THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

3 posts categorized "Current Affairs"

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.

AMaps-of-Greenland-in-the--007 
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 Actually, if you look at it in a certain way and with certain intent, it does seem to agree with the withdrawn claims.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:

LancasterUSA
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.