Visions of Eternity: Mapping the World at Durham Cathedral

Danny Knight, the Public Fundraising Manager for York Minster Fund recently visited our Open Treasure museum and it’s safe to say our Mapping the World exhibition made a lasting impression on him.

Danny Knight

Nothing adds historical weight to a world like old maps.

They have always seemed to me like a rudimentary form of time travel, allowing you to explore a landscape which is at once completely alien and yet instantly recognisable. Maps are a snapshot in time, a frozen instant in history. They capture both the eternity of the natural world and the human place in it, yet are equally evocative of the change experienced by that world. Names and places stitch together the fabric of our present and our past, anchoring memories and communities and people.

Durham is an ancient place. A settlement on the site may date back nearly 4000 years, and the city in its current form is recognisable as far back at the 10th century. The grand, towering facades of Durham Cathedral offer a continuous thread throughout the last millennium, displayed in its collection of ancient maps. At the centre of Mapping the World, the newest exhibition in the beautiful Open Treasure museum, unfurls a map of county Durham. Balanced precariously next to the river, nestled between the hills and mountains of the county, sits Durham Cathedral. And thus it remains in maps from subsequent centuries: Durham Cathedral rests unchanging, unflinching, atop its pinnacle.

Map of County Durham, Christopher Saxton and Augustine Ryther, 1576 ( from Durham Cathedral Library Collections)
Durham Cathedral shown on Thomas Forster and J. Mynde‘s Map of Durham City, 1754 (from Durham Cathedral Library Collections)

This stability cannot be understated. Society may shift around it, but from Anglo-Saxon saints to modern mining communities, the Cathedral remains at the centre of North-East identities through it all. It ties us back to our past, a single stitch in the ever-changing fabric of our world.

Maps also demonstrate the endless human desire for truth. Our understanding of the world influences and is influenced by maps. In Mapping the World, we see how the vague, nebulous coastlines of the Americas become defined over time, in turn defining the truth of our world, its history and its future. The same can be said of the cathedral that houses these marvellous works. Its evolving place in society is testament to our evolving understanding of the world around us – a world which is in turn captured on paper by cartographers throughout the ages.

These artefacts, ancient maps and ancient buildings, give us reference points as we explore the past. We may think we have seen change in our lifetime, but what change has Durham Cathedral seen? If it can survive this long, surely it is eternal?

However, we should not be fooled. Ancient maps, ancient buildings and ancient landscapes require a great deal of care and attention. They only retain their longevity because of the countless individuals who serve them, ensuring that they remain strong and beautiful forever. Mapping the World at Durham Cathedral reminds us that we, today, are the stewards of our natural and cultural heritage. It is our responsibility to keep it and support it for future generations, just as previous generations kept it and supported it for us.  

Interested in visiting Open Treasure?

You can visit the Mapping the World exhibition within Open Treasure until Saturday 18 January. Opening hours are Monday–Saturday, 11am-4pm, and Sundays from 12.30pm-4pm.  Last admission 3pm each day.   

Please note Open Treasure will be closed from 4pm on Saturday 18 December until 10am Monday 27 January 2020, to allow for exhibition changeover. From 27 January, Open Treasure opening hours will be Monday to Saturday, 10am – 5pm and Sundays, 12.30pm – 5pm. Last entry 4pm each day.

Tickets: £2.50 – £7.50. Under 5s free, family ticket £17.50, 50% discount with an art fund pass. Available from the cathedral’s visitor desk and in advance on the Open Treasure ticket booking page.

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