Maps, propaganda and art

By Kelly Wakefield

A current exhibition at the British Library called Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art has been running since 30th April 2010.  The collection, according to the website “brings together 80 of the largest, most impressive and beautiful maps ever made, from 200 AD to the present day”.

A recent BBC article highlighted three of the London maps that are on show, the foremost large map from 1682 created after the Great Fire in 1666, a tapestry and Stephen Walter’s hand drawn map.

The first map created after the Great Fire, represents London as functional and powerful as well as showing a yet to be built St. Paul’s Cathedral (“the map is lying to us” – says Tom Harper, the library map’s curator). This is a vision of London that has risen from the flames and as Tom Harper explains  “the map wants to say ‘London is up and running’, so it can hardly show a building site”.

The second map is a huge tapestry produced for a landowner to show off wealth and prestige.  The map ignores the growing populations, back alleyways and human effluent flowing in the Thames instead showing spotless streets, another use of propoganda and power.

The third map discussed is Stephen Walters hand drawn map.  This map, unlike the previous two, is embellished with personal memories, anecdotes and cultural information.  Tom Harper suggests that the distinction between maps and works of art is far more blurred than one might think.

What is important to take away from this exhibition is appreciation for the maps and their stories but always to question what is shown and what is not…perhaps those parts are the most interesting!

The BBC,  28th June 2010, “London maps: Heads on spikes and ‘al fresco bonking

The British Library, exhibition running 30th April 2010 – 19th September 2010 “Magnificent Maps, Power, Propoganda and Art

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