Tomorrow, the British Library is to close one of it’s finest exhibitions to date, an extensive yet satisfyingly in-depth map collection, many of which have never been exhibited before. It’s no surprise the exhibition has received rave reviews, as the British Library has an archive of over four million to choose from. The exhibition contains an array of physically beautiful and intellectually fascinating maps drawn from theological, political, imperial and satirical motives, so willingly leave any preconceived associations with dull Geography at the door.
Indeed, prior to the sophistication of modern technology that rendered maps strictly functional, the execution of cartography was the execution of art, presented to the wealthy echelons of society as symbols of wealth and power. The Dutch were the masters of imperial maps, as the naval sovereigns of the 17th Century, and popularised decorating maps with Greek mythological figures in order to illustrate this godly power.
In total contrast to this, the Bolsheviks map posters displayed served as propaganda, whilst a charmingly intimate work of contemporary art by Stephen Walter (2008) presents every crevice in London as holding a personal, sentimental value. The exhibition also boasts a map illustrating the tragedy of Pomperania, a tiny island whose strategic location on the Baltic coast forced it to surrender independence in 1610 to threatening imperial dynasties. This map measures over two metres wide, using twelve sheets of paper to recreate the town’s idiosyncratic streets and paint the portrait of the ruling Duke Phillip II whose family line was soon to become extinct. Around another arcane corner hangs a depiction of the world drawn by Venetian Monk Fra Mauro circa 1450, celebrating the grandeur of Venice and Britain’s Asiatic empire as the usurper of the Portuguese empire which was facing imminent decline after success in the 15th Century.
The maps are arranged in accordance to which rooms they would have been displayed in, and there is minimal information displayed as well as a lack of any form of chronological, topographical or geographical order. Yet despite my usual personal insistence on the importance of a well informed gallery, it is this sense of rootlessness and grasp of the wealth of time and space human history has occupied that truly makes you feel as though you are reading a map; wonderfully lost.
Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is at the British Library, London NW1 (020-7412 7676), until Sept 19.
The BBC Four Maps Season continues on Sunday (9pm) with Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession.