Science, Art, and History

The Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences has restored a historic map depicting Pennsylvania's geology, geography, and extractive industry.

In 2014, as Penn State's Steidle Building was undergoing renovations, a large—7.5 feet x 17 feet, to be exact—map of Pennsylvania was discovered leaning against the wall of an office.

Russ Graham and Julianne Snider, director and assistant director, respectively, of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery, were called in to see if the piece was worth keeping. 

It turned out to be a relief map, or a map that depicts land configuration and height of land surface, of the state. Made in the late 1800s, the map was displayed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, also known as the Chicago World's Fair. 

A close-up of the plaster relief map shows the State College and Bellefonte areas.

Close-up of Plaster Relief Map

Conservators cleaned and repaired the historic plaster relief map of Pennsylvania over several months. The map is an important historical document showing the age of the rocks and minerals as well as other geological features in Pennsylvania. Yellow ridges indicate sandstone and blue valleys indicate limestone.

Image: Cameron Hart

"It's a phenomenal work of art, and it's really unique. There's not another one like it."—Julianne Snider

In 1897, the map came to Penn State—presumably because of the University's significant mining and geology programs.

"We thought, 'This is really important. We have to save it somehow,'" Graham recounts.

The relic combines earth sciences, history, and art. Mountains and ridges are displayed three-dimensionally, the ages of rocks are represented by different colors, and the names of every town that existed at that time are hand-lettered onto the map. 

"The geology of our state is the foundation of all the disciplines in our college."—Russ Graham

More than just geology, though, it also represents Pennsylvania's extractive industry at the time. The primary purpose of the map, according to Graham, was to promote the state economically at the World's Fair. 

"This was created to show off all our natural resources—the oil, the gas, the coal," explains Graham. "At the time, oil and gas exploration was just beginning." 

A 7.5 by 17 foot, three-dimensional map of Pennsylvania is displayed.

Relief Map of Pennsylvania

The fully restored 7.5 feet by 17 feet plaster relief map of Pennsylvania is displayed in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum and Art Gallery.

Image: Michelle Bixby

Restoration and Reinstallation

"It's a phenomenal work of art, and it's really unique," says Snider. "There's not another one like it."

That's why Graham and Snider knew the piece had to be saved. So they contracted with a company to remove the map, take it to Philadelphia, and restore it to its original brilliance.

After about a year of restoration work, the map was recently reinstalled for display in the EMS Museum and Art Gallery.

Plaster Relief Map-811-001

Reinstallation of Plaster Relief Map

A plaster relief map of Pennsylvania, first displayed at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago and then in Penn State's original Old Main, was recently restored and installed on Aug. 11 in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum in Deike Building. Visit Relief Map for more.

Image: Cameron Hart

The map is already being used by students in various disciplines.

"The geology of our state is the foundation of all the disciplines in our college," says Graham.

And it tells an even larger story, too—of the history and movement of people throughout the state, and of how physical artifacts like this were created in a time before access to the technology we have today.

All these pieces and more make the map relevant to students even outside of the College of EMS.

EMS Museum and Art Gallery

The EMS Museum and Art Gallery, where the relief map is on display, also includes displays for fine minerals, fossils, old mining and scientific equipment, archaeological artifacts, and an extensive collection of art.

Why would a college dedicated to earth and mineral sciences have almost 300 pieces of art? 

"The unique thing about this collection is that it's all focused on Pennsylvania extractive industries," Snider says. "Today, it's a genre called American Industrial Art."

"There's no reason that science and art shouldn't be together."—Julianne Snider

About the EMS Museum and Art Gallery

The EMS Museum and Art Gallery is located in 16 Deike Building on Penn State's University Park campus. Exhibits change frequently, and admission is free.