Marks out of 10 - Sketch marks the spot

11th June 2010 at 01:00

Magnificent Maps

British Library, London

Until September 19

Free admission

Maps have been a source of fascination for millennia. When humans were first pressing sharpened reeds into wet clay, maps were among the objects they chose to create. Perhaps it is something to do with our need to know our place in the world, where we fit in. But ancient maps also filled a basic human need: they were a way of establishing that we were important, that the world revolved around us.

Certainly, the earliest known maps, from Babylonia in the first millennium BC, show Babylon at the centre of a landmass surrounded by an ocean. Later Greek maps were more generous, including Asia and Africa, but the Aegean was firmly in the middle.

It was only as our horizons expanded, and the thirst for adventure and glory drew explorers to search out previously undiscovered lands, that world maps started to resemble the ones we see today. But the use of maps as propaganda, to bolster our individual or national egos, has never really gone away. Many conventional maps - including most of those in use in schools - show countries of the northern hemisphere as much larger than they really are.

Thus, Greenland appears to be comparable in size to Africa, whereas the latter is 14 times bigger; Europe seems to be equal to South America, when in fact it is just over half the size; and the UK looks to be almost as big as India, which is in fact 14 times larger.

These are not just pedantic objections: critics of the standard map, based on what is known as the Mercator projection, claim it derives from a Euro-centric view of the world, and helps perpetuate the image of the developing countries of the southern hemisphere as less important.

This view of maps as political tool is the subtext of an exhibition of 80 maps at the British Museum, the earliest from 200AD, the latest a 2008 map by Grayson Perry, the artist better known for ceramics.

Many of the maps were created for display, either in palaces or in private homes. Some were intended as a statement of power: a map of Ireland commissioned by Queen Anne's consort, Prince George of Denmark, celebrated Britain's conquest of her neighbour. Some were warnings: a 16th-century map shows the Ottoman forces nearing Vienna, prior to their unsuccessful siege in 1529; another shows a portrait of Louis XIV above a depiction of the Italian duchy of Savoy, a none-too-subtle attempt by the French to intimidate their tiny neighbour.

But others were more mundane. George I had a map of his hunting estates on show at his forest retreat in northern Germany. The accompanying legend suggests it was a statement of his virility as a huntsman, but it could as easily have been an aide memoire in case he took a wrong turn while chasing a deer.

There is no doubt that this is an impressive collection. There are the obligatory extremes: the world's smallest atlas, commissioned for Queen Mary's dollhouse in the 1920s; the world's largest atlas, presented to Charles II in 1660. There are also the spectacular, such as the Hereford Mappa Mundi, dated to around 1300 and including a history of the world from the dawn of time to the last judgment, mightily impressive even if the one on display is a reproduction.

While the exhibition lacks the coherence of the British Library's last map exhibit, charting the development of London, in 2007, it is still an impressive collection.

Perhaps this lack of unity is inevitable, given the disparate nature of the creations on show - and maybe only the pedant would feel the need to complain that pictures of buildings are not really maps - and the exhibition feels none the worse for that.

But what does jar is the shortage of maps with no European connection. Most originate from within Europe, and even when they do not there is still a European influence. An 18th-century map of the Chinese city of Canton, for example, was produced for western merchants; a 17th-century Chinese globe was made by a westerner, and the British military were responsible for a map of India.

This may simply be a reflection of the range of the British Library's collection, or perhaps maps really are a largely western phenomenon, but in an exhibition where one of the themes is a Euro-centric view of the world, it feels like an omission. Proof, if proof were needed, that even today, maps are still being used to present the world in a certain light.


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