At Slovakia’s map museum, visitors become cartographers
he museum outside Banská Bystrica takes people on a history and geography tour, providing them with interactive stops at the same time.
Inspired by the Podbrezová ironworks, which bought Slovenská Ľupča Castle two decades ago to boost tourism in central Slovakia, Milan Paprčka also chose to set his heart on giving back to society.
The entrepreneur whose company, Creative Business Studio (CBS), is the largest map producer in Slovakia did not have plans as big as a castle on his mind.
“My first ideas naturally pertained to maps,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
In 2016, Paprčka acquired the Military Cartographic Institute’s [VKÚ] division of cartographic production, including old items linked to the art of making maps, software, and old maps. Two years later, he opened the Slovak Museum of Maps, the first of its kind in the country, in Kynceľová, a village situated right next to Banská Bystrica. It has found home in one of the two buildings that are the seat of Creative Business Studio.
The small museum went viral in 2019, a year after its opening. Books with aerial shots of Slovak districts falling off a shelf were captured on video, and the media did not mis out on the chance to bring the story to their audiences. Ultimately, ghost hunters reportedly found a female ghost named Olivia in the museum.
“A woman who allegedly practiced exorcism rituals used to live here,” said the museum’s manager and guide Andrea Farkašová to The Slovak Spectator. The woman’s name was Emilia.
In a span of five years the museum of maps has grown into a popular destination for school trips, but not because of ghost hunting. Students often come here with their teachers to learn more about geography. Using maps, Paprčka and his team plan to come up with lectures on applied mathematics and history as well. “The aim is to help students see the connections between these subjects,” he said, “Their studies will then get easier.” Neither do tourists bypass the museum, though it is open only during the working days.
Creating a Mapovce map
By just walking around one room, visitors to the museum can get a handle of how Slovak cartographers have made maps, including hand-painted maps, how to use a hiking map, and what the work of geodetic engineers involves.
It is a miniature Slovak village, with a lot of greenery, mountains and a castle incorporated into the model, that dominates the space. The fictional village is called Mapovce, above which a replica of the L-13 Vivat glider hangs on strings. “It was the first aircraft we used to make aerial shots of Slovak towns,” Farkašová explained. The actual plane is hangered at a small airport in Dobrá Niva, a village near Zvolen, alongside Paprčka’s three other sport aircraft, one Skyper GT9 and two Viper SD4 planes.
Opposite the village model is a computer with an aerial photograph of Mapovce stored on it. A mapping software turns the photo into a layer that visitors can play with and create their own map like a cartographer of this time.
Before the arrival of mapping software programmes, the Military Cartographic Institute in Harmanec, a village situated close to Banská Bystrica and known for a cave and a paper mill, had used other tools to create military and non-military maps. In 1948, when the institute was established, they began to draw maps with ink, using a blue map as an underlay.
“If cartographers made a mistake that couldn’t be ignored, they had to restart from scratch,” the museum’s manager explained, standing next to old rulers, compasses, templates and crow quill pens used in the past.
For example, an old small topographic map displayed in the museum, which features contour lines to describe the Earth’s surface in the area outside the city of Žilina, took about two months to create.
Visitors are also encouraged to trace a map with ink and crow quill pens, Farkašová said, pointing to a stack of sheets of paper on which the map of Mapovce is printed in blue.
In the eighties, the institute began to engrave maps into green films – manually. The method of engraving maps into wood or cooper had been known for centuries. Cartographers at the institute used small engraving machines with nibs of different sizes and shapes to put various symbols on maps.
“They were the most important tools at that time,” Farkašová said.
Later, cartographers at the institute started using an electrical version of these machines and an engraving pantograph, which traced symbols on a copper-made pad and simultaneously engraved them into a green film.
“It’s like when you copy and paste a text on your computer,” noted the museum’s manager.
Moreover, a huge map of Slovakia in the museum, divided into several stripes, explains how the territory of what is today Slovakia has been drawn in maps over the centuries. It starts with Lazarus’ map of the Danube Valley from 1513, continues with a 1739 map drawn by Samuel Mikovíny, who is considered to be the father of Slovak cartography, and ends with a 1995 road map created by the Military Cartographic Institute and Creative Business Studio’s hand-painted map from a decade ago.
It was hand-painted maps that Paprčka started his map business with, in fact. He invented a business plan while serving nine months in themilitary in 2003. The mandatory military service ended in Slovakia two years later.
“I’m a businessman, not a cartographer,” he told The Slovak Spectator, “I saw the maps in regions, and they appeared attractive to me.”
Yet, he had a different vision in his mind when it came to their design and functionality. The first hand-painted map that he created with a painter and graphic designers was the map of the Veľký Krtíš area in the south of central Slovakia.
From day one he had the maps printed at the Military Cartographic Institute. It was still back then a big firm and had a monopoly on map business.
Today, his firm cooperates with several painters who create the maps, which resemble a painting rather than a map after the work on them is done. The maps are painted on a film and later scanned to a computer so that a cartographer could include all the necessary features that a map requires.
“One such a map has also been painted on wood,” Farkašová pointed out.
The painting is on display in another room of the museum, where visitors can study old atlases, replica of a 3D map from 1946, and even a 1960 hiking map that does not depict a military airport in Sliač, lying in between Zvolen and Banská Bystrica, as it used to be classified information.
In addition to many other exhibits, a figurine that portrays a painter stands. It is Miroslav Pazdera, one of the painters creating hand-painted panoramic maps for Creative Business Studio.
“I gave my painter’s coat to the museum in order for my copy to look more authentic,” the painter told The Slovak Spectator.
The self-taught artist, who was not allowed to study art under communism, has been painting panoramic maps for more than 21 years. When, as a graphic designer, he was asked to do some final bits on a painted map design of a ski resort in the past, he learnt that an Austrian firm created such designs for Slovakia. After he uttered aloud that the same thing could be done in Slovakia, it did not take long and he was asked to create similar designs and even paint his first panoramic map of the High Tatras, but for the Polish ski resort in Szczawnica.
It takes about four weeks to create a hand-painted map, the painter noted. His works can be seen not only in Slovakia, but also in Poland and the Czech Republic.
“Today, there’s not as much demand as before. These maps get replaced with various photo maps,” said Pazdera.
To be able to paint such a map, Pazdera needs aerial photos. It is Paprčka or other pilots who provide him with photos. The Creative Business Studio head, who is also a photographer, became a pilot in 2010, three years after he made a promise to himself that he would become the pilot.
“In 2007 we worked on the hand-painted map of Zvolen. We needed aerial photos, so we rented a plane,” Paprčka said, “When we took off, it was such an amazing feeling that I wanted to become a pilot.”
The firm has created hand-painted maps of all Slovak regions, but it keeps filming and photographing towns in Slovakia, Czechia, and Poland from above for other projects.
Saving iconic hiking maps
After the purchase of the Military Cartographic Institute’s [VKÚ] division of cartographic production in 2016, Paprčka’s firm also began to update and republish legendary 1:50,000-scale hiking maps with the help of the Slovak Club of Hikers (KST) and the Slovak Cycling Club (SCK).
“I’m convinced that we saved the VKÚ brand, which represents a giant chunk of Slovakia’s history,” he said.
The institute, which has faced yearslong economic problems since its privatisation in 2002, exists today, but it only prints off atlases and textbooks for schools. Military mapping is carried out by the Office for Topography (TOPÚ) in Banská Bystrica.
The iconic hiking maps continue to be branded as the VKÚ Harmanec maps. Recently, they have been added to the Locus Map application. Damaged printed versions of the maps are available for free outside the museum, where a box with maps is placed.
In the museum, visitors can learn how to use a hiking map and what the role of contour lines in a map is by studying a small 3D model of the Banská Bystrica area and a map at the same time. Though Slovakia is perfectly marked with hiking trails, contour lines can help hikers calculate a distance between their location and a landmark, like a cave, shorten their trip, or make it more challenging.
“Contour lines are not in maps to take up space. They have their function,” said Farkašová, adding that a distance between contour lines in hiking maps is set at 30 metres.
The museum’s sand model of landscape also helps visitors understand contour lines better. “It’s a great educational tool and a fun thing to play with even for adults,” the museum’s manager said. A flight simulator is an attraction that will soon arrive at the museum, which would indeed need more space to expand its exhibition.
“There’s so many things that we could still show people,” Farkašová, who studied geography, said. Her discussions with visitors can last very long. “They come up with all kinds of questions. I still have to educate myself.”
Paprčka himself is fascinated by maps. He believes that maps show users more than just a direction or a distance.
“From maps, you can learn more about the history of a country as well as why the society in the country has developed in a certain way.”