THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

11 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

23 February 2017

Maps and women

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“This is all very manly, isn’t it” a visitor said to me a while ago as I was showing a group around our current exhibition Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. And the visitor (whose own work explores identity and gender in society) was right – there is something apparently rather masculine about cartography, particularly 200 maps in a big room all shouting for attention, forcibly promoting their world-views.

Mapping has historically been portrayed a male pursuit, like many professions, but particularly given the active and even aggressive role of maps in empire and militarism (maps are never ‘submissive’, an outdated perception of femininity). So too the use of maps has been seen as a male pursuit. Note the lack of women on the covers of Ordnance Survey maps, except where they are passengers. Note the cliché of the terrible reluctance of many men to ask for directions when lost.

Over the past few decades we have  begun to question established norms (as we have many established world views) and gender is one of the many key narratives of the 20th century. Van den Hoonaard’s ‘Map Worlds: a history of women in cartography’ (2013) was jst one of a number of works to ‘recover [the involvement of women with map-making] from history’. Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line was curated specifically to engage with themes and aspects of history which have been hidden from sight, and this includes shining a retrospective light upon the role of women in cartography. Here are some of them. 

Mary Ann Rocque

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Anonymous (after Mary Ann Rocque), [A map showing part of the road from London to Luton Park], London, 1767. Add. MS74215

Mary Anne Rocque inherited a map business from her husband John Rocque, who died in 1762 (Laurence Worms has produced some important research on this role of female business people in the British map trade). Not simply content to maintain the business, she published new and significant maps such as ‘A set of plans and forts in North America’ in 1765. This watercolour map of part of the road from London to Luton, based closely on Rocque’s work, was produced for the earl of Bute in 1767.

Phyllis Pearsall

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Geographers’ Atlas of Greater London. London: Geographers A-Z Map Company, 1956. Maps 198.f.37. 

Pearsall is regarded as one of the most successful business people of the 20th century through her creation of the London A-Z (by the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company) in 1936. Compact and convenient maps of cities have a history which goes back centuries, but Pearsall’s was a marketing success in its clean, simple and efficient design and cover. It became the unofficial map of London which even Londoners were not ashamed to own.

Gertrude Williams

96b77f49-d920-4917-8229-5bc8a7ff09bc-1354x2040Otto Neurath & Gertrude Williams, 'Occupation of women by regions, 1931', from Women in work. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945. W.P.8741/3.

Lady Gertrude Rosenblum Williams was an economist and social strategist whose research and writing impacted on the foundation and development of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom from the 1940s. Of Williams’ books of the ‘New Democracy’ series, the 1945 publication on ‘Women in Work’ contains some of the most distinctive infographic maps to make statistics more intelligible. These infographics were by Otto Neurath’s Isotype Institute. ‘The occupation of women by regions’ using 1931 census data is one of the best. Williams’ social mapping sits in a tradition begun by Booth and Webb, and continued into the 21st century by, for example, Bethan Thomas and Danny Dorling.

 Marie Tharp

6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d23592df970cHeinrich Berann, Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp, Atlantic ocean floor. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Magazine, June 1968. Maps CC.5.b.42.

Marie Tharp was a geologist and mapmaker whose research and observations were instrumental in the production of detailed maps of the ocean floor, produced for the US Navy after World War II. These maps, particularly the ocean floor maps illustrated by Heinrich Berann which were published in National Geographic magazine in 1968 did much to popularise the theory of continental drift. Because she was a woman Tharp was not permitted to go on research vessels.

These are just some of the female contributions to cartography which you can see in our map exhibition. It is particularly fitting that the British Library should be able to contribute to the recovering of this part of the 20th century experience. After all, the first Head of Maps of the British Library as it was created out of the British Museum in 1973 was Dr Helen Wallis OBE. Wallis was a key figure in the emerging discipline of the history of cartography throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and instrumental in bringing the British national map collection to the attention of the world. 'That monstrous regiment of women’, was how a (female) former employee remembers the Map Library being referred to during that time, but thanks to Maps we can continue to balance the scales.

17 February 2017

Soviet Military Mapping of the Cold War Era

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In this exclusive guest post, map historian John Davies introduces one of the most enigmatic of 20th century map genres.

 'The story of Soviet military mapping is the story of a massive secret project, spanning the fifty years of the Cold War period – from the 1940s to the 1990s – and involving thousands of people. It’s the story of the world’s largest mapping endeavour and, arguably, the world’s most intriguing maps.

 The story of this amazing enterprise has never been told in full in print and the maps themselves have rarely been publicly displayed. One of them, however, the city plan of Brighton on England’s south coast is on show in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

 Topographic Maps

The full extent of the project will probably never be known, but it is safe to say that almost the entire land surface of the globe was captured on topographic maps at scales of 1:1 million and 1:500,000. Huge areas of the Americas, Europe and Asia were mapped at 1:200,000 and 1:100,000, whilst maps at scale of 1:50,000 (the same as the familiar Ordnance Survey Landrangers) cover much of Britain and continental Europe. On top of that, the vast territory of USSR itself was mapped at 1:25,000 (the scale of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps) and much even at 1:10,000.

 The topographic maps have sheet boundaries corresponding to lines of latitude and longitude. This means they are non-rectangular, the two sides narrowing towards the top in the northern hemisphere. The sheets are non-overlapping and are identified by a reference number that uniquely identifies the global location and scale of every sheet.

 It works like this: each 1:1 million map is a quadrangle which covers an area of the globe four degrees of latitude deep and six degrees of longitude wide. The latitudinal bands are alphabetic, starting with A at the equator and increasing as you head north; the longitudinal zones are numbered 1 to 60. The Greenwich meridian (longitude 0) defines the boundary between zone 30 and 31; London, at latitude 51, lies in band M (the 13th band, spanning latitudes 48 to 52). London west of Greenwich, therefore lies in quadrangle M-30 and east of Greenwich in M-31.

  01_IMW

International Map of the World nomenclature adopted by Soviet Union, with lettered bands of 4° latitude and numbered zones of 6° longitude

 This convention, known as IMW – the International Map of the World – nomenclature was devised originally by Albrecht Penck at the end of the 19th century and was adopted in 1913 for a proposed international cooperative mapping project.  Although that project fizzled out, the USSR made use of the same convention and did succeed in mapping the whole world by the mid-20th century.

 As you zoom in on a 1:1 million sheet, you get 4 sheets at the larger scale of 1:500,000 (numbered 1-4); 36 sheets at scale 1:200,000 in a 6 by 6 grid (numbered 01-36), and 144 sheets at 1:100,000, in a 12 by 12 grid, (001-144). Zooming further in, for each of these you get 4 sheets at 1:50,000 (numbered 1-4).

 

02_M-31

Part of sheet M-31, scale 1:1 million, compiled 1969, printed 1975, showing the non-rectangular edges, aligned to lines of latitude and longitude.

  03_M-31-1

Part of sheet M-31-1, scale 1:500,000, compiled 1978, printed 1985.

04_M-31-01

Part of sheet M-31-01, scale 1:200,000, compiled 1982, printed 1986. Road distances in km are overprinted in purple.

 

05_M-31-01_reverse

The reverse side of the 1:200,000 series sheets has a comprehensive essay describing the physical, social, economic and industrial importance of the locality, together with a geological sketch map.

 

  06.M-31-013

Part of sheet M-31-013, scale 1:100,000, compiled 1976, printed 1982. Note the M25 under construction.

  07_M-31-013-3

Part of sheet M-31-013-3, scale 1:50,000, compiled 1974, printed 1981. This is the SW quarter of M-31-013. Note the A2 road is also labelled E107 (upper left), a European road number that did not appear on British maps.

 The projection used is the Gauss-Krüger (G-K) projection, based on a regular system of Universal Transverse Mercator projections that each cover a zone 6 degrees wide, with central meridians (axial lines of longitude) at 3 degree intervals. The advantage of this is that it simplifies the depiction of the globe as a flat surface for relatively small areas and allows the use of a rectangular grid within each zone. The grid provides accurate geographic co-ordinates to facilitate precise artillery targeting.

 The security classification depended on the map scale; small-scale maps (1:1 million and 1:500,000) were unclassified; 1:200,000 maps were classified as ‘For Official Use’, as were 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 maps of non-USSR territory. Maps of USSR territory larger than 1:200,000 were classified ‘Secret’.

 City Plans

Even more remarkable than the topographic maps are the city plans. These are known to exist for about two thousand cities worldwide, and there may have been many more. City plans are to a large scale, either 1:25,000 (two-and-a-half inches to the mile) or 1:10,000 (about six inches to the mile), and show an altogether much greater level of detail, including street names and listings of factories and their products, public buildings and transport facilities – even relatively unimportant (certainly non-military) objects such as bus stations and post offices. They are classified ‘Secret’.

 City plans are rectangular, being based on G-K projection with a central meridian near to the city. The sheets themselves vary in size, but are typically about 1,000 mm by 800 mm, and may be oriented as portrait or landscape layout to suit the terrain to be covered. Many cities require several sheets (in Britain, typically two or four; in USA, Los Angeles requires 12 sheets and New York 8). Unlike the topographic maps, in which the coverage is continuous and non-overlapping, city plans are individual, specific sheets, centred on a particular city; in some cases, such as the conurbation of West Yorkshire, the plans of several cities overlap. 

 About 100 British and Irish cities are known to have been mapped in this way, several of them more than once. Halifax, Luton, Cambridge and Cardiff are just some of the places for which maps of the 1970s and again of the 1980s exist. The later editions are entirely new productions, rather than revisions of the originals.

 The coverage of British cities includes not only the major industrial and commercial centres and important seaports and naval bases, but relatively rural and less strategically significant places such as Gainsborough and Dunfermline (although Rosyth Royal Naval dockyard is not far from Dunfermline, it is not included in the map coverage).

 The information depicted on city plans is derived from a wide variety of sources and includes detail not normally seen on local street atlases. For example, the 1990 Brighton 1:10,000 plan seen in Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line shows signals alongside the railway line, annotates the shoreline as having a mean tidal range of 4 metres, differentiates the vegetation types in parks and open spaces and identifies the ownership of facilities such as motor repair depots.

 City plans have a street index, a descriptive essay and a list of ‘important objects’. numbered and colour-coded on the map – purple for administrative buildings. black for industrial and green for items of military importance.

08_London

Part of 1:25,000 plan of London (sheet 1 of 4, compiled 1980, printed 1985) showing colour-code and numbered ‘important objects’. These are listed in the index as:

  1. State Archives [actually Public Records Office]
  2. Treasury
  3. Foreign Office
  4. Ministry of Defence
  5. Government offices
  6. Courts of Justice
  7. Police – Scotland Yard
  8. General Post Office
  9. Radio station BBC
  10. Residence of the Queen and Prime Minister [actually Her Majesty’s Theatre]
  11. Greater London Council
  12. University of London
  13. HQ of the US Navy in Europe [actually American Embassy]
  14. HQ General Staff

 Note also the depiction of tube stations (symbol M), arrows showing direction of flow of the Thames and direction of tides, Kingsway tunnel and symbols indicating lawns in Hyde Park. The river name is in upper case lettering, denoting that the river is navigable. None of this information appears on contemporary Ordnance Survey maps]

  09_Thurrock

Part of 1:10,000 plan of Thurrock (compiled 1974, printed 1977) showing Tilbury docks and the Dartford tunnel

 All the maps described above, the topographic maps and the city plans, were produced by VTU, the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army and are headed ‘General Staff’.  They carry in the bottom right-hand corner a print code, defining the map type, when it was printed and at which of the twelve print factories spread across the USSR.  

 How and Why

Two obvious questions spring to mind when looking at these maps. How did they do it? And why did they do it?

Neither has a simple answer.

Copying from Ordnance Survey maps, for example, is an obvious possibility. However, the wealth of information shown far exceeds what could be derived from these.  Analysis of the information shown on Soviet maps and plans proves that the compilers and cartographers had access to a huge range of published maps and guides. They include commercial street atlases, geological maps, transport maps and timetables, trade directories, tourist guides Admiralty charts and many other sources. Although these would have been freely available in Western cities, it is surprising to see just how wide the net was cast and intriguing to consider the process by which material was gathered and transmitted to USSR.

Even more surprisingly, the sources include items which had been published many years previously, resulting, for example, in the maps depicting ferries alongside the bridges that superseded them and long-disused railway lines being shown as operational.

After the launch of Zenit satellites in 1962, aerial imagery became a significant component in the data sources and can be seen in many cases where new roads and housing estates, for example, which had not yet appeared on Ordnance Survey maps, are shown on Soviet maps. Often these have the street names omitted, indicating that the cartographer had only the aerial image to hand and not the latest street directory.

As to why so much time, effort and money was expended on this gigantic project for over fifty years, we can only speculate. The concentration on depicting civil rather than military information suggests that these were intended not as invasion maps, but as necessary tools to manage and control the economic and industrial activity of Western cities after their eventual peaceful conversion to communism. But who can say?

Wasn’t the West doing the same thing during the Cold War?

Of course, mapping the territory of a potential enemy was nothing new and not restricted to the Soviet Union. But during the Cold War, the West, generally, was far more selective about where they mapped and what they showed. Whereas the Soviet Union produced huge numbers of city plans, each of which shows minute detail of all aspects of a city (regardless of military significance), the West tended to focus on places of particular interest – and included on their maps only what was relevant to the purpose.     

10_Soviet_Maribor

 

11_NGA_Maribor

Two views of Maribor, Former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia).

Top, A typical Soviet military city plan, showing as much information as possible (1:10,000, 1975). Below, A greatly simplified plan, produced by USA military, concentrating on the major features. (1:20,000, 1993).]

John Davies is editor of Sheetlines, the journal of Charles Close Society for the Study of Ordnance Survey Maps (www.CharlesCloseSociety.org) and is co-author with Dr Alex Kent of The Red Atlas: How the Soviet Union Secretly Mapped the World, to be published by University of Chicago Press in September 2017 (http://redatlasbook.com/)

05 January 2017

Old Europe

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We are pleased to welcome this guest post from the artist Justine Smith, whose work is included in our current exhibition Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line.

'In my artistic practice I have always used collage and have been working with money since 1998. The power invested in these pieces of paper is immense, and for me, it is like working with an elemental force which impacts upon us in a political, social and moral level. A banknote can be seen as a little piece of propaganda, a cipher portraying specific aspects of a given state. In my work I appropriate these images and re-contextualize them to my own ends.

Map_world_2

My first Map was Money map of the World 2005 (above), where every country who has a banknote is featured on the map, down to the smallest island State or Protectorate. All my maps are made initially as collages - hand drawn and traced and cut from real banknotes, often taking months to complete.

Map_old_europe

Old Europe” was made in 2007 and is my first and, so far, only map to be made with currencies that at the time of making were no longer in circulation.  It was made as an historical map from the currencies that were in circulation prior to the introduction of the Euro and show the original countries that joined. The Francs, Guilders, Marks, Lira, etc., as with all banknotes, feature imagery that  strongly resonates with respective national identities. This map has a sister map made concurrently called “Euro Europe". It covers the exact same region, but shows the newly formed Eurozone, where all the national borders are gone and the various countries now form a single bloc.

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It is almost 10 years now since these maps were made and it is surprising to see how quickly things have changed.' 

Justine Smith

05 December 2016

Map: friend or foe?

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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.

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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.

Further Reading:

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.

Huw Rowlands

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

11111

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.

222222

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.

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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'!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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!