Maps and the 20th Century at the British Library

Belphoebe New

It is surprisingly easy to lose yourself in this ambitious and fascinating exhibition from the British Library.

This exhibition began with four million maps. Tucked away in corners of the British Library, Maps and the 20th Century curates 200 of them, leading us through a fascinating story of the political and social changes of the 20th century, the first century of universal map use.
As lead curator Tom Harper summarises: ‘Maps are eloquent objects for unlocking the past.’ Maps are one of the most diverse forms you could imagine, a version of the world that can either be highly factual or deeply allegorical. Far from being simply neutral, maps form the language of the world and all of its tensions.
Maps started out as bespoke, luxury objects for the richest in society, who were more likely to travel. The first room documents this shift to maps becoming more accessible for everyone as people began to broaden their horizons. We see detailed Ordnance Survey maps from the 1920s and beautiful watercolours from the Phillips Colour Atlas, as the language of maps develops to take people out of their local confines.  
Yet as we discover, maps are not just utilised for travel but as weapons of war and persuasive tools. In the ambiguously titled Mapping Peace? room, we begin to understand maps as a political tool, charting borders, trade routes, war territories and propaganda. The inclusion of both maps presenting objective facts and maps depicting fantasy is particularly interesting. One map of Brighton created by the Soviet Union as part of a global military mapping project goes into incredible and unsettling detail, whilst another depicts ‘Breakfast Island’ a fantasy map that includes all the new options for breakfast when the Second World War ended in 1945. One of the boldest points to take away from the exhibition is that often maps presenting very objective language such as facts and figures can make very similar political and economic points to the more abstract ones.

Watercolour map of Africa, 1957. Copyright British Library and Philips Business Archive

The exhibition also considers the question of how to map the human qualities of a place, and how this has been interpreted throughout the 20th century. A particularly interesting piece is a 1902 map that documents the Jewish immigrant community in East London. We psychologically associate the vast swathes of alarming red lines with the Jewish presence, when in fact the much smaller collection of blue areas indicate the immigrant community. This seemed like a significant and poignant point to make when considering the current issue of anti immigrant and refugee sentiment. Later on, psychogeographer Guy Debord’s cut up and fragmented maps signify physically close yet mentally distant communities as well as an attempt to create new geographical experiences, which suggests that the human character of a place cannot be conveyed simply with objective accuracy. 
As we move through the 20th century maps become more dynamic, with more technological advancements such as GPS being introduced to make mapping more accurate than it ever has been. Interestingly, accuracy and modernism seemed to encourage more creative freedom with maps as an art form, such as the GPS map by artist Jeremy Wood, which follows every single journey he has ever taken between 2000 and 2016. The voyeuristic element of being able to gain such a detailed insight into the movements taken throughout someone’s life inspires interesting questions about the relationship between technology and surveillance today, making it one of the exhibition’s standout pieces.

 Western Front trench model, 1917. Copyright British Library

Navigating the twists and turns of the rooms you realise that the exhibition itself has been designed to look like its subject matter, with a contoured wall and a map floor graphic in the first room. It is these little details that show how much thought and effort has been put into creating this exhibition over many years. With such an astonishing variety of choice and styles, from the development of satellite imagery to the fictional maps of Middle Earth dreamt up by J.R.R. Tolkien, this exhibition successfully ties the twentieth century together through the universal language of cartography. Whether you’re an expert cartographer or use Google Maps on your phone occasionally, this exhibition offers a fascinating insight into the 20th century through one of the most exciting and visually diverse forms of communication.
Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line begins on the 4th November and ends of the 1st March 2017 at The British Library. Tickets are £12 with concessions available. For more information, visit their website

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