The beauty of an online exhibition is that people could virtually flick through the atlases, zooming in on points of interest in quite precise ways, which they, of course, cannot do when the books are kept under cover of glass cabinets.”

The construction of the archive is inspired by the idea of an Atlas as “a theatre of the world”; a book that provides a complete, illustrated picture from beginning to end of the progress and growth of a particular period in history or a particular way of understanding and constructing knowledge about the world.

Head of Special Collections Michael Richardson added: “The intention is to unlock an under-utilised and little known resource at the heart of the University’s research and teaching environment in an exciting, vibrant and easy to use form.   Ultimately, it would provide a one-off, dynamic, interactive and globally accessible showcase of the University’s visually stunning research resources, and hopefully entice on-line exhibition viewers to visit the collections for further study and research.”

The digitisation of the atlases is an ongoing project which the team hope to complete this year. 

Further information

Please contact for further information.
Edit this page