On History

Magnificent Maps

Due to some builder-related technical fault, the phones and internet at my work were down, so I was allowed to leave the office at 3pm. This left me with over four hours until I was due to meet friends for a meal in Covent Garden, so how did I choose to fill my time? I walked from Golders Green to the restaurant – a valiant effort, considering it was 6.5 miles in shoes that pinch! (My toes are still a little deformed from the trek.) One of my rest-stops was the British Library because I’d heard about its current exhibition, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art, and I happen to be weirdly interested in cartography (if you didn’t think I was cool already…).

When you look at a map, you have to think beyond the science of longitude and latitude. Maps are hugely subjective; they don’t just fulfil a geographical purpose. For example, they’ve often been used for self-aggrandisement by national leaders, who seek to impress upon others their status as ruler over a “great” land. Imperial rulers would demand that their conquests be signified on official maps; kings of relatively small countries tried to compensate for size by insisting national cultural and scientific achievements be emphasised by cartographers. Maps have also been used as pieces of political satire, as propagandist artefacts that tell contemporary audiences a great deal about the geopolitical climate that informed their creation.

Some favourites from the exhibition:

Detail from Stephen Walter’s The Island, which satirises the London-centric view held by people in the capital. Commuter towns are shown as independent from the city, which appears to be its own country. Note the intricate detail in the second picture.

No man is an island, but London might as well be

No man is an island, but London might as well be

The detail

The detail

Dimitri Moor’s Be On Guard! shows a heroic Soviet soldier warding off bourgeois threats to the then infant USSR.

The brave red soldier

The brave red soldier

Macdonald Gill’s Tea Revives the World (1940) is my personal favourite. The message is that tea, and by extension the Allied war effort, can cure a sick world. The map is unashamedly imperialistic in its proud demonstration of Britain’s economic and colonial dominance. I guess Gill didn’t anticipate the decline of the British Empire in the post-war period.

Tea revives

Tea revives

Confiance was made in Vichy France to demonise Churchill as a land-grabbing octopus, whose tentacles needed to be severed by the Axis powers. The octopus motif is a pretty common one; it was first used in cartography to show the imperialist threat posed by the Russians in the late nineteenth century.

Genuinely scary

Genuinely scary

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