Pushing the Boundaries
The British Library’s new exhibition Maps & the 20th century: Drawing the Line will look at the tumultuous 20th century through the eyes of maps. It is a period which we recognise as one of incredible highs and unimaginable lows, containing episodes ranging from the pinnacles of scientific achievement to the depths of barbarism. This is an exhibition in which we felt it was important not to airbrush the story of the 20th century, but to look at how maps (which can themselves be controversial objects) present multiple perspectives upon what happened in those 100 years.
As a result, Maps & the 20th century will cover a number of aspects of history which some might find difficult or controversial. The first is the inclusion of maps produced in association with war, genocide, humanitarian crises and other episodes which led to suffering and loss of life. As tools of war maps can present a compassion-less and cruel version of the world or, on the other hand, one loaded with emotion. What we have done is to use these maps to try and appreciate these events in the spirit of inquiry and respect.
Maps are ‘children of their times’, and as well as providing singular insights on the past this invariably means that they include language, imagery and perceptions of their times, including some which might appear shocking to a contemporary audience. These can, however, enable a perspective upon the changing values of society.
A handful of important non-western 20th century maps are included in the exhibition. However, the majority of exhibits are European or North American products, produced for audiences based there. This imbalance is not intended to demean or marginalise important non-western mapping practices. It reflects the reality of the 20th collections of the British Library, and is testament to the success of the imperial mapping project in the 19th and early 20th centuries which eradicated much mapping which did not conform to that idea. Much indigenous mapping was, and continues to be in spoken or otherwise ephemeral form more advanced but more difficult to capture than the maps we will display.
A map annotated according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1915-16. Map of Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia. London: Royal Geographical Society, 1916. Add.MS 88906/25/6
Some of the maps we display will show a version of the world which does not correspond with an understanding of the world held by some people. This might concern the location of a border, or even the named ascribed to some places. Whilst not necessarily aligning with any particular world view shown in a map in the exhibition, our reason for exhibiting is to understand why maps should show one certain world view over another. Understanding the motivations of the mapmaker is one of the key methods of unlocking the past through maps, and this is the aim of Maps & the 20th century: Drawing the Line.
Our exhibition is simply one of many countless stories of the 20th century that could be told, but we hope that the maps may allow us to look objectively on the recent past, and in so doing help to inform our future.