Imaginary Coordinates

From June ’08 Spotlight: Spacious and beautifully-designed, the top floor of the new Spertus building is now a “must see” stop on our metro list of culturally-significant destinations. For its inaugural exhibition, Spertus combined two programmatic imperatives. The first is local: Spertus is one of 30 Chicago institutions participating in this year’s “Festival of Maps Chicago.” The second is international: worldwide celebration of the 60th birthday of the state of Israel. The result is “Imaginary Coordinates,” an exhibit which triangulates between maps of the Holy Land, contemporary art works, and symbolic objects. This juxtaposition is educational, thought-provoking and highly effective.

Most of the maps are already owned by Spertus (many of them coming from the Museum’s Muriel Yale Collection), but others are on loan. The evolution of European cartography (based on British, Dutch, French, and German examples) is fascinating in its own right, even without the emotion entailed in depicting Biblical sites. As tools and techniques improve, these maps present themselves as increasingly “scientific,” but the exhibit makes it clear that all maps are human artifacts generated from specific points of view.

The artwork reinforces this didactic objective. Most of the pieces are extremely personal, and the Spertus staff has worked hard to balance them. Four of the artists are Palestinian women and the other four are Israeli women. Of course when I took the press tour, the first question asked was “Why are all the artists women?” Rhonda Rosen, Director the Spertus Museum, gleefully pounced on the gentleman’s question: “Because all of the maps were made by men!”

Tzotchkes like the Jewish National Fund “Blue Box” connect abstract themes to daily life. Maps are embossed on key chains, pasted onto tee shirts, and preserved in olivewood boxes. All of these objects thereby become symbolic representations, as precious to some as the art works and antique maps are to others, and all of them together asking us to examine how we construct our identities as individuals and as nations.

“Imaginary Coordinates” runs through September 7. Spertus is located at 610 South Michigan. For more information, call (312) 322-1700 or visit

For more about “Festival of Maps Chicago,” visit

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