The hundred or so maps on view at the British Library reveal the perennial human obsession with finding one's place in the world, writes Alix Christie
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
As we grow ever more disembodied in virtual space, it is enlightening to consider the nature and purpose of maps. The curators at the British Library recently sifted through 26,000 of the 4.5m that make up its collection—the world's largest. The hundred or so they selected to show, most for the first time in public, reveal the perennial human obsession with finding one's place in the world.
"Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art" offers an array of milestones, including the first showing of Henry VIII’s map of Italy since his reign and the first American map made by the colonists with the Prime Meridian set at Philadelphia. The largest bound atlas in the world is here (the six-foot Klencke Atlas, gift of Dutch merchants to Charles II of England), as is the tiniest, created for Queen Mary’s dollhouse. This dazzling display of mainly European cartography from antiquity to the cold war is presented in galleries set up like a royal palace, with exhibits leading successively to the figurative and literal centre of these bygone worlds. The show coincides with two BBC documentary programmes—"The Beauty of Maps" and "Mapping the World" (available for a limited time online)—and runs through September 19th.
These elaborate maps are reflections of power and standing. In medieval and Renaissance mappa mundi, God sat atop the world; the monarch sat before it, accepting fealty. From Venice to Great Britain, a map's patron placed itself squarely at the centre of its graphic empire. All is propaganda. One intriguing modern map shows Hitler’s plan to swallow chunks of Poland and the Sudetenland as early as 1935; revealed too soon, it was withdrawn and hastily recast.
These globes and charts also reveal the impulse, old as man, to hold the gathered knowledge of the world in one's hands. To describe is to possess, preserve: for centuries maps served as visual encyclopaedias, storing what is known in one great annotated document. This show is a rebuttal to those who view maps as mere geographical tools. Indeed, a wealth of information is encrypted not just in landmasses, but in the artwork that fills the borders and blanks, says Peter Barber, the show's curator. In some cases, map illustrations are the only remaining depictions of lost royal palaces and peoples.
For all our digital innovations, "many of the ways that we communicate visually haven't changed," Barber says. A map of the lost duchy of Pomerania inscribes not just the realm, but the whole ducal family, every town and coat of arms—even, drilling down further, each kind of fish that swims its waters—in data boxes built into its borders like some kind of scripted hyperlink. Two contemporary maps—one of London, another of the artist Grayson Perry—serve up idiosyncratic current data in these classic forms, and are sought by City bankers just as avidly as the gilded maps that wealthy merchants once hung on their walls.
Above all, these objects are seductively beautiful. Such lush watercolours help to sweeten the bitterness of a disputed border or contentious landmark. For example, the port of Dover is depicted as the graceful mouth of Britain in a bid to fund breakwaters necessary to protect it. Digital maps today may zoom in on each tree and house, endlessly updating our social networks on the go. But to eyes beguiled by these historic maps, the landscape of one created by Google feels shallow. To Barber, it's the "emotive power of place" that this exhibit celebrates, along with the consoling thought that there is more to maps—and the world—than GPS.
Alix Christie is a journalist based in London
Pictured: Diogo Homem, A Chart of the Mediterranean Sea, 1570 (top); America, Sive Quartae Orbis Parties, Nova et Exactissima Description, 1562; Pierre Desceliers, World Map, 1550, all details courtesy of the British Library