Friday, 30 April 2010

Magnificent Maps

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art is a major new exhibition at the British Library. The show brings together 80 maps, from 200AD to the present day, taken from the library's vast archive of more than four million. Many have rarely been seem, including a late 18th century view of Canton and, perhaps the earliest detailed map of Italy - displayed for the first time since it was hung in the Whitehall during the reign of Henry VIII.

As the title suggests, maps are as much about propaganda as they are about geography. Not all those on display are totally accurate represenations of the land, but instead are subjective images shaped by the political issues, desires and aspirations of the period in which they were drawn.

I had a quick look during my lunch break, although I'm planning a longer visit (the exhibition runs until September). Many of the maps are displayed in settings similar to those in which they originally would have been seen, such as bed chambers and the private rooms of rulers. Most are huge.

It's all very impressive, but the biggest crowd was to be seen peering at Stephen Walter's The Island, a map that sees London as independent from the rest of the UK. While more or less geographically correct, his view of the capital also offers a wealth of local and personal information. Visitors to the exhibition seemed to be keen to check out what Walter had to say about their favourite parts of the city. I was bemused to see Brockwell Park, my local patch of greenery, described as Cannabis HQ. Below is the Central London section.

See also the BBC's The Beauty of Maps - and there is still time to watch some of the excellent BBC Four programmes on iPlayer.

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