Exhibition: the secret life of maps

7th September 2001 at 01:00

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, London, called Lie of the Land: The Secret Life of Maps . This considers how maps have been used 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. 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 and loses its centrality and the countries of Africa and Asia grow in 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.

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.

Picture : a detail of Ptolemy's map

  • The Lie of the Land is at the British Library, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, until 2002. Contact the education service (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.
    • A longer version of this feature appears in this week's Friday magazine

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