Yesterday I gave a keynote presentation at the RGS-IBG Schools event 'Looking ahead at GCSE geography and history: getting the best results' with the Historical Association.
If you did a Venn diagram of history and geography you’d get a historic map, and the purpose of my presentation was to convince geography and history teachers of the value of historic maps for their resource cupboards.
My general argument was that maps have always had an important role in education, pre-dating the modern subject of geography by a good few centuries. During the 19th century, when geography acquired its modern identity, maps were there as geography's handmaiden, supporting it and pushing its agenda.
Today, maps are perhaps less central to geography education than they were a century ago. Other sources are as heavily used, and maps may not be perceived as the pure scientific communication models that 1960s geographers were trying to develop, or as versatile as GiS.
But maps can still be useful in enabling an appreciation of current trends in geography - an awareness which is surely essential if you’re a geography teacher and student. In the later 19th century it was physical and commercial geography to equip British Geographer-in-chief Halford Mackinder’s ‘future inheritors of Empire.’ As to the increase in prominence of fieldwork in the new GCSE Geography syllabus, is there an echo of the 'Nature Study' trend emphasised over a century ago?
[A hand-drawn map of Ireland, around 1540] British Library Cotton MS Augustus I.ii.21.
For history students, the Historical value of maps has always been obvious. This English-produced map of Ireland from around 1540 (south at the top, Dublin and the Shannon appearing mid-way up on the left) may be inaccurate because it exaggerates the size of area of the English Pale, and has some settlements larger than others. But doesn’t that enable us to see into the mind of the English crown, and get an insight into their strategies, their fears, their blind spots? As a historical source: solid gold.
There are thousands of freely available digital historical maps online as context for geogrpahical trends, and as historical sources. If you're a teacher, stick a few in your cupboard. Have a few more on us.