An Image Interview with Katy Barrett


Map of the Philippines from the Philosophical Transactions, 1708
Map of the Philippines from the Philosophical Transactions 26, 1708

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Dr Katy Barrett, Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. I’m a historian of art and science, coming out of a research background that’s also spread across history of collecting, anthropology, numismatics and natural history. I work on the 17th and 18th centuries, on maritime and exploration art, scientific illustration and visual culture. I’m interested, at the broadest level in how images and texts worked together, and how images were part of knowledge-making in the period. In the 21st century, I’m interested in how interdisciplinary collaboration and digital humanities allow us to conduct, discuss and disseminate ideas. I blog and tweet as Spoons on Trays.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show? 

My image is ‘A Map of the New Philippine Islands’ published in the Philosophical Transactions in January 1708. It was contributed along with extracts of two letters from Jesuit missionaries describing the newly ‘discovered’ islands shown in the map, how it had been constructed and an account of the indigenous inhabitants who had shared this knowledge. It shows the group of islands between what were then the Moluccos, the Old Philippines, and the Marianas, and mixes a variety of information in showing the ocean space. The plate is engraved by A. Johnston.

What strikes you about this image? Why does it interest you?

What is striking about this image is how it mixes indigenous knowledge with conventions of European mapmaking and engraving. The map is situated in relationship to the equator (or equinoctial line) running horizontally across the bottom, and the grid of degrees of latitude up each side. Longitude is mentioned in the text but not shown visually. Otherwise, however, the islands are shown based on the number of days taken to travel around the circumference or from the nearest neighbour. Their shapes and relationships, most notably are, as Father Le Gobien tells us, ‘not made by Europeans, for none have yet been upon these Islands, but by the Islanders themselves … Some of the most skilful of ’em ranged upon a Table as many little Stones as there are Islands belonging to their Country; and marked out, as well as they could, the Name of each, it’s Extent, and Distance from the others’ (Philosophical Transactions, 1708-1709, 26, p.197).

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

This resonates for me on two levels. One is the complex mixing of different types and processes of knowledge, and the attempt to map an indigenous knowledge of ocean and island space within a European convention that was itself in development in the period. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting where this knowledge was conveyed. The other is in what is left unsaid in the process of image making. We are told that ‘the Map, thus traced out by the Indians … is here ingraved’, but so much is missing from that trail of inscription. The indigenous contributors laid out stones on a table, we’re told, but someone then had to interpret that on paper and combine it with European ideas. What was A. Johnston then given to engrave and when? We must bear in mind that one of the letters was originally written in 1697, what has happened to the image in the intervening ten years?

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

This helps to make us think very carefully about how we understand and explain such images. The process of making this image is fundamental to how readers of the Philosophical Transactions would then understand these New Philippine Islands as well as their inhabitants. In the making of this map, the indigenous contributors are unusually visible, discussed as part of a larger project of cultural understanding and missionary conversion. It is the, presumably European, draughtsmen and engravers who are obscured.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

I’d also love to know if a copy of this map made it back to the Filipino makers!


This is the first in a series of “Interview blogs” in which we ask historians, art historians, curators, and scientists to comment on images related to the Royal Society. We are interested in the different ways the interviewees respond to (sometimes the same) images.