7th September 2001 at 01:00
THE LIE OF THE LAND: the Secret Life of Maps. British Library, London

Maps can inspire, inform or enrage the reader. Sean Coughlan reports from the British Library where a new collection charts their use - and misuse - throughout history

Maps are all around us: the plan of the shopping centre; the Tube map on the way to work; road atlases to argue over on overheated motorways.

If you've just been on holiday there might have been maps that seemed to hide as much as they revealed. Perhaps a map in a brochure made the hotel look closer to the beach or made the airport look only a short distance to the city.

It's this double-edged quality to maps that is imaginatively explored in an exhibition at the British Library called Lie of the Land: The Secret Life of Maps. This considers how maps have been used over the centuries not just to provide information but also to persuade and misinform. The exhibition begins with an example of how maps containing the same information - in this case the countries of the world - can be represented in two very different ways.

In the first, the traditional Mercator Projection, we see a world with Europe at its centre, with the rest of the world taking its starting point from the meridian at Greenwich. The relatively familiar corrective version, the Peters Projection, is used as an overlay. It seeks to show the same information in a way that more accurately reflects the relative sizes and locations of countries: Europe shrinks in size and loses its centrality and the countries of Africa and Asia grow in size and prominence.

The importance of perspective is even more pronounced in McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World, made in 1979, which puts the southern hemisphere at the top rather than the bottom. It's the same picture but it looks entirely different, with Europe relegated to a lower corner, the great land mass of Asia sprawling across the centre ground and Australia sitting on top of the world.

Meanwhile, an elegantly stylised map of the Empire produced in the 1940s by Cable and Wireless shows the globe pivoting around London, with large splashes of the world still shaded a patriotic pink.

The exhibition also allows visitors to see how differently the UK might be presented in the maps of others. A Soviet intelligence map from the 1970s of the Thames Estuary, using the Cyrillic alphabet, almost manages to make places such as South Ockendon and Thurrock look exotic.

Maps take on a particular significance in wartime, and the exhibition has several examples of how they have been used for strategic and propaganda purposes.

There are maps of English cities used by German bombers in the Second World War, highlighting targets in a luminous yellow and identifying places such as prisoner of war camps which should not be bombed.

And there are handmade maps painstakingly drawn by British prisoners of war trying to escape from Germany. The board games company, Waddingtons, tried to help by hiding miniature maps in playing cards and Monopoly boards sent to prisoners.

The poet Siegfried Sassoon's map of the trenches he fought in during the First World War is also on show, with the villages and supply lines given breezy English place names, such as Crawley Ridge and the Old Kent Road.

There is also an example of how the mundane and the menacing can come together in a map, with a street plan drawn up for controlling marchers arriving for a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1939.

Maps have always gone hand in hand with conquest and control, with invaders and explorers using maps as a way of taking possession and giving their own names to places. But this depends on the cartographers being suitably serious about their work, and there are some entertaining examples of how this process can be subverted.

A military mapping expedition on the Greek island of Lemnos, carried out under the supervision of a man called Corry, detailed a series of hills which were duly recorded as being called Yam, Yrroc, Eb and Denmad, which seemed plausible enough to remain on maps for many years, until someone read the names backwards.

Another map shows the result of surveyors in West Africa in the 1920s deciding to cut a few corners and maybe sink a few too many gins. Instead of measuring the heights of hills, they decided to trace over a picture of an elephant and use that for contour lines instead. This elephant-shaped landscape continued to appear in maps of the area until the 1960s.

As well as historical significance, there is also beauty in maps, whether it's an interpretation of Ptolemy's first bold outline of the world, colonial maps of North America or an elegant, wall-sized Indian map of Kashmir that shows a swirling pattern of rivers and villages.

Mapmaking is another kind of official portrait painting, a public art form full of symbolism and cultural signals. And I suspect it's an art form that particularly fascinates men and boys.

This is a particularly rich collection, with a very creative use of examples to make visitors think harder about how maps are used.

Education officer Saira Ahmed hopes school visitors will begin to think more about how maps can be seen not only as a way of describing historical change, but also as contemporary source material.

The Lie of the Land is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, until 2002. Contact the education service (tel: 020 7412 7797) for details of the following workshops: Mapping the Changes (key stages 23 history and geography): looking at how change is recorded through maps.The Art of Maps (key stages 23 art and design and literacy): drawing imaginary maps using the exhibition as inspiration.Use and Abuse of Maps in World War II: (key stage 4 history): how maps have been used in war and propaganda.Making Maps Meaningful (Inset, primary and secondary history and geography): maps as source material.

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