Maps and views blog

7 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

19 October 2016

Map Reading in the 20th Century

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In the 20th century maps truly arrived at people’s fingertips. People learnt to read maps and to use them for a wide number of pursuits, especially (though not exclusively) finding their way around.

The Ordnance Survey’s National Map Reading Week initiative is motivated by a concern that people have stopped being able to read maps in this age of automatic mapping (where people are instead increasingly read by maps). There is a strong feeling that map-reading should be a basic life-skill. It is a feeling which arose during the early decades of the 20th century  as maps became important tools in education and way-finding, as peoples’ horizons widened to beyond their immediate vicinities, and as mobility, tourism and general ‘open-air culture’ became the norm for much of western society.


Henry James Deverson and Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1948. Cup.1245.aa.53.   

One of the most celebrated 20th century children’s map reading guides is showcased in our forthcoming exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Published in 1948, Ronald Lampitt and James Deverson’s The Map that Came to Life follows the story of John and Joanna who use an Ordnance Survey map to walk to town. As they pass over fields, past houses and along footpaths, their surroundings are compared with map adjacent on the same page. The fields turn into contoured blank spaces, houses become black cubes, footpaths dashed lines. Map literacy is acquired by the reader as they accompany the children on their virtual journey, matching map with reality.



In The Map that Came to Life the map is portrayed as an objective, precise and above all truthful mirror of nature. And this inherent trustworthiness enabled maps to become important features of the lives of successive generations of people.  Over time maps became able to serve people with growing ease, particularly thanks to automated mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) from the 1990s.

But was this growing ease without cost? The implications of what commentators such as the historian J.B. Harley felt to be a relinquishing of people’s control over maps were voiced even before the end of the century. But the danger that society could forget how to use maps would have been widely viewed as collateral against the massive pace of positive technological change, if it was thought of at all.

Does the mapping impulse lie dormant but still active within society? National Map Reading Week may tell us whether we really want to find out.

17 December 2015

The Curious Map Book

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The map researcher and dealer Ashley Baynton-Williams has written a book about some of the weirder and more wonderful historical maps in the British Library's collection.  From the hundred maps included in 'Curious Maps', now published, we asked him to select his top three. Ashley.

I have always had an interest in maps created by the 'mapmaker at play', maps which have been historically - though not altogether accurately - termed  'cartographic curiosities'. Given the British Library is home to the best printed map library in the world, choosing a hundred of them for inclusion in 'Curious Maps' was a difficult task. Selecting the following three highlights from among them was even more difficult. Many of them were topical productions, produced to illustrate or satirise current events. The following selection shows how little has changed with the passage of time.


Lilian Lancaster, 'United States a correct outline', 1880. British Library Maps cc.5a.230

A recurring figure in the book is Lilian Lancaster, a well-known English actress, singer and stage performer, with a notable talent for drawing cartoons and caricatures, often cartographic in nature. Lilian was on a tour of the United States in 1880, during the final stages of the Presidential election, and the campaigning inspired her to draw two cartoons. Superimposed on the outline of the United States, this manuscript depicts the 'rough-and-tumble' of the campaign, with comic portraits of the two candidates as squabbling children in dresses: James A. Garfield (the Republican challenger) and his opponent Winfield Scott Hancock (the Democratic candidate). Uncle Sam has turned his back on the mayhem, clearly thinking that the future occupant of the White House should be chosen from serious men campaigning in a serious manner, not these two, throwing simplistic sound bite punches.


Thomas Onwhyn, Comic Map of the Seat of War with entirely new features [The Crimean War], 1854. British Library Maps X.6168.

Of all the different genres of curious map in the book my personal favourites are the serio-comic satirical maps of the second half of the nineteenth century. Of these, the best is Thomas Onwhyn's 'Comic Map of the Seat of War with entirely new features', signed 'Done by T.O.'. The initials are rather concealed along the southern coastline of Turkey and only recently spotted, allowing us to properly identify the mapmaker. Onwyn was the son of Joseph Onwhyn, an artist and engraver who had produced a 'Map of Green Bag Land', in 1820 which satirised the increasingly messy attempts by King George IV to divorce Queen Caroline.

The seat of war map was published in 1854 at the onset of the Crimean War between Great Britain, France and Turkey, on one side, and Russia on the other. A skilled production, it has a strong claim to be the very first serio-comic map. There are all manner of satirico-political references, with notably barbed comments about Russia.


However many times I look at it, there is always something new to see. I love the awful British puns (as does my friend, writer and blogger, Tim Bryars) - particularly the alcohol-related ones: Malta is depicted as a tankard of ale (malt beer); the Caucasus Mountains are a row of bottles with corks a-popping, labelled 'Cork as Us Mountains & Bottle him', while Constantinople is represented as a bottle of port, labelled 'The Sublime Port'!


The Crimean war was fought to peg back Russian aggression in south-eastern Europe. The references to the war in the Baltic and Black Seas give a humorous take on war, characterizing it as clipping the Russian bear's claws. This light-hearted approach was not always well received, with one reviewer complaining about this viewpoint while the reality was that men were daily being killed, wounded or dying from other causes.


Johnson Riddle & Co. Hark Hark The Dogs Do Bark, 1914. British Library Maps 1078.(42.).

When the First World War commenced in 1914, a new generation of artists produced comic maps to satirise the protagonists. Many thought that the war would be of short duration. But by 1915, when the human cost of the conflict became apparent, propaganda mapsadopted an altogether darker tone.My third choice is 'Hark! Hark! The dogs do bark!', published by Johnson, Riddle & Co. in 1914. The artist has chosen to depict the different nations as dogs. Many are obvious choices, notably the British bulldog and the French poodle, while Germany (the enemy) is depicted as the funny-shaped and rather harmless dachshund, rather than the German Shepherd (Alsatian) or Rottweiler that a German publisher might have chosen. I like to think that the puppet-master who is controlling the strings of the Royal Navy ships is Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, while others argue that it is simply a generic 'John Bull' figure, and any likeness to Churchill coincidental.

The rather naive jingoism of these two satirical maps makes for fascinating and compelling, images alas, that war could be as harmless and as 'fun' as the cartoons satirising them. 

The Curious Map book is published by the British Library and available here.

Ashley Baynton-Williams

12 August 2015

20th century maps: internship opportunity

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The British Library's Map Library is offering the following three month internship opportunity for a Research Council funded PhD student.

Contribute to a major exhibition launching in November 2016 that will explore key aspects of national and international government policy, boundaries and identities through the 20th Century. You will focus on developing part of the exhibition narrative that discusses the role of maps in geopolitical contexts e.g. boundary mapping used to establish new national borders; the role of mapping in communicating the work and supporting the existence of supranational bodies such as the UN andEEC.


CARTE NO. 3 - SLESVIG / MAP NO. 3 - SCHLESWIG from Conditions de Paix  =  Conditions of Peace [Paris, s.n., 1919]. British Library L.B.31.c.6113.  Publicdomain

One placement is available, open to Economic and Social Research Council students. You can find further details of the scheme, together with application form and guidance notes here

This is one of a number of exciting internship opportunities offered by the British Library, and the deadline is fast approaching: 16:00 on the 28th August 2015. Good luck!

24 April 2015

Maps lie in a new online course

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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!



03 October 2011

An inaccurate map

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The recent controversy surrounding the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World was interesting in all sorts of ways.

Photo: Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World 

To recap: the publicity which accompanied the new 13th edition of the Times Atlas focused upon changes visible on the maps which had been wrought by environmental change. We saw the Aral Sea - or more appropriately the Aral mudflat. We also saw the eastern coast of Greenland with alarmingly diminished ice cover – 15% less ice than in 1999 according to the press release.

“We’re all going to die!” shouted the majority of the inhabitants of Norfolk, and promptly ran for the hills. “Hang on a minute, this can’t be right” shouted an incensed scientific community. And united in fury at the obvious inaccuracy (as well as not having been consulted in the first place), they forced concessions including an apology from the publishers HarperCollins, a promise to include an updated insert map, with a printed explanation of the error. Science showed cartography who was boss, no mistake there.

Whether the error was the result of deception or just a horrible misunderstanding (and it is difficult to believe the former), perhaps the only real mistake of the map was to define the incorrect border between the white (ice) and brown (once ice) so very clearly. The map, in short, was too good, and that made it terrible. My own pocket atlas shows a far more gradated, blurred division between ice and non ice. Actually, if you look at it in a certain way and with certain intent, it does seem to agree with the withdrawn claims. Now you see how very dangerous maps can be.

The widespread astonishment which greeted the revelation of an inaccurate map will have raised a wry smile amongst those of you who recognise the inherent subjectivity of maps.

However, to me the most interesting point about the argument is that it concerns the receding of ice-cover, a process of movement, whilst the map is a snapshot of a static and unmoving earth. Not a brilliant thing to show movement and change. Even while the atlas was being printed, the situation would have changed. At a sufficiently large scale, local changes in the ice would happen before our eyes. Why not publish a seasonal atlas, one for the summer months, one for the winter months, if you want to try and catch the flow, as well as the ebb.

24 April 2010

The Beauty of Maps #4

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BBC4's The Beauty of Maps ended on a high last Thursday night, with part 4 focusing upon political cartoon maps of the 19th century and since. Everyone will be familiar with political illustrations that incorporate maps, but it was good to be able to chart their beginnings through the octopus maps of Fred Rose, through to that horrifying yet utterly mesmerising Churchillian octopus map of 1944. Ouch. Not pulling any punches that one - but the lesson is surely that if you dish it out (as Rose's octopus did) you should also be able to take a few.

What always strikes me about these cartoon maps or 'serio-comic' maps is the wonderfully modelled, coloured and complex imagery, which seems to leap out of the page at you. They were designed specifically to be noticed, and through being noticed, their political messages found their way into people's minds.

To be honest, half an hour didn't seem like quite enough time to feature everything. Last night's programme wasn't able to look at, for example, the far earlier 16th-century maps which show continents as animals, and we didn't get a glimpse of the extraordinary map cartoons of Lilian Lancaster:

Nevertheless, the series was a triumph, with almost half a million people watching the first episode. I'd like to congratulate Stephen Clarke the director, and all of the British Library staff who made it possible. Of course, nothing would have been possible without the British Library collection to draw upon, and I should point out that nearly all of the maps featured will be included in the Magnificent Maps exhibition, the opening of which is almost, very nearly upon us...

08 April 2010

Comment in Monday's Guardian

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Monday's Guardian (5 April 2010) comment pages featured a piece about maps in which our Magnificent Maps exhibition was mentioned. The article waxed lyrical about the joy of armchair-and-laptop holidaymaking made possible by the wonderful Google Maps, while referencing the recent move by
Ordnance Survey to provide free online map data, and referring to the omission of 'sensitive' information from previous OS maps.

Now, neither of these maps fall into the remit of the exhibition (since neither was produced specifically to be displayed on walls), and their messages are consequently more subjective than the bold statements made by the exhibits. But that 'maps have been used by those in power to control and to indoctrinate' is not necessarily true only of older maps. No map can (or would really try to) show everything. Mysterious Siberian black rectangles, convenient cloud cover and variances in zoom levels notwithstanding, any map will require key choices by the mapmaker, as well as interpretation by the viewer.

The Guardian is right to say that maps shouldn't blind us to the reality of what is out there. But they do try! The 90 surrogate realities in the exhibition, as you will see, are doing just that.