01 July 2021
One-Fifth of the Earth’s Surface is a digital audio-visual, multimedia web experience by artists Hakeem Adam and Maxwell Mutanda. Commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices and York Mediale, the work is, as the title suggests, an exploration of the ‘power of water as a dynamic and fluid archive’ with the Atlantic Ocean its main subject.
The British Library has been involved in providing resources for the project, and a number of maps from the Topographical Collection of George III, digitised and released as Public Domain on Flickr have been included in the exhibit, along with sound recordings from the Library’s Sound Archive.
I was interested to see how maps would be deployed in the piece. There are a multitude of maps that show the Atlantic Ocean, its coasts, and the infinite network of rivers and arteries which feed it (a number of maps along these lines, created by Adam in Mapbox, are embedded in the artwork). Maps not only visualise the Atlantic Ocean, but influence how it is navigated, experienced and memorialised, and this role of maps is also explored in One-Fifth of the Earth’s Surface.
The online exhibition is split into sections, including: Memory, Analogue of Rivers, Ports, Navigation and Cartography, each constructed using various audio-visual elements that build, overlap and occasionally interrupt. Navigation is not straightforward, almost, at times, like fighting against the waves. Early maps appear in a number of places, particularly in the Archive section where they form part of the artists’ research materials. It is immersive, unpredictable digital art.
The creative potential of maps and mapping is limitless, and there is no better time to use them when so many are available from opened-up archives, where traditional and digital techniques are within reach, and when there is so much they can be used to say.
05 May 2020
The Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle and the Atomium in Brussels – these instantly recognisable landmarks are must-see iconic attractions. Whilst original and daring in style, they also have something else in common - they are all architectural structures specifically designed for the Expo World Trade Fairs and maps relating to the first World’s Fair can be found within the British Library’s collections.
It all started nearly 170 years ago when The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, was opened in London on 1 May 1851 by Queen Victoria. And what a spectacle it was! In the months following the grand opening ceremony over six million visitors marvelled over the spectacular show. The exhibition was housed in a gigantic glass and cast iron structure constructed to Sir Joseph Paxton’s design. The largest covered glass structure built at the time it was quickly dubbed the Crystal Palace and immediately became one of London’s major landmarks featuring in numerous maps and plans.
Map of London with view of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park inserted within the title panel as a central feature. Maps Crace Port. 7.263
The idea of organising an international event to celebrate the achievements of modern industrial technology received wide support from prominent patrons including Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) who was appointed as President of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 specifically formed to manage the preparations. The Commission chose Hyde Park in central London as a suitable site for the exhibition.
Map showing the land in central London purchased for the Exhibition. Maps Crace Port. 10.15
The event was recognised as an opportunity to showcase Britain’s industrialisation and modern technological advancements to an international audience. The exhibition’s building was actually one of the most spectacular exhibits. Paxton’s ingenious design used prefabricated components of glass and cast iron which were assembled on site. It not only met the criteria for a temporary, simple and inexpensive building but by taking advantage of natural light it also cut down the cost of maintenance. It offered incredible flexibility and even incorporated parkland features within. Rather than cutting them down Paxton enclosed all the full grown trees from the allotted land and made them the main feature of the central exhibition hall highlighting the enormous dimensions of the building. The hall also featured a stunning eight meter tall crystal fountain. Total floor space covered an area of nearly 13 football pitches (ca. 990,000 ft2 or 92,000 m2) with exhibition spaces on the ground floor and galleries providing over ten miles of display capacity.
Souvenir illustrated guide map showing the Crystal Palace location in Hyde Park in relation to other London landmarks. Maps Crace Port. 7.267
The exhibits included a wide variety of scientific and technological innovations as well as cultural objects. Over 100,000 items from every corner of the world were on display including Johnston’s Geological and Physical Globe, the first physical globe which won awards for the content and the stand (whose carved figures represented the four continents). Among the exhibits there were hydraulic presses, steam engines, microscopes, barometers, stuffed animals, French tapestries and furniture, even the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond sent from India.
The Crystal Palace Game. By S. Evans. London, [1855?] Educational game published to commemorate the reopening of the Crystal Palace on its new site. Maps 28.bb.7
The Great Exhibition was incredibly successful and made a profit way above expectations. This enabled the Commission to acquire land in South Kensington and aided the establishment of the world renowned London museums.
After the closing of the Exhibition in October 1851 the structure was dismantled and rebuilt in an enlarged form on a site in south London. The reconstruction was documented by a photographer Philip Henry Delamotte, his work provides a glimpse to what the Crystal Palace looked like.
Photograph of the Crystal Palace by Philip Henry Delamotte. 1855. Tab.442.a.5
The Crystal Palace soon became a hub for cultural events, exhibitions and concerts. The venue was seen as a place of culture and learning, it contained series of themed courts on the history of fine art, and the surrounding grounds even featured life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs and extinct animals by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. The residential area surrounding the new site was renamed Crystal Palace and two railway stations serving the site were opened.
Detail showing layout on the new site in Sydenham with carefully designed grounds and the Crystal Palace railway station. Ordnance Plan of the Crystal Palace and its Environs, Southampton, 1864. Maps 5380.(4.)
The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936 and never rebuilt, nevertheless the Paxton’s design established an architectural style employed in later international fairs and exhibitions and started a long history of World Fairs.
21 November 2016
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.
02 November 2016
One exhibition comes down, another one goes up. No matter how many exhibitions I see go into the British Library's PACCAR gallery, I never cease to be amazed by the utter transformation of the space. Our Shakespeare in 10 Acts exhibition which closed in September was a complex and winding space with 10 separate areas for each of the acts. Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line will be entirely different. We're going for the open and expansive look with a handful of open zones. It will be an 'immersive' experience.
Here are some photographs taken over the course of the past few weeks, giving you just enough of a hint to want to see the finished article from Friday.
The view into the gallery a week ago
Still a fair amount to do
A few maps starting to appear on walls
One of our more unusual exhibits is installed
12 October 2016
As the opening of our major exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line approaches, it is time to explain the background to the enigmatic globe that has begun appearing in posters and online. It is mysterious hemisphere with a more sinister message, drawn in pastel shades, with relief, place-names, and concentric rings emanating from the globe’s centre: Berlin.
The globe is taken from a United States army poster of 1943 drawn by F.E. Manning and called Target Berlin. It was published in October 1943 when the Allies with the US Air Force had begun a more concerted programme of bombing German cities. Another poster, this time with Tokyo at the centre, was produced shortly afterwards.
The poster includes a measuring rule which as explained can be used to measure the distance between any place shown on the map and the German capital. However, this was not intended as a navigational chart, but as a propaganda device. It placed Berlin at the centre of US soldiers and air crew minds and gave them confidence in the ruthless and scientific certainty of its destruction.
The Allied bombing of German cities, according to British Air Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, aimed at ‘the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany.‘ Bombing of civilians from both sides occurred throughout the war. They were some of the most controversial episodes of the 20th century, and many consider the line to have been drawn with them.
24 April 2015
At first maps were only thought of as representations of the places and the things they showed.
But in the 1980s (thanks in part to Jorge Luis Borges' tatty old lifesize cloth map) postmodernist historians began to see more power in them, and they became understood not as surrogates but as the prime reality of the places they were supposed to be showing. Given that one can't see an entire country very easily (apart from from space), it is easy to see how maps can become not just virtual, but actual realities to those who look at them.
From this point it is just a short leap to the position that maps - truthful, believable maps - are being used to persuade, hoodwink and indoctrinate. And so we come to the British Library, the University of Nottingham and FutureLearn's new and FREE online course entitled 'Propaganda and Ideology in everyday life.' Designed to explore how propaganda interacts with us on a daily basis, in positive and negative ways, the course uses content and ideas from our 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' exhibition, and maps from our more recent 'Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage'.
The maps include a Russian 'Atlas of the Arctic', a powerful high-end and symbolic cartogrpahic product, but maps don't just function in the corridors of wealth and power. Maps for schools, including this Russian one from 1903, persuaded schoolchildren, by means of beautiful colourful decoration, that Russia had lots of food and produce. It was in fact in the middle of a famine, but if the map shows it, it must be true. Right?
Наглядная карта Европейской Россiи. Составлена М.И. Томасикомъ. Дополнена и издана кружкомъ учителей подъ редакцией В.В. Урусова. M. I . Tomasik, Warsaw, 1903. British Library Maps Roll 537.
The British Library contains one of the vastest and most powerful map archives the world has ever seen. Millions of virtual (or are they actual?) worlds are contained in our vaults. But I'm not the only person surrounded by maps. You are too. What is great about this course is that it encourages its students to notice and collect maps in everyday life. Maps are all around us, and their shapes and symbolism works powerfully upon us- especially powerfully, since we don't really notice it happening.
If you take the course (which starts on 11 May) have your eyes opened to propaganda in your everyday life. It will be especially potent during the General Election campaign. Use the underground / metro / subway and you will see far more maps down there than just the tube map. Look around you!
13 April 2015
As we enter the final week of the British Library's free exhibition Lines in the ice: seeking the Northwest Passage, here are my top five (unashamedly map-heavy) highlights of what has been a memorable and eventful five month residency.
1. Robert Thorne's world map from 1582.
You probably won’t see another one of these exhibited in your lifetime, one of the earliest maps to have been printed in England, with only two in existence today, a clever bit of publicity by the Muscovy company which aimed to convince that the North West Passage didn't exist. Judging from the following 250 years of mostly fruitless searching, perhaps this point of view could have been given a bit more attention.
2. Listening to icebergs
They are very big and very cold, and make a surprising racket. Curator Cheryl Tipp selected a number of sounds for the exhibition, which appear on sound points, and piped directly into the space. The angry polar bear was particularly eloquent.
3. Explorer Ryan Nelson speaking at the BL
In an amazing coup, the British Library, the Eccles centre for American Studies and the Canadian High Commission hosted a talk by Ryan Harris, the man who discovered Sir John Franklin's ship Erebus on the sea bed. The event sold out almost before the ship was discovered!
4. An egg-shaped Arctic-biased world map on display for the first time
This rare and extraordinary educational 20th Century map (featured in this book) cleverly positions the Arctic (and Antarctic) centre stage using the 'Atlantis' projection. Its purpose was to focus minds on these zones in order to combat the vast problem of overpopulation. Oil was first extracted from within the Arctic Circle just a few years later.
5. Writer-in-residence Rob Sherman and his explorer Isaak Scinbank
Top: Rob Sherman, bottom: Isaak Scinbank
Rob Sherman's work has been a stunning feature of the exhibition. His fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank, online and in his written journal (which is exhibited), attempted to discover what happened to Sir John Franklin. For me, Rob's work has helped explore how narratives and stories (and their meanings) develop and change over time, and how they can be invested in objects. This isn't the last you'll hear of Rob, I feel fairly certain...
6. Charles II's map of the Arctic
Moses Pitt,' A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, from The English Atlas , London, 1680. British Library Maps 1.TAB.16.
Another map that has never before been exhibited is Moses Pitt's map of the Arctic, this copy owned by Charles II and acquired by the nation via the Topographical Collection of George III.
The gold leaf on this map will be shimmering in public until Friday, so if you have the chance to visit the exhibition before then, please do. We are also holding a free seminar on Friday to celebrate the end of Rob Sherman's residency. Thank you to all who has visited Lines in the Ice since November, and thank you to everybody who helped make the exhibition a reality.
17 February 2015
Without looking, you can’t know what’s there. That was our experience locating maps amongst the one-million British Library images released to the public domain. We had not guessed that 50,000 images of maps were lurking there. So how were they singled out?
Answer: with the help of our friends (the crowd!) using several methods.
Semi-manually: A dedicated team of volunteers looked at individual images and applyied the tag “map” on flickr. The work was organised using a synoptic index in Wikimedia Commons, providing a systematic method of looking at each volume and tracking shared progess. Over 29,000 map images were identified in this way.
The British Library hosted a one-day event, in concert with Wikimedia UK, to which volunteers were invited to kick-start the effort. In between working, the 30 participants enjoyed tours and talks from speakers representing online mapping efforts, including OpenStreet Map and Stroly. The day’s activities were captured in Gregory Marler’s engaging description, Lost in Piles of Maps, and a series of photographs from ATR Creative.
Ongoing crowd activity
The bulk of the work took place online over the next two months. With the wiki tools built by J.heald to guide and coordinate contributions, 51 volunteers approached the work, book by book, often focussing on geographic areas of interest. Together, they made short work of what was a huge task; 28% of the books were completed after the first 72 hours; 60% were reviewed in the first 20 days; after five weeks over 20,000 new maps were found in 93% of the source volumes.
But surely maps can be identified automatically? It’s true that well before the organised effort just described, one user produced algorithm-guided tags for this image set, which resulted in the addition of well over 15,000 map tags.
By the end of December 2014, every image in every book had been reviewed, and between the manual and automatic tagging, over 50,000 maps had been found. Since then, we have been working to clean up the data, including reviewing rogue tags, rotating images, splitting maps, and removing duplicates, to derive a final set of data. Next step: georeferencing.