20th Century / Art / Exhibition / History of Science / Museum / Politics / Review

REVIEW- Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line

For a bona fide map nerd like myself, there may never have been an exhibition that I have anticipated quite as eagerly as the British Library’s Maps in the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Indeed, any bona fide map nerd probably already knows about this exhibition and will have decided already to pay it a visit regardless of what my, or any other blogger’s review, says about it. Unless, perhaps, I was to say that it was incredibly disappointing, but rest assured my cartographic comrades: this exhibition is nothing less than a triumph!


As the age of the motorcar dawned in the early 20th century, mass-produced, fold-up road maps become enormously popular with the middle classes in Britain, who used them to explore the country for fun. This Ordnance Survey map of Leicester dates from the 1920s (© British Library)

However tempting it may be to simply leave my review there and take the evening off – I have, after all, waxed lyrical about my love of maps on this blog at least once before – I have decided to spend the rest of this post persuading those of you out there who may not be particularly passionate about maps why this exhibition may be worth your time and money. In short, I shall attempt to establish whether or not one has to be a map nerd to like it.

Much like any map, this exhibition has had to chose what to leave out and what to leave in (maps are therefore simultaneously informative and deceiving, one of the many things that make them so interesting). And the choice of the 20th century as the exhibition’s focus is a brilliant one, not least because it was probably the most turbulent, destructive and revolutionary period in human history. Or because of the amount of border re-drawing that went on during those one hundred years as world wars raged, empires collapsed, and a succession of new states came and went, keeping cartographers very busy indeed. But because the 20th century marks the moment when, at least in the West, maps became something accessible to, and used by, the masses. This increasing familiarity with maps went hand in hand with a widening of people’s horizons, as travelling became cheaper, easier and more popular.

This shift away from maps as something accessible only to an elite few is illustrated wonderfully by two pocket-sized road maps displayed side by side, orientated so that a particular road runs straight down the middle of the map. One was made in the 1760s for Lord Bute, to show him the route from his Luton Hoo estate to London. The other was produced in the 1960s by the Automobile Association, at a time when car ownership was soaring in Britain, and exploring the country by road was becoming a popular pastime for families at weekends. Given how simple the route from Luton Hoo to London is (more or less one road, the arrow straight Roman road that forms today’s A5), and in sharp contrast to the AA map mass-produced three hundred years later, I seriously doubt that Bute’s map was actually used on journeys for navigation purposes. The intricate details and beautiful watercolour work more likely served to impress Bute’s acquaintances and thus serve the same purpose as a piece of fine art, namely to illustrate the owner’s good taste and the extent of their wealth.


Until the mid twentieth century, oceans had only ever been shown on maps as blank spaces (give or take a few lines of longitude or mythical sea creatures). Having worked closely with pioneering oceanographers Bruce Hazeen and Marie Tharpe, who mapped the entire world’s oceans in the 1950s and 1960s, Austrian cartographer Heinrich Berann produced this map of the Atlantic Ocean for the June 1968 edition of National Geographic magazine, helping to popularize the theory of plate tectonics and continental drift in the process (© National Geographic)

With some four and a half million maps in their own collection – not including a number of items on loan from other museums – it is hardly surprising that the two hundred or so maps the British Library have chosen for this exhibition are as richly varied as they are. Should anyone walk into this exhibition thinking that a map is simply a birds-eye view of a place that tells you where things are in relation to one another, then it won’t take long for them to realise just how much more there is to maps than that. In bringing together maps from all over the world and from across an entire century in this way the exhibition clearly demonstrates how, as maps became more widely used, the more versatile a tool they became. And the more creative, experimental and imaginative mapmakers became in the process.

By choosing exactly how to represent a place in two dimensions, a cartographer (or, indeed, an artist, a writer, or a technician) is consciously and deliberately affecting the way in which we see a place. So when deciding what level of detail a map should show, a cartographer makes a distinction between what information is more important, what is less important, and what is irrelevant. The creator of the iconic London Underground map Harry Beck, for example, famously decided that the only thing that was relevant to a tube traveller was knowing which stations were on which line, and how these lines connected to each other. The result was a map that threw relative direction and distance completely out of the window, and inspired just about every public transport map, in practically every major city in the world, that came after. In the eighty years since he made his first preliminary sketches (one of which is on display in the exhibition) Beck has – somewhat unintentionally – succeeded in stretching and distorting London in the minds tourists and Londoners alike, to such an extent that a rational human being will forgo an eight-minute walk from Chancery Lane to Farringdon in favour of a tube journey consisting of two line changes and costing them a small fortune.


This German-produced poster from the First World War depicts the ‘Entente Cordiale’ – the alliance between Germany’s enemies, Britain and France – as part of British plans to dominate Europe and beyond (© British Library)

Sometimes mapmakers are not interested in details at all, but wish simply to give an overall impression of a place. The propaganda poster produced during World War Two depicting Japan as a giant octopus wrapping its tentacles around surrounding countries needs only reasonably accurate outlines of the islands and land masses in East Asia to get its point across (likewise the nearby poster produced by Germany during World War One, showing a rough outline of the European continent, straddled by a grotesque British Empire spider). While, at other times, it is the details that serve to score the political points, such as with the lunar globe produced by the Soviet Union in 1961. The fact that the Soviets had, by that time, sent enough spacecraft to the Moon that they could map its surface in precise detail (including its far side, unseen by humankind until 1959), while the Americans had not yet sent anything to Moon, made it abundantly clear to both America and the rest of the world who was winning the space race, and which nation was at the forefront of scientific progress.

Something I have always loved about maps is how they can take a place instantly familiar and make it seem simultaneously unfamiliar, such as Jeremy Wood’s My Ghost 2000-2016, a map showing sixteen years’ worth of his movements tracked by GPS. While it contains no geographical features whatsoever, it is instantly recognisable as a map of the London area by virtue of the shape of the roads and railways he traveled. Juxtaposing the familiarity of the River Thames and the M25 are a series of bizarre circles and swirls that resemble a small child’s carefree scribbles, that are in fact Wood’s flight paths, as the planes he traveled on waited to land at Heathrow and Gatwick. Meanwhile, the huge street map of Brighton looks ordinary enough when viewed from a distance, but when you take a step closer and notice that all the place names are written in Russian alphabet, it becomes something altogether more strange. This was a map created in 1990, as part of a project by the Soviet military to map the entire globe in unprecedented detail, and identify the location of every last military, industrial and administrative building. It was stumbled upon in a disused depot in Latvia after the fall of Communism.


At the start of the exhibition was this live heat map, plotting the movement of visitors around the exhibition space.

If there was something a little unsettling about imagining Brighton being invaded by the Russians, then some of the other items in the ‘Mapping War’ section of the exhibition were positively chilling. The astoundingly detailed map of a section of the Western Front, rendered three-dimensional via a painstaking process of cutting out around contour lines and glueing layers on top of one another to create hills and valleys, is as much a beautiful work of art as it is a fascinating historical document. Staring at the dizzying maze of trench lines, stretching back many miles from no mans land, I find myself starting to appreciate just how massive a challenge it must have been for the generals for whom this map was made to try and make sense of this new type of warfare. Close by is a another map of a First World War front line that has been annotated by a soldier, showing the progress of an army after a battle, complete with details like trenches labelled “full of dead” in pencil handwriting. While Sauda Kapić and Miran Norderland’s Escape From Sarajevo, a birdseye-view cartoon of the city of Sarajevo completely encircled by guns and tanks, produced in the city during its four-year long siege by the Bosnian Serb Army, is a reminder that while the world wars may seem like a long time ago, a brutal conflict was raging in Europe as late as the 1990s. And the plight of the people of Aleppo, who find themselves in a situation every bit as terrifying today, only adds to the impact of Kapić and Noderland’s picture.

Bookending the exhibition’s ‘Mapping War’ and ‘Mapping Peace’ sections was perhaps my favourite item, a map of Europe printed in the Financial Times just as World War One had come to a close, as the world waited to see how the victorious Allied powers would re-draw the continent’s borders. Readers were invited to draw on the map where they thought Europe’s new borders would end up, and how any new countries would fit in, with a prize of £25 awarded for the map that came closest to that that emerged after the ratifying of the treaty of Versailles.


The opportunity to re-draw the world in the aftermath of a major conflict is a running theme of the ‘Mapping Peace’ section of the exhibition. A fascinating alternate history plays out in this ‘New World Order’ map drawn by the American Maurice Gomberg in 1942, complete with Canada as part of the USA, a quarantined Germany and a United States of Europe (WallpaperUp.com) Click for full-size image

If one of the principal purposes of maps throughout history has been to been to try to impose order on the vast and complex world around us, then it follows that the size and scope of maps has increased as humankind’s horizons have broadened. So whereas the nineteenth century saw the last of the Earth’s blank spaces filled in as the planet’s last remaining unexplored regions (give or take a few) were conquered, the twentieth century gave us maps of the ocean floor, the far side of the moon, and even of the entire universe. The Cosmic Background Explorer (KOBE) map may look like a featureless ball of blue and purple, but it represents perhaps the most ambitious map ever created. By scanning the entire night sky with radio telescopes that can detect the leftover radiation from the Big Bang, the KOBE map is not only a map of the entire cosmos, but a picture of what the universe looked like only a few hundred thousand years after it was created, before the first galaxies had formed, taking us back in time some thirteen billion years. Its inclusion in the exhibition is very fitting, a symbol of just how far our species’ scientific knowledge and understanding advanced in the twentieth century (which, after all the stuff about war earlier in the exhibition, was a quite an uplifting thought!).

Along with my aforementioned fellow map nerds, I have little doubt that anyone with an interest in twentieth century history will find this exhibition richly rewarding. And it is my firm conviction that even those who fit into neither category will, should they decide to pay it a visit, come away with a clear understanding and appreciation of just how profoundly maps shape the way we see the world, and our place within it. And once they have that, then they might just start to find maps as completely captivating, and endlessly fascinating, as I do.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line runs at the British Library until 1st March 2017, with tickets for adults costing £12 with a range of concessions available.

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