Where Disaster Strikes

Floods, fires, earthquakes, volcanoes, bombings, droughts, and even alien invasions: disaster can take many forms. And, although disasters are always felt dramatically, a disaster’s form and location impacts who records its effects and what forms those records take. “Where Disaster Strikes” investigates the intertwined categories of modern space and disaster through the Harvard Map Collection’s maps of large destructive events from the London Fire to the present.

These maps invite us to consider how disasters define the changing experience of a given space. In registering the complexity of disasters at an all-encompassing scale, these maps can often seem detached from the horror on the ground. But, by looking at these maps as one piece among many forms and genres, we can understand how these media—poems, stories, journalistic accounts, photographs, prints, maps—work together to depict the many scales at which we experience the space around us. In conjunction with the popular photographs and prints of ruined cities, maps of disasters not only register the expanse of rubble that must be cleaned up but also link the nostalgia for a place that is gone forever to the hope for a place yet to come.

These maps also elucidate how certain spaces define disaster differently. Noticeably absent from our collection—and therefore from this exhibition—are significant maps of disasters in the Global South. The insurance industries that document destruction and the nostalgic spectacle of ruins pass over these spaces. Instead, the maps of these disasters—whether a hurricane in Haiti or landslides in Peru—tend to be the more ephemeral, purpose-driven maps of humanitarian agencies. As these maps define it, disaster, therefore, relies upon spaces that have already gathered a mix monetary and cultural capital.

We know when disaster strikes. But where disaster strikes remains at the heart of global spatial hierarchies.

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