Old maps are the only documents that effectively provide a contemporary image of spatial situation as it was in the past. Therefore, old maps are indispensable resources for historical spatial research.
The research program of the history of cartography, entitled Explokart, was founded 1981 by professor Günter Schilder at Utrecht University. The name of the program is derived from "Exploration and accessibility of Dutch cartographic documents, 16th-20th century".
Explokart is dedicated to making an inventory, description, and facsimiles of Dutch wall maps, topographical maps, sea charts, hydrographical maps, and globes. The aim of Explokart is to offer guidance to the users of old maps. This is accomplished by informing the users about the specific characteristics of cartographic materials, as well as the problems involved in their interpretation. Explokart classifies these documents and makes them accessible to members of the discipline and to the general public.
Dutch cartography has played a key role in the dissemination of geographical knowledge about the world. The economic and political situation of the times allowed commercial publishers in the Netherlands to gain a monopoly on the production of maps, atlases, and globes from the end of the sixteenth century until well into the second half of the seventeenth century. Accordingly, there is great international interest in the study of cartographic documents from that period.
Utrecht University had until 2004 the only Chair in history of cartography. It functions as a hub of national and international contacts. A high level of expertise has been built up in Utrecht. Because the Utrecht faculty started to focus on different themes in geography, Expokart moved in 2013 to the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam. In 2015 the Stichting Cartographiae Historicae Cathedra had appointed professor Bram Vannieuwenhuyze as extraordinary professor for the history of cartography.
Interest in old maps as a source of historical information has increased enormously during the last two decades. The history of cartography can provide insight into many other fields and disciplines; e.g. history, geography, mathematica, town- and country planning, archeology, art history, and the history of book printing and trading. All of these disciplines are more or less connected with the history of maps. Scientists often use the map as historical evidence.
The social relevance of the research program Explokart - now and in future - may be summarized as follows: the preservation of the cultural heritage of the Netherlands. This aim can be archieved in various ways:
Volunteers have made an important contribution toward the research-activities. In 1993 the staff started tutorials in the bibliography of maps for volunteers, who later formed part of a working group involved in a specific subject. The results of this research are published in the series Explokart Historisch-Kartografische Studies (Explokart Studies in Map History). The efforts of highly competent volunteers made it possible for Explokart to study topics in historical cartography that would otherwise have been left unattended by the tenured staff for lack of time.