Pics or It Didn’t Happen! – Part II

About the Perthes Collection, Its History and Artefacts

by Claudia Berger (Erfurt/Gotha)

While last week we pondered about the implications of research on maps, their unique value and specific histories, this week’s entry will concentrate on the archive, at which our project is located, specifically: The Perthes Collection. This collection is relatively unknown among historians in general but enjoys a solid reputation among a small circle of ‘mapheads’ and enthusiasts of historical cartography. It is part of the Gotha research library and located in the iconic Perthesforum, a building which also contains the State Archive of Thuringia as well as depots and workshops of the cultural heritage foundation Schloss Friedenstein. Even though the Perthesforum houses much more than the Perthes Collection, the fact that it’s called “Perthesforum” indicates the central role that the name Pethes plays in the intellectual life and history of Gotha. In the following, I will explore not only the reputation of the Perthes Collection and its history but also its uniqueness regarding the research of historical cartography.

Front of the Perthesforum
Hardly possible to capture without cars: The front of the Perthesforum in Gotha.
Photo: CB.

The Perthes Collection contains the remains of the publishing house Justus Perthes Gotha and its successors. The original publishing house was founded at the end of the 18th century and ceased to exist in 1953 when it was socialized by the Gotha city council. The former owners fled to West Germany and reopened the business under the name Justus Perthes Geographische Verlagsanstalt Darmstadt in the same year, while in Gotha, the publishing house was named VEB Hermann Haack Geographisch-Kartographische Anstalt Gotha. Hermann Haack, who lent his name to the business from now on, had been a senior member of the publishing house itself and a distinguished cartographer. After the German Reunification, the publishing house itself was reunited and reprivatized – and eventually sold to the Stuttgart-based Ernst Klett-Verlag. So, after this lively past, what is contained in the Perthes Collection today?

From Data Collection to Map Design: The Early History of the Publishing House

To answer this question, especially concerning our project Cartographies of Africa and Asia, a small peek into the enterprise’s early history seems useful. Since our project is only concerned with the collection items until 1945, it might suffice to concentrate on the original publishing house, founded by Justus Perthes in Gotha in 1785. This, initially a rather humble enterprise, was from the beginning concentrating on data acquisition and useful but also decorative design: Its primary product was the Almanach de Gotha, which served as a directory to European nobility and had its roots at the court in Gotha. The almanac was a worldwide success and became synonymous with Gotha itself. European aristocracy took care to report births, deaths and weddings to the publishing house to be included in its register; other useful statistical information was also included.

While the almanac ensured the early success of the publishing house, in 1815 Justus Perthes decided to expand the publishing house’s program with cartographic material. It was in 1816, the year of his death, when the first atlas, initiated by Adolf Stieler, was published. Known as Stieler’s Hand-Atlas, it was supplemented and updated until 1944, becoming a trusted source in an age of yearning for cartographic and geographic knowledge. While it had been its association with the nobility that made Gotha famous, its association to maps that finally transformed the publishing house into a worldwide authority on cartographic knowledge.

Many famous cartographers worked with the company after Stieler. Of these, none was perhaps as transformative as August Petermann, who came from London to work in Gotha in 1854. He was the founder of Mittheilungen aus Justus Perthes’ Geographischer Anstalt über wichtige neue Erforschungen auf dem Gesammtgebiete der Geographie von Dr. A. Petermann (later shortened to Petermann’s Geographische Mitteilungen, abbreviated as PGM) in 1855, a scientific journal for the young academic discipline of geography. It was widely received and soon became of global importance. The innovation of the journal was its linkage of geographic news with cartographic production. Short articles on new geographic knowledge, explorations and other news items were combined with maps, which put the news of the day into cartographic perspective. Petermann himself conferred with explorers ‘on the spot’ and was even involved in the organisation of explorations. Thankfully, the journal is now fully digitized.

Notebooks, Sketches, Correspondence, Tools, Maps and Books

While the range of cartographic publications expanded, experts at the company had to keep their knowledge of the related science and data up to date. A wide variety of potential source material was collected: Maps and atlases as well as books, scrapbooks and actual measurements/observations by explorers, surveyors, botanists, ethnologists and others. All these genres are still found in the Perthes Collection, as well as tools and material of the Perthes cartographic workshops.

The whole collection is now divided into three parts, being the archive, which contains to a large extent correspondence of the publishing house; the library, which contains the book collection; and the map collection, which contains all sorts of cartographic material, from sketches to preprints and finalized maps as well as collected maps of diverse origins. The books, the journal, and a number of maps produced by Justus Perthes Gotha are already available and searchable via the Digitale Historische Bibliothek Erfurt/Gotha. Since the Perthes Publishing House was a cartographic authority during the age of exploration and high imperialism, the material on Africa and Asia is particularly extensive and includes documents from Heinrich Barth, Sven Hedin, Theodor Heuglin, and Karl Mauch, among many others.

Bruno Hassenstein reworking a map.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPK_547$113326424.

Of particular interest are the extensive map collections covering Ethiopia and Japan. Ethiopia was a particularly fascinating place for Europeans in the 19th century and the object of much speculation concerning the origins of Christianity on the African continent. The collection of maps of Japan in contrast was to a large extent due to the involvement of a single actor, cartographer Bruno Hassenstein. Hassenstein learned his craft from August Petermann himself and continued to work at Perthes after Petermann’s death. His particular fascination with Japan led to his Atlas von Japan in the year 1887. While both of these areas are particularly important to the collection, the collection itself extends vastly beyond them, also amassing material on regions like West Africa, South Africa, Central Asia, China, and many more.

Researching Cartography in its Immediate Context

So – which insights does the collection offer?

itinerary draft of the Nakasendo
An itinerary map of the Nakasendo (Takasaki to Tokio) from 1875.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection): Itinerarskizze des Nakasendo, Takasaki bis Tokio, nach eigenen Aufzeichnungen in 1875 von E. Knipping, SPK_547$112195776.

 First, it allows studying cartographic material in its immediate context. While other map archives mostly amass the finalized product, the Perthes Collection is the archive of a publishing house, where maps were produced and used for the production of subsequent editions. Drafts and preprints have survived; and the corresponding archival collection offers the correspondence of the actors and the tools of the workers, while the library of the Perthes Collection comprises books that were consulted in the process of planning and designing maps. The collection is therefore a good starting point to connect the dots of bigger exploration enterprises, which involved global actors, geographical societies, and other entities.

Secondly, the rare incident of such a rich collection of an actual commercial company offers vast opportunities for economic and labour history – even more so when concerning the narrower field of the history of publishing and publishing houses.

Thirdly, since the publishing house stayed relevant throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, the range of material is breath-taking. Being part of the cartographic community even before the advent of colonialism in Germany, Perthes was also an active publishing house during the Third Reich and even beyond 1945. Since the 1950s, the print production of its successors in East and West even allows insights into differences and similarities of mapping in both German states. Therefore, the Perthes Collection sheds light on the changing perceptions and attitudes of German geographers and scientists to other countries and their own over a long period of time. The political implications of doing cartography in Germany were woven into the material and merit a close reading.

This is the second of three parts of the editorial of our blog “Mapping Africa and Asia”, which presents finds and findings of the project “Cartographies of Africa and Asia (1800–1945)”, conducted by the Centre of Transcultural Studies and the Gotha Research Library (both University of Erfurt). The next and final part of the editorial will engage with the chances and pitfalls of the digitization of historical maps.

Next Week: Pics Or It Didn’t Happen [Part III]: Digitizing Maps: Availability vs. Authenticity?

Cite this article as: Claudia Berger, "Pics or It Didn’t Happen! – Part II," in Mapping Africa and Asia, 04/08/2021, https://karafas.hypotheses.org/109.

Further reading

Demhardt, Imre Josef/Schulte, Birgit A. (eds.), Der Erde ein Gesicht geben. Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen und die Anfänge der modernen Geographie in Deutschland, Erfurt 2006.

Dix, Andreas, Das Fremde verstehen. Strategien der visuellen Erschließung Japans durch Europäer in der zweiten Hälfte des 19. Jahrhunderts. In: kunsttexte.de, Sektion Gegenwart und Künste, Medien, Ästhetik, No. 2, 2020 (13 pages), www.kunsttexte.de (30.7.2021).

Meyer, Philipp Justus, Kartographie und Weltanschauung. Visuelle Wissensproduktion im Verlag Justus Perthes 1890-1945, Göttingen 2021.

Schröder, Iris, Eine Weltkarte aus der Provinz. Die Gothaer Chart of the World und die Karriere eines globalen Bestsellers. In: Historische Anthropologie 25 (2017), pp. 343–366.

Schröder, Iris/Dorsch, Sebastian, Introduction: Spatiotemporalities of Cartographic Empire-Building. In: Meyer, Holt/ Rau, Susanne/Waldner, Katharina (eds.), SpaceTime of the Imperial, Berlin 2017, pp. 333-337.

Weigel, Petra, Das Kartenproduktionsarchiv des Justus Perthes Verlags in der Forschungsbibliothek Gotha. In: Syré, Ludger (ed.), Ressourcen für die Forschung. Spezialsammlungen in Regionalbibliotheken, Frankfurt a.M. 2018, pp. 125-141.

Weigel, Petra/Siegel, Steffen (eds.), Die Werkstatt des Kartographen. Materialien und Praktiken visueller Welterzeugung, München 2011.


Mapping Africa and Asia

How were maps of Africa and Asia produced in 19th-century Europe? What knowledge contributed to their development? Which factors affected their design and structure? How did concepts of globality and territoriality inform map designs?  And what role did colonial imaginaries and fictions play in the process? Was a ‘European’ or even ‘German’ gaze inscribed into map designs?

This blog tackles these questions and more by presenting extraordinary finds and findings of the project “Cartographies of Africa and Asia (1800–1945). A Project for the Digitization of Maps of the Perthes Collection Gotha”. Situated at the University of Erfurt and administered by the Centre for Transcultural Studies / Perthes Collection and Gotha Research Library, we are concerned with the digitization of historic African and Asian maps included in the Perthes collection, ranging from 1800 to 1945. The project is featured in the eHeritage funding program of the BMBF for two years.

The aim is to introduce the vast array of some 35,000 objects to the international scientific community and to stimulate research related to the extraordinary collection situated in this residential town in Thuringia. The Justus Perthes publishing house, whose surviving archives comprise the Perthes collection held by Erfurt University, was one of the world’s leading cartographic publishers in the 19th century and beyond. All digitized items will be published via Digitale Historische Bibliothek Erfurt/Gotha (DHB, digital historical library).

The digitization effort includes maps of the African and Asian continents and individual Asian or African regions, which were produced in Gotha by the Justus Perthes publishing house itself. Also included are maps, which the company bought and collected, often to serve as source material for their own products. This notoriously busy publishing house was responsible not only for the production of maps but also for maintaining a closely-knit network, consisting of researchers, explorers, and scientific geographical societies (among others). Its periodical Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen quickly became the most trusted outlet of geographic and cartographic news in 19th and early 20th century Germany.

The Perthes Collection provides rare insight into the design processes and networks that contributed to the finalized versions of maps. It caters to scholars of fields as varied as Global History, Colonial and Imperial History, History of Science, History of Geography and Cartography as well as Area Studies, Didactics of History and Geography. Handwritten sketches and manuscript maps are preserved in the collection as well as notebooks and correspondence by the explorers themselves, commenting on map designs and giving corrections.

Pics or It Didn’t Happen! – Part I

Why digitize historical maps of Africa and Asia?

by Claudia Berger (Erfurt/Gotha)

“Pics or it didn’t happen!” has become a proverb of internet culture in cases when someone demands visual—specifically, photographic—proof of seemingly unrealistic claims. Even in the face of innovations like “deep fakes,” visual images still have the power to convince. It might even be said when it comes to maps, which, although constructed and designed, still enjoy a reputation of being grounded and legitimated through scientific data and processes. This scientific reputation was created over centuries and has been marketed to the public since the 19th century. While maps designed in Europe by Europeans can be easily discredited for their complicity in imperialist and colonial projects, their innovation made them extremely useful.

Maps are everywhere, now more than ever. Our lives are full of digital maps, perceived as neutral surfaces, which allow us to navigate territories previously unknown to us. None of these digital maps, of course, are perfectly neutral, as even a casual encounter with GoogleMaps proves. One could ask, for example, which businesses are displayed and which are not. This information is often provided by the business owners themselves or crowdsourced. This then means that the information displayed on the map depends widely on the contributors, who differ even among different parts of the same city. The resulting arbitrariness of the map can and does cause difficulties for its users: searching for an ATM in a strange place can become quite a journey. But even if the digital maps we use every day are not always trustworthy, they remain useful.

It might feel wrong to attribute similar characteristics to historical maps of the 19th century, which were created through processes of painstakingly detailed artisanship. Nevertheless, the main perception of maps was that they were a neutral medium, depicting objective geographical knowledge. This perception overlooks the process of creating maps, which involved the author sorting through the diverse source material, which often led to arbitrary omissions and even inventions. This was perhaps most common in maps of faraway places, which could not easily be checked for their geographic factuality. Knowledge circulation and production, visual design and craftsmanship blend in a historical map. They contain the perspective of the author as well as the historical sources from which they are derived.

But, to return to the question above, what makes the study of historical maps worthwhile? If one were to envision maps solely as artefacts of previous stages of the ever-progressing science of cartography, or in more general terms, geography, there would be little value in turning to maps apart from aesthetic reasons. However, historical maps are not only intriguing as artefacts of historical art and craftsmanship, it is precisely their partiality that renders them precious and worthy of study. Historians, specifically J.B. Harley, have come to recognize the valuable insight that maps can offer into relations and hierarchies of power and agency.

It is equally reductionist to view maps solely as depictions of geographic knowledge. Via their design, maps conceal that they are often merely suggestions; they lend credibility to possible futures, thereby enabling them (Corner 1999). Maps, therefore, are complex artefacts that merit deconstruction because they can inform our perspective on past futures and possibilities, as they had been portrayed by the mapmakers. These authors themselves were embedded in power structures and shaped by their work practices and cultural norms.

An interdisciplinary approach to the study of maps is therefore essential: historians of cartography have employed models and theories of literary studies and the social sciences with great success. This blog continues this new tradition and seeks to spark a broad discussion on the rich material. Central to our research project are the maps of Africa and Asia found in the Perthes Collection in Gotha, dated between 1800–1945. In this era wrought with the growing importance of territory and territoriality, maps become crucial for understanding political agendas and agencies.

Zooming in on Maps of Africa

Blank spaces on an early 19th century map of Africa
Africa: Seen as a blank space to be explored and finally colonized by Europeans. Detail of a map contained in the famous Stieler’s Hand-Atlas (1818), published by Justus Perthes Gotha.                                                                                                             Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPA-2°-000049 (045), https://dhb.thulb.uni-jena.de/rsc/viewer/ufb_derivate_00003726/SPA-2-000049_0066.tif (CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Maps of Africa, especially those created in Europe during the late 18th  and 19th century, are fascinating to observe: with ever-increasing velocity, one can see how formerly blank areas are filled in with question marks and imagined terrain. European maps of Africa from this period embody, perhaps more so than any other maps, the aspirations of their makers. They envisioned colonial futures and enabled colonial violence by not only providing geographical knowledge but also by metaphorically stripping the indigenous landscape of its population by rendering them as blank spaces. Maps of Africa have been mostly perceived as the depiction of colonial ambitions and fantasies and therefore been viewed through the lenses of their European creators. Although there is much to be learned from approaching maps as instruments of colonialism, this view is equally reductive because it discounts other potential information embedded in a map. One main oversight is that maps of Africa were not solely products of European creators: they were often created in collaboration with indigenous intermediaries and knowledge-brokers, whose agencies and cultural norms were, often unwittingly, inscribed in the finalized version of maps.

Our outlook on maps of Africa is especially informed by a prior project, Ethiomap. While Ethiomap only targeted a specific set of maps, it brought together historians from Paris, Gotha, and Mekelle in a rare attempt to decipher their hidden ambiguities. This approach proved valuable. Our discussion prompted us to question compelling but one-dimensional approaches, which all too often applied rigid categories to the map, an ambiguous medium and often reluctant actor in colonial conquest. European map designers were not always aware of the origin of the knowledge they were including or excluding. Indigenous names entered the maps and with them, unnoticed by Europeans, local meanings that were intelligible only to a minority of map readers.

On the other hand, even if one disregards the indigenous knowledge brokers, viewing all European contributors to maps as sharing the same agency is equally misleading. It had been Europeans who not only described roads and rivers but also mountains which were said to block the flow of trade in western Africa for nearly a century (Bassett/Porter 1991). These mountains, now known as the Mountains of Kong, had been a European fabrication, a claim to support a long-forgotten scientific theory, but had nevertheless hindered European colonisation and trade. While the case of the Mountains of Kong is now one of the more obvious causes for a differentiated view on maps, we believe even more ambiguities lie in the designs and the data upon which these were based.

Looking at Maps of Asia

map of the Indian subcontinent, displaying its rich settlement structure
Detail of a map of the Indian subcontinent in Stieler’s Hand-Atlas (1828), displaying the richness of settlement structures.                                                                     Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPA 2° 000049 (044b), https://dhb.thulb.uni-jena.de/rsc/viewer/ufb_derivate_00003724/SPA-2-000049_0064.tif (CC BY-SA 4.0).

While most of the African maps in our project were finalized in Europe, the maps of Asia include a fascinating amount of maps created in Asia, which had been collected by the publishing house. Therefore, the structure of the Asian collection at the Perthes collection differs fundamentally from the collection of maps of Africa. While the design of the latter ignored local knowledge and infrastructure, maps of Asia often confront the wide variety of pre-existing human-made infrastructure, like cities or trade routes, and portray its particular richness. The geographical knowledge of Asia was not only constructed by explorers but also often conceived via indigenous maps of Asia, which had been traded to Europeans. European mapmaker such as Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon D’Anville in the 18th century offered their skills to Asian sovereigns and contained their royal license to map their territory for their use. The example of D’Anville is very closely linked to the practice of Jesuit cartography in China, which prioritised the usefulness to the Qing empire in the design of their maps. In these cases, the map became a complex matrix for transcultural exchange (Cams 2017).

European cartography of Asia was also informed by the colonial surveys. These provided additional geographical knowledge of the land and also served as grandiose colonial projects to underline European ‘ownership’ of the land and its peoples. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, conducted by the British colonial power from 1802–1872, serves as a prime example. The project was as much symbolic as it was expected to provide practical means for local government. It became a costly and time-consuming activity, involving many indigenous surveyors, known as pundits, who took remarkable risks to undertake the survey and whose knowledge and experience had been included in the effort (Raj 2002). The survey also confirmed the conviction of the colonizers, which was that cartography was as useful as it was essential to convey power and to govern. While less grand in their scope, German colonial surveys of China are also well documented in the Perthes Collection.

Another fascinating entry point for research on the maps of Asia is the question of source materials and provenance. There are interdependencies between maps that originated in Asia and maps designed in Europe at a later stage. The former had likely been used in the production of the latter. Mapmakers in this process chose which strains of knowledge to include and which they deemed irrelevant. As a result, cultural meanings and practices embedded in Asian maps may have been lost in the European versions. Questions of provenance offer the possibility for following map designs on their journey around the globe through various adaptations. The notoriously busy Justus Perthes publishing house and its peers collected maps from all kinds of actors. The collections thus document far-reaching networks, the peripheries of which are not yet fully explored.

And why blog about it?

As complex artefacts created by various actors of diverse agencies and cultural or political backgrounds, research on maps thrives when approached by a diverse and interdisciplinary cast of researchers. As such, this blog is as much a report on the digitization process as it is an invitation to discuss matters central to research on maps of Africa and Asia. We will share findings of the digitization effort, as the treasures of the Perthes collection—one of the most striking cartographic collections in Europe — are made available online. The next part of the editorial will further discuss the history and structure of the Perthes Collection.

This is the first of three parts of the editorial of our blog “Mapping Africa and Asia”, which presents finds and findings of the project “Cartographies of Africa and Asia (1800–1945)”, conducted by the Centre of Transcultural Studies and the Gotha Research Library (both University of Erfurt). Other parts will engage with the Perthes Collection and its cartographic material as well as with the chances and pitfalls of the digitization of historical maps.

Next Week: Pics Or It Didn’t Happen [Part II]: About the Perthes Collection, Its History and Artefacts

Cite this article as: Claudia Berger, "Pics or It Didn’t Happen! – Part I," in Mapping Africa and Asia, 28/07/2021, https://karafas.hypotheses.org/36.


Bassett, Thomas J. / Porter, Philip W.,  ‘From the Best Authorities’. The Mountains of Kong in the Cartography of West Africa. In: The Journal of African History, Vol. 32 (1991), No. 3, pp. 367–413.

Cams, Mario, Not Just a Jesuit Atlas of China. Qing Imperial Cartography and Its European Connections. In: Imago Mundi, Vol. 69 (2017), No. 2, pp. 188–201.

Corner, James,  The Agency of Mapping. Speculation, Critique and Invention. In: Cosgrove, Denis (ed.), Mappings. London 1999, pp. 213–252.

Harley, John Brian, Deconstructing the Map. In: Cartographica, Vol. 26 (1989), No. 2, pp. 1–20.

Raj, Kapil,  When Human Travellers Become Instruments. The Indo-British Exploration of Central Asia in the Nineteenth Century. In: Bourget, Marie-Noëlle/Licoppe, Christian/ Sibum, H. Otto,  Instruments, Travel and Science. Itineraries of precision from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, London/New York 2002, pp. 156–188.