Maps and views blog

9 posts categorized "Exhibition progress"

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.

12 October 2016

20th century maps: the globe

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As the opening of our major exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line approaches, it is time to explain the background to the enigmatic globe that has begun appearing in posters and online. It is mysterious hemisphere with a more sinister message, drawn in pastel shades, with relief, place-names, and concentric rings emanating from the globe’s centre: Berlin.

G70125-32F.E. Manning, Target Berlin. Washington D.C., Army Information Service, 1943. Maps 197.h.1.  Publicdomain

The globe is taken from a United States army poster of 1943 drawn by F.E. Manning and called Target Berlin. It was published in October 1943 when the Allies with the US Air Force had begun a more concerted programme of bombing German cities. Another poster, this time with Tokyo at the centre, was produced shortly afterwards.


F.E. Manning, Target Tokyo. Washington D.C., Army Information Service, 1943. Maps 197.h.1.  Publicdomain

The poster includes a measuring rule which as explained can be used to measure the distance between any place shown on the map and the German capital. However, this was not intended as a navigational chart, but as a propaganda device. It placed Berlin at the centre of US soldiers and air crew minds and gave them confidence in the ruthless and scientific certainty of its destruction.

The Allied bombing of German cities, according to British Air Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, aimed at ‘the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany.‘ Bombing of civilians from both sides occurred throughout the war. They were some of the most controversial episodes of the 20th century, and many consider the line to have been drawn with them.

Maps and 20th Century: Drawing the Line opens on 4 November. Pre-book tickets here 

13 April 2015

Lines in the Ice: top five highlights

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As we enter the final week of the British Library's free exhibition Lines in the ice: seeking the Northwest Passage, here are my top five (unashamedly map-heavy) highlights of what has been a memorable and eventful five month residency. 

1. Robert Thorne's world map from 1582.

ThorneRobert Thorne, Orbis Universalis Descriptio [London : T. Dawson for T. Woodcocke, 1582]. British Library C.24.b.35  Untitled

You probably won’t see another one of these exhibited in your lifetime, one of the earliest maps to have been printed in England, with only two in existence today, a clever bit of publicity by the Muscovy company which aimed to convince that the North West Passage didn't exist. Judging from the following 250 years of mostly fruitless searching, perhaps this point of view could have been given a bit more attention.   

2. Listening to icebergs

They are very big and very cold, and make a surprising racket. Curator Cheryl Tipp selected a number of sounds for the exhibition, which appear on sound points, and piped directly into the space. The angry polar bear was particularly eloquent.

 3. Explorer Ryan Nelson speaking at the BL

In an amazing coup, the British Library, the Eccles centre for American Studies and the Canadian High Commission hosted a talk by Ryan Harris, the man who discovered Sir John Franklin's ship Erebus on the sea bed. The event sold out almost before the ship was discovered!


4. An egg-shaped Arctic-biased world map on display for the first time

This rare and extraordinary educational 20th Century map (featured in this book) cleverly positions the Arctic (and Antarctic) centre stage using the 'Atlantis' projection. Its purpose was to focus minds on these zones in order to combat the vast problem of overpopulation. Oil was first extracted from within the Arctic Circle just a few years later.

  Amaps_37_b_55E.W. Fenton, The world we live in. Ipswich, 1958. British Library Maps 37.b.55.

5. Writer-in-residence Rob Sherman and his explorer Isaak Scinbank

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Top: Rob Sherman, bottom: Isaak Scinbank

Rob Sherman's work has been a stunning feature of the exhibition. His fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank, online and in his written journal (which is exhibited), attempted to discover what happened to Sir John Franklin. For me, Rob's work has helped explore how narratives and stories (and their meanings) develop and change over time, and how they can be invested in objects. This isn't the last you'll hear of Rob, I feel fairly certain... 

6. Charles II's map of the Arctic

G70112-95Moses Pitt,' A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, from The English Atlas , London, 1680. British Library Maps 1.TAB.16.  Untitled

Another map that has never before been exhibited is Moses Pitt's map of the Arctic, this copy owned by Charles II and acquired by the nation via the Topographical Collection of George III. 

The gold leaf on this map will be shimmering in public until Friday, so if you have the chance to visit the exhibition before then, please do. We are also holding a free seminar on Friday to celebrate the end of Rob Sherman's residency. Thank you to all who has visited Lines in the Ice since November, and thank you to everybody who helped make the exhibition a reality.


13 May 2010

Elbow room and map fashion

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Taking my thrice daily stroll around Magnificent Maps I've needed to be nimble on my toes! Such has been the extraordinary level of interest in the show that groups of visitors gather around pretty much every map, or stand admiring the overall effect of the spaces we have recreated.

An early frontrunner for the most popular map, apart from Stephen Walter's The Island, is the hand-painted world map of 1582 by the Greek sailor Antonio Millo. It looks positively sublime when looked upon from the opposite side of the gallery, but reveals itself to be rather odd upon closer inspection. See if you can spot the sea-monster/King Charles Spaniel swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. 


There have also been some very interesting and well-attended guided tours, which I am enjoying very much. I noticed Peter's tour yesterday - or at least, I noticed a throng of around 40 people with Peter's voice emanating from somewhere in the middle.

But most pleasingly there's been a great mix of visitors, and as I read somewhere in a recent article, some very articulate visitors with perceptive comments: comments I reserve the right to borrow for further guided tours should I happen to overhear them.

Alas, I'm afraid I haven't seen a visitor as appropriately dressed as I would have liked. No map-themed ties or T-shirts, and certainly no threads as special as those illustrated in Christa Weil's Fashion Preserve blog. Marvellous stuff, and don't listen to Christa: matching dress IS compulsory.

Perhaps we should have created a catwalk space in the exhibiiton. Verily I say, maps are everywhere.

07 May 2010

Magnificent Map of King’s Cross

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The Magnificent Map of King’s Cross now hangs in the Entrance Hall.


This map of the local area was produced as part of the community programme to support the exhibition and as part of the Reveal Festival – a festival of visual arts in King’s Cross.


It is made of 16 separate canvases each depicting a separate part of the area. A number of groups and some individuals were given a canvas to create their unique interpretation of the neighbourhood.


The map includes work by The London Canal Museum, Camley Street Natural Park, University College Hospital School and Somers Town Youth Club.

29 April 2010

Last 24 hours of the exhibition build

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Photos by my colleague Dave Dubuisson as promised. Some of the exhibits are very large and present quite a challenge.






Finally a preview of one of the 'interactives' that allow you to examine four maps in detail. Although it's designed to look like a magnifying glass, it isn't. It's much more complicated! When you visit the exhibition (from tomorrow) you'll be able to see how it works.


On the website - now live - you can use our adapted zoomify tool to get a similar experience. Zoom in close and read our curators' notes about some of the details.

28 April 2010

The beginning is nigh!

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'Is this the end or the beginning?' I have been asking myself today, while the final pieces of our cartographic puzzle fall into place. A big question but unusually (as far as big questions go) one with a clear definite answer: we are most certainly about to begin. This past week has seen Magnificent Maps become fully formed, with maps arriving daily from the conservation studios and being placed on walls. Thanks to our team of conservators and, once again, to our expert exhibitions staff.

Of special excitement this week has been the arrival of the nine loan maps from the extremely generous lenders. I was especially pleased to see the colossal de' Barbari map of Venice from 1500, lent by our friends the British Museum, when I popped down to the gallery one morning. In fact, I liken the effect to running downstairs to the letterbox one morning back in the mid-1980s and seeing my first Beano lying on the doormat.  Other incredible objects are Middle Temple Library's Molyneux globes of 1592 - the first English, and at the time largest globes in existence, and the medieval Evesham World map. Today saw the installation of the earliest map in the exhibition, a fragment of the Forma Urbis Romae, part of a colossal map of Rome dating to 200 AD. I can say with absolute sincerity that no reproduction in any book can compare with the effect of seeing the original.

Dave has been diligently taking footage of these and other maps (such as the Klencke Atlas) being installed, and you'll be seeing some highlights here in due course.

Peter and I have been giving a number of interviews to press, radio and television reporters, which looks set to continue tomorrow with the official press view of the exhibition. A recent highlight is The Guardian's art correspondent Jonathan Jones's typically perceptive piece last Saturday, while the first exhibition review appears in today's Times Online. There has been similary good feedback from British Library colleagues who accompanied Peter and myself on a number of preliminary tours today. Now although they are all extremely polite people, I am sure that their complimentary comments were not borne purely out of politeness. It is nearly time for you to make up your own mind.

26 April 2010