Helen Wallis/IMCoS award

3 June 2016

The Helen Wallis Award for 2015 was made to Catherine Hofmann, Conservateur in the Département des Cartes et Plans of the Bibilothèque nationale de France, at the annual dinner of the IMCoS annual dinner on Friday 3 June. This award is made annually for services to the history of cartography. The citation given on the occasion of the dinner was prepared by Tony Campbell. The full text follows.

Wallis citation 2016                                                  30 May 2016

This is Tony Campbell speaking to you through the kind agency of Val erie Newby. I am very sorry not to be here with you this evening but I felt it necessary to be in Lisbon, where a 2-day conference of the International Society for the History of the Map (ISHMap), which started today, is being followed by one on my own favourite topic, portolan charts.

Unfortunately, it has not been possible for our winner to be present either. So you will have a citation but regrettably without either the ‘citationiser’ or ‘citationist’!

The award this year goes to a librarian, a breed sometimes caricatured as a kill-joy, whose favourite utterance is a loud ‘SH…’ The reality is of course quite different and the librarian could be more accurately thought of as a fairy godmother, sprinkling her stardust over the collection’s treasures and sharing her enthusiasm for their beauty, variety and importance. Because the gender discrimination act failed to mention fairy godmothers specifically, they are invariably female. As is our winner.

She comes from France, from Paris, indeed from the Bibliothèque nationale de France itself. At which point I think many of you will have guessed: this year’s winner is indeed Catherine Hofmann.

Catherine has been a Conservateur in the Département des Cartes et Plans since 1993 (getting on for 25 years). Prior to that, she had trained as an archivist/palaeographer at the prestigious Ecole des Chartes. However, when she first encountered maps she realised, as she put it, that they “always pose questions: who made them, for whom, why, and how were they to be used”. Where better, then, for such an enquiring mind than in the BnF’s map department?

There are, it seems to me, three main qualities one hopes to find in any curator whose responsibility extends to antiquarian maps: approachability, knowing where to find information, and a deep love of the subject. On each of those boxes Catherine gets a big tick. Without exception, all those I approached discreetly for information about our winner talked, with gratitude, about the way she had helped them, whether by pointing to sources, making useful introductions or sharing her wide-ranging knowledge. One in particular, Mary Pedley, who spent time working in Paris, found Catherine to be, as she wrote, “one of the most helpful, modest, and willing people I know in the field — always ready to answer a question or help a reader, or go the extra length it takes to solve a problem”.

While most people narrow their focus, Catherine is the opposite, being equally happy dealing with contemporary or medieval maps. One of her responsibilities is the legal deposit of new publications, and yet she also supplies me with information on additions to the BnF’s historical holdings, for inclusion in the annual Chronicle of Imago Mundi.

Perhaps growing up in Alsace (Strasbourg), meant that she took on the best aspects of French and German culture; while yoga, which took her to India on one occasion, illustrates her open-mindedness.

Where most careers today involve numerous changes of direction, Catherine realised at the time of her appointment that she had signed up to a ‘life sentence’ – and was delighted by that. Curators often do much of their learning ‘on the job’ and the best opportunities to do that can be by mounting exhibitions (with informative captions); organising conferences (with edited proceedings); and carrying out research into collection items.

Catherine has excelled at all of those, aided by an ability to deal, amazingly calmly, with a very large workload. She has been especially effective as an editor. Football leagues keep statistics about who make the most tackles or which player had the greatest number of shots on goal. If such was replicated in the world of cartographic publication, I cannot see anybody challenging Catherine for the title of most productive editor.

As befits the BnF’s marvellous collection – it pains me to say this but in a number of aspects its map holdings are superior to those of the British Library – the exhibitions she has played a part in, and her publications, range widely in their subject matter. The one I just have to mention, which combines the three elements, was the international conference in 2012, prompted by the memorable exhibition of maritime charts – the first of its kind. This was accompanied by a multi-authored catalogue (in its English form: The golden age of maritime maps : when Europe discovered the world), and the edited Proceedings, available freely online.

Catherine produced a number of articles on the earliest maritime charts, among them ‘How portolan maps were made and used through the centuries’. Like the conference and exhibition just mentioned, that was directly related to the magnificent project, carried out with Emmanuelle Vagnon, to provide free online access to high quality scans of the BnF’s portolan chart collection. At over 500 items, this is far and away the largest in the world.

As an exercise in joined-up planning that takes some beating. As a coda to it, and in response to a challenge to the 13th-century dating of the oldest surviving chart, the BnF’s ‘Carte Pisane’, Catherine arranged for its vellum, ink and pigments to be subjected to scientific analysis. The crucial results of those tests are due to be announced by Catherine in a few days at the portolan chart workshop in Lisbon.

I can give you no more than a flavour of the topics of the other exhibitions and publications in which Catherine was involved.

For example: ‘Publishing and the Map trade in France 1470-1670’ (in: The History of Cartography, vol. 3, Cartography in the European Renaissance; then Les globes de Louis XIV: étude artistique, historique et matérielle; as well as Artistes de la carte, de la Renaissance au XXe siècle. She has also written about early globes, about Lafreri, historical and military atlases, d’Anville, the map business, and so on.

There is life outside the BnF of course and Catherine makes sure the national library is well represented in the wider cartographic world. She is Vice-President of the History Commission of the national body, the Comité Français de Cartographie. She is also a Director of Imago Mundi Ltd, for whose journal she uses her good command of English to assist with the translation of the abstracts of the articles into French.

So I, and my fellow selectors, have great pleasure in announcing that the 2016 IMCoS/Wallis Award is being presented to Catherine Hofmann.