July 16, 2010 / 10:09 AM / 7 years ago

Power and propaganda of maps at British library

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Rare cartographic gems mapping the world from 200 B.C. to the present go on display at the British Library in London.

“Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art,” showcases some of the finest wall-maps in the British Library’s 4.5 million-strong collection, in an exhibition which encourages visitors to question the nature and purpose of maps.

”It’s not about way-finding, it’s not about accuracy, it’s not about practical use,“ exhibition curator Tom Harper told Reuters.” “It’s as much about the art as it is about the geography,” he explained.

Prior to 1800, these maps would have hung beside paintings and sculpture on the walls of palaces and grand private homes. No expense was spared, with vast tapestries, large wooden globes and painting in gold leaf commissioned.

The maps are organized according to the type of space where they would once have been on show: royal gallery; audience chamber; bedchamber, cabinet of curiosities; street; merchant’s house; secretary of state’s office and school room.

A section of a Roman street plan carved in marble is the oldest piece in the exhibition. As part of an 18m wide slab it was meant to reify Rome’s power and inspire awe.

“People relate to maps because they have pride in a certain place,” Harper told Reuters. “So really the messages are still working today,” he said, noting the positive response of visitors to the exhibition.

The strong geopolitical statements made through the maps in the royal gallery and audience chambers provide a unique insight into a monarch’s perception of the world and his or her place in it.

As well as the physical world, medieval maps also sought to illustrate religious, historical and mythological facts.

“All maps are subjective, what is more important: the Last Judgment or the correct placement of Birmingham?,” Head of Map Collections at the British Library Peter Barber said in a statement.

A photographic reconstruction of the Ebstorf mappa mundi - the biggest known medieval world map which was destroyed by Allied bombs in World War II - takes pride of place in the bedchamber space.

Maps in this room depict the higher cosmological order; Jerusalem is in the center and the world is the body of Christ, whose hands and feet stick out of the edge of the map.

Nearby is Grayson Perry’s 2008 modern take on the Medieval world map: “Map of Nowhere.”

Instead of Christ’s head, the artist has drawn his own at the top of the map. Imaginary towns such as “So-called progress,” “Tesco,” “Yuppie Scum,” “Starbucks” and “The Establishment” are marked on Perry’s map.

“It’s an intelligent comment on the selfishness, the superficiality of our existence,” Harper said.

The Klencke Atlas is a Guinness World Record holder; measuring 1.75m in height and 1.9m in width, it is the world’s largest atlas. Like other maps that would have been kept in a royal cabinet of curiosities, it was designed to prove the ruler’s intellect.

Political posters, including one of Churchill as a cigar-smoking octopus trying to seize Africa with his tentacles, demonstrate the visual power of maps in propaganda.

Stephen Walter’s map of London (2008) satirizes the London-centric view of the English capital, depicting its outlying commuter towns as tiny islands offshore from the metropolitan mainland.

Places are annotated with trivia, anecdote and the artist’s opinions.

“In 1,000 years time, it’ll probably be the most important example of what it meant to live in London in the 21st century,” Harper said.

Magnificent Maps: Power Propaganda and Art is on at the British Library until the 19th September.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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