Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

24 January 2017

Shattered Maps

In this guest blog the British Library's Contemporary British Published Collections, Emerging Media Curator Jeremy Jenkins discusses his thoughts about our map exhibition.  

Just before Christmas I got to visit the exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line which is currently on at the Paccar Gallery in the British Library.  I was struck by the rich variety of cartographic items on display and the huge range of uses maps have been put to, from mementos in the form of picture postcards, to political satire.


Plan Panoramique Expo 1958, Brussels 1958. British Library Maps.CC.6.a.74.

For curators to have had the foresight to gather such a strong range of cartographic material together, which at the time of creation would have been particularly transient and even ephemeral, is a credit.   Items which stand out are the map of Disneyland (1968) and the 'plan panoramique' of the World’s Fair in Brussels Expo 1958.  Both show different worlds and cultures coming together and sitting in harmony, albeit, in microcosmic and federated space. But despite this they push the viewer to want to advance into the terrain and explore the competing geographies.

Nevertheless, from a personal perspective I found the political nature of the cartographic format particularly striking. Before I was half way round the exhibition the concept of a map as a political tool really struck home. Maps are not merely handy items to find the way from A to B. They are mechanisms for demonstrating the extensions exercising political power and influence.  This gives the entire middle section of the exhibition an air of bellicosity.  Each individual item seems to leave an imprint demanding agency over the particular geographic area it represents.

While reflecting on the exhibition I was drawn to the work of Professor Tea Sindbæk Andersen (University of Copenhagen) on memory shatter zones using her concept of the tectonics of memory. Here Anderson explores how grand memory narratives have spread over the world map. These different competing memories are based on the overarching and existing political structures. Over time they emerge and retreat, remaining constantly in flux. When opposing memory dynamics come together, in a similar manner to tectonic plates colliding, intersecting or dividing, there is the possibility for creating a memory shatter zone.  These memory shatter zones are potentially explosive and can come, about when two or more competing memory narratives which come into contact in a geographical area.     

This theory is most clearly demonstrated in the exhibition by the map depicting religious areas of Belfast which was cut to fit over the butt of a British Army SA80 assault rifle. This provides the user with the tools to negotiate the political geography of Belfast. As with many of the exhibits it offered the users clear guidance on the political landscape rather than its topographical features.  We also see the depiction of the shatter zone on a map where the opposing memories come up against one and other like plate tectonics.  

Andersen outlined her theory on Memory Shatter Zones last year during a keynote at After the War: Commemorating the Great War in Ireland symposium.  The Monograph Disputed Memory: Emotions and Memory Politics in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe which she edited, published by De Gruyter: Berlin 2016. The exhibition   Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line continues until Wednesday 1st March 2017.

 Jeremy Jenkins,