17 July 2020
This final chapter discusses a number of cartographic innovations from the middle of the twentieth century onwards that exploited the ability of photographs to capture data - from developments in aerial photogrammetry, through multispectral satellite mapping and surveillance imagery, to the digital map platforms of today.
Technical innovations that had begun during the Second World War soon extended into the civilian sphere with the widespread adoption of aerial photogrammetry by national mapping agencies worldwide – a development that arguably had a greater impact than any other on mapping practices of the twentieth century. New radar surveying techniques allowed air photographs to be pinpointed on the ground more accurately, more economically and over far greater areas than before, bringing vast regions of inaccessible terrain within the mapmaker’s scope for the first time.
Between the 1950s and the 1980s, the whole of the Soviet Union was mapped in this way, resulting in over 300,000 sheets at a scale of 1:25,000. During the same period, the British Directorate of Overseas Surveys also covered over 2.5 million square miles of land, mostly over former British colonies and administrations that had no mapping capability of their own. The image below shows an isolated settlement and nearby areas of subsistence agriculture in eastern Nigeria. Maps made from such images contributed to state economic and social planning initiatives.
Aerial photograph of Nanguru, Nigeria, 1974. Image courtesy National Collection of Aerial Photography.
Mapping vast, sometimes featureless, inland regions led to some eccentric examples of cartography. The following detail is taken from one Australian map sheet that covers more than 2,750 square kilometers of the Great Sandy Desert. Each square is one kilometre on the side. Of the total 3,062 sheets in the series covering the whole country, only half were printed – this sheet was selected for print on account of a single track that meanders briefly along the bottom edge, before diverting back to the adjacent sheet beneath.
Detail of Australia 1:100,000 topographic survey, Weenoo Sheet 3256, 1972. BL Maps 90050.(125.).
Widespread use of air photographs also led to security concerns. As part of the British reconstruction effort after the war, the RAF covered the whole of Great Britain with aerial photography in order to assess bomb damage. Between 1945 and 1951 the Ordnance Survey published the photography as OS Mosaics, large-scale rectified photomaps of towns, cities and some rural areas.
After many images had already been published, it was feared that foreign states might benefit from the level of detail of sensitive sites that was revealed. Further editions of the same sites were therefore over-painted before publication in order to remove or disguise these features. The military airfield shown in the image below has been replaced by a fictitious pattern of fields and country lanes in the later version beneath. In 1954 OS Mosaics were removed from sale entirely.
Air photo mosaics of Britain, sheet 26/32 NE, 1946 (above), 1950 (below). BL Maps O.S.M. Image courtesy Lie of the Land, pub The British Library, 2001.
An alternative and innovative approach to photomapping was taken in Sweden. From as early as 1935, aerial photography was incorporated into the Ekonomisk Karta land use series. The large-scale photographs provided a base layer onto which topographic, cadastral and land use symbols and colours were added.
Detail of Ekonomisk Karta Över Sverige, Sheet 20K7D, 1959. BL Maps 35290.(48.). Image courtesy Lantmäteriet.
Stereo pairs of air photographs could be made into three-dimensional ‘anaglyph’ images, which were viewed through coloured glasses. Examples of these were created for military planning purposes during the Second World War, such as a German series from 1944 showing the Istrian coastline (held at BL Maps Y.3842.). After the war, the French national mapping agency published a number of anaglyphs in a Relief Form Atlas of 1956. The purpose of the atlas was to teach readers to understand the mapping of a wide variety of landscapes by showing three-dimensional views alongside maps of the same location. The following image of the volcanic cone atop Mount Karthala in the Comoros is striking when viewed through a pair of red and blue 3D glasses.
Anaglyph image and map of complex crater, Comoros, 1949, in Relief Form Atlas, pub IGN, 1956. BL Maps Ref. 912 1956.
Images taken from aeroplanes were soon joined by those taken from satellites, after the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 sparked the Space Race between themselves and the USA. The speed of technological developments over this period is encapsulated in the three images following. This annotated photograph taken from a military aeroplane in 1936 captures the curvature of the Earth for the first time, and shows the highest point then reached by man.
The first photograph ever made showing the division between the troposhere and the stratosphere and also the actual curvature of the earth, National Geographic Society, 1936. BL Maps Y.84. Image courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
Only two decades later an unmanned Russian spacecraft, Luna 3, took the first pictures of the far side of the moon as it orbited in 1959. The images were transmitted back to Earth by radio link and published in Moscow the following year in the Atlas of the Far Side of the Moon.
Atlas obratnoi storony luny [Atlas of the Far Side of the Moon], pub Akademia NAUK SSSR, 1960. BL Maps 29.b.68.
Within the next ten years man too had travelled round the moon. American astronaut William Anders took this iconic photograph, which looks back at the Earth as it rises above the lunar surface – an image of the world that had previously been possible only in the imagination.
Earthrise, 1968. Image © NASA.
Both the Soviet Union and the USA launched military reconnaissance satellites during the early 1960s that were capable of creating high resolution imagery for intelligence and mapping purposes. Civilian satellites followed, perhaps the most successful of which was Landsat, launched by the USA in 1972.
Multispectral satellite imagery became an essential feature of land survey and resource management, leading to a proliferation of thematic maps, and a new category of mapping under the title satellite image maps. The ease with which satellite imagery could track changes over time in the environment also brought new insights to many areas of study, including urbanisation, de-forestation, analysis of weather systems, and ocean dynamics.
Upper Chesapeake Bay satellite image map, second experimental edition, USGS, 1972. BL Maps X.2987. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Nowadays aerial photographs and satellite images are ubiquitous in digital mapping products that have become a common feature of everyday life. 2001 saw the launch of Google Earth, an application in which satellite imagery and aerial photography are draped over digital terrain models to provide interactive three-dimensional map views.
Screenshot showing the Island of Stromboli, Google Earth, 2020.
In other applications, maps and photographs are now interchangeable - users can choose between map or satellite viewing modes.
Screenshots taken from Google Maps, 2020.
Google Street View, launched in 2007, integrates terrestrial photography and cartography to create a model of the world from a horizontal viewpoint – a mode of representation with antecedents in artworks of former times. In the early 1900s, Eugène Atget started to make images of the older parts of Paris with the intention to record streets and buildings that risked being torn down and re-developed. By 1920 he was able to write, ‘This enormous artistic and documentary collection is now complete. I may say that I have in my possession all of Old Paris’.
Cabaret ‘Au Port-Salut’ by Eugène Atget, 1903. Image courtesy Bibliotèque historique de la Ville de Paris.
Half a century later, American artist Ed Ruscha created an artwork entitled Every Building on the Sunset Strip by fixing a camera onto the back of his truck and driving up and down as it took pictures on a timer. His intention was to recreate the experience of moving through the landscape.
Every Building on the Sunset Strip by Ed Ruscha, 1966. Image courtesy National Gallery of Australia.
Google Street View now also employs cameras fixed to cars, or strapped to pedestrians’ backs, to create strips of 360-degree images stitched together. The artistry and focus on aesthetic have been lost in these pictures made by machines, but those qualities have been replaced by functionality. Google’s georeferenced, navigable imagery allows users to search and interact with a vast database of (mainly business) information. The corner building shown below, tagged so that one can choose to see the menu or make a booking at the restaurant within, is the same as that in the Atget photograph from 100 years before.
Screenshot taken from Google Street View, 2020.
The perceived realism of digital maps and photographs makes them particularly persuasive. However, two posts reproduced from Twitter, below, document conflicting facts about the shooting down of an American drone by Iranian forces in June 2019. The first, published by US Central Command, shows the drone flying through international, not Iranian, airspace when it was hit, while the second image, posted the following day by the Foreign Minister of Iran, shows the drone in a different location, within Iranian airspace.
Screenshot of Image posted by US Central Command on Twitter, 2019.
This incident reminds us that the latest generation of maps and images remains as susceptible as any before to manipulation or exploitation.
Today more than ever, maps and photographs go hand-in-hand in our ceaseless attempts to capture, model, and mould the world around us.
08 July 2020
We have come to the fourth and final qualifying group of our British Library world map world cup, and in it we have four extraordinary and breathtaking examples of cartography from between the 11th and 20th centuries. I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to make your difficult choice.
Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals tomorrow, Friday July 10th.
1.Beatus of Liébana world map. Drawn in Burgos, Spain, between 1091 and 1109 (Add.MS 11695)
The 15 surviving 'Beatus' maps are included in textual commentaries on the Apocalypse of St John (from the New Testament Book of Revelation) written by the Spanish theologian Beatus of Liébana (fl.776–86). The British Library’s example, arguably more powerful and brooding than the others, is a diagrammatic image with powerful pictorial elements. These include fishes swimming in the sea encircling the world, the‘molehill’ mountains and the unforgettable image of the Garden of Eden at the top of the map, in the east. It was produced in northern Spain (in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos) in around 1109, and as a result reflects Islamic pictorial influences that had spread from northern Africa.
Link to digitised example: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beatus-world-map
Further reading: Peter Barber, 'Medieval world maps; in Paul Harvey, The Hereford World Map: medieval world maps and their contexts (London: British LIbrary, 2006).
2. The Contarini-Rosselli world map. Engraving, published in Florence in 1506 (Maps C.2.cc.4).
This is the earliest surviving printed map to show any part of the Americas. It was published in Florence in 1506, only a decade or so after Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492. The map, which is by the Venetian Giovanni Matteo Contarini and Florentine Francesco Rosselli, has been celebrated for its American content ever since this only known copy was purchased by the British Museum in 1922. But it is an extremely early and partial glimpse of eastern America: Newfoundland and Labrador are shown cemented on to Kamchatka, Cuba and Hispaniola are floating next to Japan, and South America is joined to the vast Southern Continent.
Link to digital copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-known-printed-world-map-showing-america
3. Aḍhāīdvīpa. Painted in Rajasthan in 1830 (Add.Or. 1814).
This is a map showing the structure of the world of Jainism, a religious system founded in northern India in the sixth or seventh century BCE. The map, which is in Sanskrit, was painted onto cloth in Rajasthan in 1830, and like many of the European medieval mappamundi, it illustrates a fusion of human and sacred geography. At the centre is the recognisable, terrestrial world of people (Mount Meru is at the centre, as it is in the Korean Ch’ ōnhado maps). Surrounding it is the spiritual world: green concentric-ringed continents illustrated by lunar symbols and separated by fish-filled oceans, beyond which is the outer land of the jinas or prophets.
Link to digital copy: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_Or_1814
Further reading: Joseph E. Schwartzburg, 'Cosmological mapping' in The history of cartography volume two, book one: cartography in the traditional Islamic and South Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).
4. Self determination world map, by F. Klimesch. Published in Berlin in around 1919 (Maps CC.5.b.29).
The only 20th century world map to make it into our World Map World Cup competition (not that there aren't many great 20th century world maps, just a mere 16 places to fill), is a German map produced in the wake of the peace treaties following the defeat of Germany and the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. It shows the victorious allies Britain, France, Russia and the USA as soldier figures, holding leashes attached to their respective national beasts. These beasts have been placed over the colonies they controlled.
The title explains why: 'What would be left of the entente if it made serious the right of self-determination of their own people and let go of the reins!' The map calls out the Allies' decision to confiscate German colonies under the principle of 'self determination,' but to retain theirs regardless. Given the century-long process of decolonisation that ensued, and ensues, the map is profoundly and powerfully prescient.
Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/was-von-der-entente
06 July 2020
Hello and welcome to Group two of our British Library world map world cup.
In every world cup there tends to be a group of death. This group is the football equivalent of Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Spain all together. So I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to choose between them.
Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals on Friday.
1. Vesconte-Sanudo Mappamundi.
Drawn in Venice or Genoa in around 1325 (Add. MS 27376*).
This map is an extraordinary hybrid between a traditional 'mappamundi' and a portolan or sea chart. It was drawn by the Genoses chartmaker Pietro Vesconte to illustrate Marino Sanudo's mysteriously-titled book 'Secret book of the Faith of the Cross.' The book was presented to Pope John XX in order to persuade him to give his blessing to a Christian Crusade to invade the Holy Land. Other maps in the book illustrated the route to the Holy Land and the goal of the proposed mission: Acre and Jerusalem.
The world map is particularly clever because, most unusually, it consciously played down Christian iconography in order to present the Pope with an image of Christianity in crisis.
Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/liber-secretorum-fidelium-crucis-by-marino-sanudo
2. World map by Pierre Desceliers, 1550.
Drawn in Dieppe, 1550 (Add.MS 24065).
Descelier's map is perhaps the crowning achievement of the Dieppe School of French chartmakers; a large planisphere focused upon navigational information (it has dual orientation indicating that it was to be viewed upon a table) but also corresponding to the idea of a visual encyclopedia of everything occurring in the world. The map contains the arms of Henri II of France and the Duc de Montmorency and could have been owned by either. Of particular interest is its depiction of areas of North America then only recently encountered by Jacques Cartier and the unusual arrangement of South East Asia and Australasia entitled Java La Grande that would flummox Europeans up to and beyond the journeys of James Cook two centuries later,
Further reading: Sarah Toulouse, 'Marine cartography and navigation in Renaissance France' in The history of cartography volume three, part two: cartogrpahy in the European Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2007).
3. Joan Blaeu world map, 1648.
Engraving on 21 sheets, printed in Amsterdam, 1648 (Maps KAR.(1-2.).).
Blaeu's gargantuan map is regarded as the high water mark of Dutch cartography, and that's saying something given the quality of 17th century Netherlands cartography. There are two main reasons for this high regard. Firstly, the technical skill and artistry involved in creating such a high-quality printed map over 3 metres wide. The second is the range and quantity of first-hand geographical information it shows. Blaeu was chief cartographer of the Verenig Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), charged with compiling charts from the latest information gathered from company ships. Instead of secreting this commercially sensitive information like the Portuguese and Spanish did, Blaeu stuck it on a publicly available map. For the Dutch, nothing was more important than business.
The map was used as the model for the giant floor mural of Amsterdam Town Hall. There are a small number of copies still in existence, this one was owned by Charles II.
Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/klencke-atlas
Further reading: Commercial Cartography and Map Production in the Low Countries, 1500–ca. 1672 in The history of cartography volume three: cartograpy in the European Renaissance (part two).
4. Ch’ ōnhado (Map of All Under Heaven), c. 1800.
Woodcut, printed in Seoul (Maps C.27.f.14.)
This incredible map, which is part of a set of maps showing the world and regions of Korea, is one of select group of Korean world maps produced during the late 18th and 19th centuries. They show the world oriented to the east and centred upon East Asia. Look carefully and you can make out the eastern coast of China, Beiing a large red symbol, with the yellow river and Great Wall nearby. The rest of the world are scattered islands on the periphery. These maps were far more basic than earlier Korean-produced maps, and it has been suggested that one of their intended audiences was tourists.
Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/cheonhado-world-map
Further reading: Gari Ledyard, 'Cartography in Korea' in The history of cartography volume two book two: cartography in the traditional east and East Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).
21 April 2020
During the current pandemic, the next best thing to heading outdoors is (of course) to lose yourself in the printed landscapes of maps instead. In our London flat last weekend, I couldn’t help reaching for my Ordnance Survey Explorer sheets of the English Lakes and tracing the routes of Easter walks in years gone by.
Although busy depicting roundabouts and service stations, road maps and atlases also give us armchair explorers a flavour of the landscapes, the countries and the times we move through in our mind’s eye.
This example from the United States comes from a time when the American highway map was at its peak, when the automobile was an icon of progress, and state departments and commercial oil companies handed out road maps in their millions, free of charge.
Front and back of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967. Held at State Archives of North Carolina
While useful to many, these maps were also the vehicles for carefully chosen images and text promoting industry, nature, social progress and Christian values. A Motorist’s Prayer on this sheet begins, ‘Our heavenly Father, we ask this day a particular blessing as we take the wheel of our car...’
Detail of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967
A similar agenda is found on the other side of the Iron Curtain, where a Soviet regional map from the same year focussed on places and monuments of revolutionary history, industrial mines (asbestos, brown coal, gypsum...), pine forests and swan nesting sites.
Details from map of Orenburg Oblast, GUGK, 1967. BL Maps 35885.(63.)
Industrial prowess is emphasised again in the strong design on the cover of this regional atlas.
Atlas of Orenburg Oblast, 1969. BL Maps 54.e.48.
But unlike in Britain or America, the Soviet general public had no large scale Ordnance Survey or US Geological Survey maps to turn to for raw topographical detail. These were restricted to the military. Even generalised maps were deliberately distorted during the 1970s to make them harder to use for navigational and targeting purposes, should they fall into the wrong hands.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, restrictions on sophisticated military mapping were relaxed, and elements of larger scale maps made their way into practical road atlases, amongst other products, for the general public. The evolution of these maps from military specification to a hybrid form more closely resembling the typical road map can be traced over the following years.
Left: Detail from Topographic map of the world at scale 1:200 000 produced by the Soviet Army General Staff, Sheet NM 40-2, 1987. BL Maps Y.1575.
Right: Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast, one of the Road Atlases of Russia series published by Roskartografia, 2003
In the road atlas on the right new colouring distinguishes road types and routes, and makes them more prominent while rivers fade away, and symbols are added to indicate petrol stations, medical facilities, museums and places of interest.
Detail of Sheet NM 40-2, Soviet Army General Staff, 1987
Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003
Precise bridge dimensions and maximum loads have been removed, though contours and direction of river flow remain, and the close mesh of the military grid has been replaced by a broad system of squares that correlates with the place name index at the back.
Cover of Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003
At last the landscape was revealed, and civilians could take to the open road better equipped.
And who knows, perhaps even now fingers are tracing imaginary routes from armchairs throughout Russia...
Denis Wood and John Fels, Designs on Signs/Myth and Meaning in Maps, in Cartographica vol 23 no 3, 1986, pp 54–103.
Zsolt G. Török, Russia and the Soviet Union, Fragmentation of, in The History of Cartography, vol 6, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp 1376-1379.
Alexey V. Postnikov, Soviet Cartography, 1917-1991, in Cartography and Geographic Information Science vol 29(3), 2002, pp 243-260.
12 May 2017
The first atlas of England and Wales was published in 1579. It is a landmark in the cartography of Britain, containing maps of the counties of England and Wales by the mapmaker Christopher Saxton, engraved mostly by Dutch artists but also the odd Englishman such as Augustine Ryther.
The maps are believed to have been commissioned by Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state William Cecil Lord Burghley during the 1570s. Its purpose was security, defense and administration during a period of internal intrigue and international instability, notably tension with Catholic Spain.
Burghley's own copy of the atlas, held in the British Library (Royal MS.18 D.III.) contains his notes identifying Catholic families and potential justices of the peace. Shannon and Winstanley suggested the author of one of the atlas's maps of Lancashire to be none other than Francis Walsingham's cryptographer Thomas Phelippes.
England had enemies indeed during the 1570s, and war would break out with Spain in 1585. So why, by contrast to the atlas's larger scale county maps of snug and safe Monmouthshire and Leicestershire did Saxton provide only a puny small scale map for vulnerable south east England?
Christopher Saxton, Cantii, Southsexiae, Surriae et Middlesexiae comitat. London, 1576. British Library Maps C.3.bb.5.
In 1801 again under threat of war, this time with France, the Ordnance Survey made sure Kent was mapped before anywhere else.
William Mudge / Ordnance Survey, The county of Kent, with part of the county of Essex. London: William Faden, 1801 (1809). David Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Peter Barber pointed out that the elaborate decoration of Saxton's south east map could not distract from the fact that it wasn't really fit for purpose. Barber also suggested the most likely reason for the rather pathetic map: Saxton was skint, short on funds and economising on engraving and production costs.
War isn't really the best time to be scrimping and saving, and it is around the time of the south east map (dated 1576) that a new paymaster, Thomas Seckford, was drafted in by Burghley to see the production through.
The eventual Spanish invasion was defeated in 1588. Then there was plenty of money to commission extravagant celebratory copper engraved maps of the English victory over the Armada.
Robert Adams, [The British Isles with the route of the Spanish Armada] from Expeditionis Hispanorum in Angliam vera descriptio. Anno Do. MDLXXXVIII. R. Adamo authore. A. Ryther sculpsit. London, c. 1590. British Library Maps C.3.bb.5
A set of these Armada engravings is bound up with another of the British Library's copies of Saxton's atlas (Maps C.3.bb.5), believed to belong to James I. The rest is history.
08 December 2016
One of the key exhibits in Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line - in fact one of the key maps of the 20th century - is a world map of 1942 by MacDonald Gill. Called 'The "Time and Tide" map of the Atlantic Charter', the map was published (in Time and Tide magazine) to commemorate the signing of a wartime agreement between Britain and the United States of America in August 1941.
MacDonald Gill, The "Time and Tide" Map of the Atlantic Charter.London, 1942. British Library Maps 950.(211.).
The treaty, which was agreed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt on a warship moored off Newfoundland, set out their aspirations for a post-war peace, including self-determination and global economic freedom. This symbol of friendly co-operation between Britain and the USA was designed as a threat to the Axis powers, for the USA was not at that time at war with them. The 'special relationship' dates from here.
The map brilliantly illustrates a world, unified under the sun and with images of trade and prosperity. It is a post-war Utopian vision that has been made possible by the treaty.
MacDonald Gill, ' The Atlantic Charter', 1942. Private collection.
MacDonald Gill was a highly successful British illustrator who produced work for customers as varied as London Transport, the Tea Market Expansion Board, Cable & Wireless Ltd., and St. Andrew's church, Sunderland.
He was a particularly skillful draftsman, as visitors to Drawing the Line can see from today when the original pen sketch for the Atlantic Charter replaces the printed version on display. As Gill experts Caroline Walker and Andrew Johnston have noted, Gill seems to have applied ink directly to the paper without any need for preparatory sketches or guide lines, and there isn't a smear of Tippex in sight.
Even more amazingly, the drawing has original signatures of Churchill and Roosevelt pasted onto it.
Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is open until 1 March.
05 December 2016
Our relationships with maps changed very dramatically in many different ways in the 20th century. One of the important changes is not only that maps became more widespread and familiar, but how that affected our relationships with them. The examples in the exhibition richly illustrate many of these changes, but one trend I would like to focus on here is the recognition that the power of maps became increasingly hidden as they became more accurate and realistic.
Perhaps the most iconic example in the exhibition is the Van Sant first map of the earth from space that appeared in Scientific American in 1990. This immense technological achievement has often been described as “showing the real world as it appears from space” (www.tomvansant.com). But it was also a huge artistic achievement. And it both symbolised and contributed to the decline of the traditional map maker. This is a kind of photograph, and photographs don’t lie.
But think about this claim for just a moment as you look at it: no clouds; daylight around the whole planet; the Atlantic ice at its summer limit. This image is, as the article recognises, “equal parts software and artistic judgement”. Is this “the real world as it appears from space”? Or is it an interpretation, much like any other map? There is no doubt that publication of this image marked a massive milestone for maps in the 20th century. It seems to be so very different from imperial propaganda maps for example. And yet, as the exhibition explores, maps are by nature unreliable witnesses – misleading their readers as well as informing them.
The label ‘critical cartography’ was coined in the 20th century to describe a way of looking at maps. Critical geographers questioned their hidden assumptions and compromises, and revealed their inherent unreliability and partial truth. They did so not to invalidate maps, but to understand their power more thoroughly. This approach shared much with ‘critical’ developments in the 20th century in other areas of life, such as epic theatre, literary theory, cultural geography, and educational policy.
The exhibition explores the profound incursion of maps into everyday life in the 20th century. At the same time, the profound social, political and cultural changes often hidden in everyday life can also be seen in the development of maps and especially in understanding our relationship to them.
Wood, Denis. 1992. The Power of Maps, New York/London: The Guilford Press
Harley. J.B. 2001. The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. (Edited by Paul Laxton). Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
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.
Maps and views blog recent posts
- Maps and photography: a brief history, part 3
- World Map World Cup: Group 4
- World Map World Cup: Group 2
- A View of the Open Road
- Saxton's cost-cutting exercise
- MacDonald Gill: original drawing goes on show today
- Map: friend or foe?
- Pushing the Boundaries
- 20th century maps: the globe
- The Curious Map Book