Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line, The British Library

Who doesn’t love a good map? They offer us a way to physically see where we are and what the world around us looks like, they can be pocket portals presenting space and they get us from A – B. This exhibition at the British Library not only supports a lovely for cartography but presents the variation within the map world in the 20th century.

Sadly it’s one of those joyous ‘no photographs allowed’ exhibitions, so you’ll have to rely on my special way with words to guide you through some of the highlights in this one.

Obviously on buying a ticket for the exhibition you are handed a map. But weirdly one of the first things you see on entering the space is screen portraying the layout of the exhibition showing the accurate to time visitor movements through the space. I’ve no idea how this image movement mapping has been done, it’s almost like there were movement or heat sensors on the ceiling or under the floor throughout the exhibition that were presented live to the screen. Who knows; it certainly caused a bottle neck of people craning to see and work out where they were on the map. It definitely highlighted how popular the whole of the exhibition space was – although I’m sure it would be interesting for the creators of the exhibition to look back and to locate any ‘dead/unused’ spaces.

The first section of the exhibition covers ‘Mapping a New World’, and the introduction panel quite rightly points out that ‘to read a map we need to understand why it was drawn in the first place’. This idea is presented really well throughout this area and the thought stays with you for the rest of the exhibition. My favourite example was a comparison between a map of the Yorkshire railway system alongside a map of the UK’s railway network. The map of Yorkshire was created to push tourism, colourful and cheerful each station has depictions of what the place was known for. In stark contrast the formal map presenting the rail network was created to show which lines could be closed for being of little financial benefit – the map is a black and white line, with the colours of the rails routes depending on the decision to close or keep it open. It has not been create to wow or inspire, but to inform of the facts. There is also the first satellite image of the world, and a 1968 souvenir map of Disneyland.

‘Mapping War’ is the next theme to be investigated, with the introduction panel proclaiming the maps in this section as being among the weapons of 20th century war. Now when I read this my eyebrows definitely rose in scepticism; it seems a dramatic statement. But the maps on display definitely supported the claim. I think the most moving was that of a plan of Auschwitz and Treblinka, which was collected by Polish intelligence and received by the British Government in 1944. This was presented alongside an aerial photograph of Auschwitz, dating from the 23 August 1944. Although the photograph was taken after the intelligence of the camps was received, the information panel informs that it is unknown if the photo analyst who received it will have been aware of what it was an image of. Presented side by side, the aerial photograph brings the horrific realities of the line drawn intelligence map to life; you can see the smoking rising from the burning pits.

The gallery shows the extremes to which maps can contrast. The horrors of war can be presented in completely different style; cartographic war games. The 1915 ‘Silver Bullet’ game is one such example, you roll a silver ball down a path to Berlin, avoiding crater holes along the way. Rudimentary, but still a map.

An area presenting ‘Mapping Peace’ follows on from the war, but there is a very blurred boundary between the two. Many of the items here make reference to post war times, such as the Abercrombie Plan, which looked at rebuilding London after WWII. Maps of battle fields tours were presented. There is also a dress made from escape silk maps. These maps would have been given out during war, but were repurposed post war when fabric was still being rationed. This idea of reuse of war maps during a time of peace was also beautifully presented in a sheet of Latvian stamps printed on the reverse of military maps of the defeated Germans, created after Latvia became independent of Russia. I think my favourite item of this section was more light-hearted – a dinner tray that presented a ‘Map of Breakfast Island’, taking you on a journey from the land of sleep, via breakfast island which is made up of wonderful things like bread, cereal, milk, eggs and fruit onto work and/or play.

The next area, ‘Mapping the Market’, showcases the way maps have been used in the 20th century to reveal economic stories. Maps have been used to present visions of economic progress or failure, as well as the environment costs of modern day life on the world’s resources.

The final section looks at how different types of movements are mapped, from lava flows and earthquakes, to bird migrations. It also presents the movement of people, with the original sketch of the simplified London tube line and the original plans for Lonely Planet travel guides. But my personal highlight was the insanely detailed map of Tolkien’s imagined world showing Rohan, Gondor and Mordor.

Overall the exhibition had a wonderful flow. Each area was clearly divided by its own colour scheme all which linked back to the featured poster image of the exhibition, a centred map of the world. Even the floors are subtly decorated with maps that linked to items on display in each particular area.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line at the British Library, 4 November 2016 – 1 March 2017.

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