After a collector donated prints of maps from the 18th and 19th century, the Montana Museum of Art and Culture began examining ways to exhibit them.
That collector, Meri Jaye, a California resident and longtime donor, had already given many works to the Permanent Collection from her trove of Western, maritime and nautical art.
Curator Jeremy Canwell and director Rafael Chacón, an art historian, made connections between three different types of prints: explorers' maps and landscapes and some of the earliest illustrations of Indigenous North American peoples by Westerners.
Their resulting exhibition, "Manus Festus," tells a story about westward expansion and colonialism.
"They are the illustrations of manifest destiny and the growth of the United States and to a certain extent the South as well, but also kind of the early reach of global empires," Chacón said.
He said there are a few ways that you can think of them. As prints, they are beautiful to look at, with detailed linework and script. Second, they are utilitarian objects that predate photography.
"They're documents to the process of expansion, and gathering data," he pointed out.
And third, they carry ideology embedded within them.
The maps become gradually more detailed as time progressed and the creators were given more data with which to work. The landmasses are often distorted according to their purpose. Matthaeus Seutter's 1760 map of the Eastern Seaboard, Mexico and the northern tip of South America was expressly made to show all the important harbors, with the land masses color-coded by empire.
"The prints are more than carriers of information, they're also carriers of ideology. So on the one hand, they're documents to the procession of expansion and gathering data, but they're also putting forth … imperial claims of the great powers," Chacón said.
The landscape prints weren't made by plein-air painters out for a wilderness jaunt. Some were created by Henry James Warre, a British military officer, who was dispatched to create drawings and sketches in present-day Oregon and Washington in preparation for a potential war. Canwell said his works examine the landscape as an asset, recording potential defensible posts.
The prints include some of the earliest recorded images of Indigenous people by Europeans.
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Some of these were created by Karl Bodmer, a Swiss landscape artist who accompanied Prince Maximilian, a German explorer, on an 1832-33 expedition into North America, traveling up the Missouri River and stopping at Fort MacKenzie.
The purpose wasn't "art," but to record as much information as possible in a manner that was "aspiring to scientific documentation," Canwell said.
Bodmer was primarily a landscape painter, and approached his work with a stern attitude to compensate. (One image is accompanied by a quote from his writings, in which he says he wants "to copy with unusual eagerness and attention every aspect realistically … in an almost ridiculously fussy manner but also with as much authenticity and truth.")
The exhibition includes an 1845 image, "Ball Players," who are posing with the original lacrosse sticks. Most aspire to document specific people in detail — see "Mexkemahuastan, Chief of the Gros-ventres des Prairies) — much like a scientist would.
"This is really the beginning of the rational systemization of knowledge," Chacón said.
During this time period, fields were growing, being refined and in some cases, such as phrenology, dismissed.
And so the prints reveal much about the Europeans' attitudes toward Indigenous people. George Catlin, who spent time living among and documenting Plains Indians, is represented by a print, "O-Jib-Be-Ways" from 1845. At the top of the image is a row of people, with clothing and headdresses rendered carefully.
At the bottom, though, he included more drawings of them with their heads at different angles, with hints of Europeans' attempts to categorize the peoples of the world into unscientific "types."
"What you see here is an attempt to be as accurate as possible in his descriptions of Native peoples, and but sort of categorizing them almost like botanical specimens, or butterflies or animals," Chacón said.
Conversely, some prints by Charles Bird King are portraits of Indigenous leaders who came to Washington, D.C., and sat for portraits.
"You think of art as illustrating history," Canwell said, "but it's more important that it actually constitutes that history. And makes that history. The knowledge that is conveyed, and the power that is conveyed by the maps, and that power that does carry through into some of the images of human beings, is a part of a narrative."