Maps and views blog

4 posts from September 2010

24 September 2010

Thanks for watching, watch this space

Magnificent Maps ended last Sunday, and may I say a huge thank you to those of you who came and saw it over the past four months, making it the most successful exhibition in the history of the British Library.

It was genuinely thrilling to walk through the exhibition each afternoon, especially during the final weeks, and to see so many of you enjoying the spectacles. Many of you were also wearing spectacles. In fact, I strongly suspect a number of you visited the exhibition more than once, which is why free exhibitions are so great.

Here are some comparison shots of a) the gallery during the final weekend and b) the gallery a few moments ago.




All good things come to an end, and my task this week, and the task of the British Library's exhibition and conservation teams, has been to dismantle the show and get the maps of magnificence back safely into their cool, dark, underground homes. Laura from our registrars office has been co-ordinating the return of the loan maps to their various institutions. Its all proceeding really smoothly thanks to the dedication of all, and a real reminder of the large number of people and expertise needed to make something like this happen.Thank you to everyone who made Magnificent Maps a reality.

The show may be over, but the blog must go on! I see no reason to stop talking about maps, since not only have I and my colleagues much more to say, but maps continue to be around us, even if there isn't a map exhibition in the vicinity. Maps continue to excite opinions, anger and pleasure, in equal measure! Thanks for watching, and watch this space.  

14 September 2010

Final Week!

We are into the final week of Magnificent Maps, and if you haven't seen it already may I heartily recommend that you do so.

Those who have seen the show will have noticed a great many features and details of maps which only they have identified. The proliferation of finger prints and, dare I say it, nose-prints, on the glass protecting many of the maps, tells me that visitors have been studying the exhibits perhaps a bit too carefully.

So, for those of us who like to look very carefully at maps, and would look even more carefully had we the time and eyesight, here is a detail of a map from 1570 for you to savour.

Yes, a ship which looks quite a lot like a woodpecker.


10 September 2010

Magnificent maps that didn't make the exhibition #9

Lubecca Urbis Imperialis...
by Elias Diebel.
Lübeck, 1552 (1574),
woodcut on 24 sheets, 74 x 338 cm.
British Library Maps R.17.c.10

This monstrous woodcut view of Lübeck in Northern Germany really knocked me out when I first unrolled it. It is one of the largest, most animated and powerful depictions of a city I think I've ever seen, and the image above really doesn't do justice to it. Observe below, from left to right. It goes on... 


and on...

and on...

and on.

It is one of only two surviving examples of the giant view of Lübeck first produced in 1552 (the British Library's example dates from 1574). It was printed from 24 separate blocks of wood onto 24 sheets of paper which were then joined. It rather puts the de' Barbari map of Venice, which comprises a mere 6 (albeit far larger) sheets, firmly in the shade.

The monumental scale and effort was, of course, designed to impress. Lübeck was one of the world's busiest and most powerful cities, and it had been since the 14th century, when had been granted the status of Imperial Free City by the emperor. This made it autonomous, exempt from taxes and laws, able to do what it liked. It was the chief town of a massive trade organisation known as the Hanseatic League, which pretty much controlled trade in the Baltic and northern waters. Lübeck was their proud capital, the 'Queen of the Hanse.'

Lübeck is described by the BBC website as 'another picturesque little German town,' but in the 15th century it was one of the big urban centres. Imagine its modern equivalent as New York City (or Newport, Gwent), imagine a sixteenth century German Jay-Z waxing lyrical about it via the gift of song. 

Yes, this print is Lübeck's 'look at me' moment, and what really gets me is its extraordinary verticality. The eye is caught by the movement of the water and foreground activities, it travels up through the winding streets, up through the complex verticals of the churches and on to the soaring spires, flags and pediments, flocks of birds swooping and screeching around them.

This is a lively city, bustling with the activities of trade. Ships depart to the Baltic sea in the extreme right, whilst tradesmen enter the city to the left. An old crone with a rosary narrowly avoids getting run over by one of their carts. Again, just like New York! Don't walk...

This is a view of amazing vitality, and had I the opportunity again, perhaps it would have been squeezed into the exhibition. All 3 metres of it.

02 September 2010

Magnificent maps that didn't make the exhibition #8

Map of Near and Middle East Oil
by Brian Orchard Lisle.
Fort Worth, 1965,
lithograph, 95 x 125 cm.
British Library Maps 46825.(6).

Maps and big business go well together. In the boardroom, as Hollywood confirms, the map is the essential 'prop' assisting the giant corporation on its path towards world domination, acting as a powerful symbol in the most serious money-making spaces.

Aiming for similar theatricality, we introduced into Magnificent Maps the 'merchants' room' space and filled it with maps supporting or commemorating big business ventures. Exhibits include maps of North Atlantic fishing quotas (Newfoundland, 1693) and land speculation (Pennsylvania, 1687-8).  

This map, however, which we excluded from the final selection, deals with the biggest business of modern times: oil. 

The 'Map of Near and Middle East Oil' was one of a number of oil maps published from the 1940s onwards in Texas by the American oil trade publication The Oil Forum. It was updated throughout the 1960s to show, for officials and investors, the increasingly complex networks of ownership and influence, concessions, oilfields, refineries and pipelines in the decade prior to the oil boom of the 1970s.

It is a mesmerising mish-mash of tables, statistics, symbols, borders, lines, colours and patterns. Utterly incomprehensible to the lay viewer, and that is exactly the point of the map; it speaks to the initiated in their own language.

The map confuses me for a number of reasons. Its traditional format, the compass rose, the faux-Arabic lettering of the title, not to mention the colloquial labels and in-jokes ('European Turkey- to be or not to be' presumably refers to legislation governing oil drilling in the former Ottoman Empire) appears out-of-context with the map's otherwise humourless tone. I just don't understand it or where it is coming from. However, I'm intrigued by the feeling of distance it establishes between itself and me, even though it is a comparatively recent creation.  

I suppose what this tells us is that all maps have their particular audiences, and that our understanding of them has probably more to do with our perceptions of these audiences than the people themselves, their priorities, and for that matter, their maps.