ARTYFACTS: Magnificent Maps - British Library

Friday, July 30, 2010

Magnificent Maps - British Library

I love maps, my wife hates maps. I’d like them on our walls, Gil rips them off. So, when I arranged to meet a friend at the Magnificent Maps Exhibition at the British Library, I expected lots of men pouring over the detail. But, no, there were more women than men and a surprising number of kids.

It’s loosely themed, but the real joy comes in interrogating the maps themselves. Where is Britain, Jerusalem, Constantinople? What are those red areas, like scarlet fingers on so many of the maps? Hey it’s the Red Sea! We spent nearly three hours in the exhibition, as many of the maps had 2D treasures that needed to be hunted out. What was nice was gthe way people shared their discoveries, two or three on any one map.

We assume that north should be at the top, but it was not always so. Many early maps, such as the Mappa Mundi, had East at the top or other ‘orient’ations. The Mappa Mundi dates from around 1300 and has Jerusalem in the centre, and East at the top. The Med, Nile and Red sea are all clearly visible.

The maps from the 15th and 16th centuries are representations of European voyages of discovery and are coastal fading off into great swathes of the unknown. It is in later centuroies that maps are used as political representations and tools of war.

Geological and other maps with a specific significance were absent. It was a shame that William Smith’s famous first geological map The Map that changed the World, was not here.

There’s maps on vellum silk, tapestries and paper but I was disappointed that there was no final room on digital maps as there’s been a revolution over the last decade with Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Streetview and Satnav devices. The whole world has been captured on one huge realistic map in Google Earth. That’s the bird’s eye view. Dynamic maps on TomTom, Google Streetview turn maps into tools. GPS is creating crime maps and social networking such as Foursquare. In other words, screen-based maps are vastly more functional and useful than print maps.


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