This article originally appeared in
More than meets the eye: the secret life of maps
(British Library, London, England cartography exhibition)
By Eric J. Lyman
The first problem in planning something like Lie of the Land: The Secret Life of Maps, the cartography exhibition currently on display
at the British Library in London, is selecting the right maps to demonstrate how even the most faithful cartography springs from
subjective, human elements that, intentionally or not, make it something other than what it purports to be. Not that examples are
hard to come by, the exhibition's director told me. Quite the contrary, since in some way almost any of the 4.25 million maps in the
library's collection could be used to illustrate the point.
That embarrassment of riches presented a unique problem that struck Peter Barber, the British Library's newly appointed map
librarian and the director of Lie of the Land, immediately after choosing the topic for the eight-month-long exhibition. Barber had only
recently taken his post following the retirement of the venerable Tony Campbell and was given just four months to plan, develop,
and open the exhibition -- a task that usually takes much longer. In his comfortable office three floors directly above the exhibition,
Barber explained the motives and the challenges behind mounting a display that uses something presumed to be fact to illustrate
"People naturally tend to trust maps," Barber said, leaning his elbows lightly on the papers scattered about his desk. "When they've
got something figured they say it's 'mapped out'; they say you can trust a map. But the point of this demonstration is that that is not
always the case... [and] that point could be made from any of the maps we have here. So our first big problem was deciding which
ones to use, because we wanted to make the point in a variety of ways."
Anyone who visits the exhibition, which began in late July and runs through 7 April 2002, will be able to critique the library's final
selections. Barber himself, walking with me among the 200 or so maps on display, many of which have never been shown publicly,
did just that.
"You see, accuracy is the least important part of a map," he told me, gesturing at the examples on the walls in the exhibition hall. "A
map maker can convey any point he wants simply by choosing the relevant information. To the reader, he must be trusted, even
though he's not there. His work is what inspires confidence." Or not.
Barber paused for a moment and then turned to what appeared to be a linguistic map of Czechoslovakia from the late 1930s. "What
do you see here?" he asked.
It was a two-color map, with political boundaries and cities marked in black and areas where German-speaking people lived
colored in various shades of red to illustrate their numbers and density. I guessed that it was part of Nazi Germany's plan to annex
those regions of Europe with high concentrations of German-speaking populations, and my guess seemed to be supported by a
thin black line that formed a rough border around the red areas. I was right, Barber said, but only partially and only to the extent that
the map maker wanted me to be right. The map also held another, more subtle message.
"Look closely, and you'll see that the so-called 'border' around the German-speaking areas also includes many parts where there
are virtually no German speakers, and it excludes a few contiguous areas where the German-speaking population is quite high,"
Barber said. "What the casual observer can't know is that within the red areas was virtually all of Czechoslovakia's industrial base
away from Prague, and along the northern and southern borders with Germany they included the Sudeten, the mountainous border
that would be a formidable barrier to any invader. The Germans understood that if they could conquer the areas in red, they wouldn't
have to work for the whole country since the rest would be defenseless. And that's what happened. The whole idea of a
German-speaking Czechoslovakia was just a step along the way to the so-called `Living Space' the Nazis wanted."
The exhibition is set in a star-like shape that both maximizes space and requires visitors to zig in and out of the star's points to see
all of the maps. Barber strolled across to another point of the star-- and more than four centuries of history -- to a map that he said is
among his favorites in the exhibition: an Elizabethan map of Lancashire showing the location of the homes of the land-owning
"A sixteenth-century zoning map?" I guessed, and Barber chuckled. "The crosses above some houses indicate potentially seditious
Catholics," he corrected me, pointing to several of the delicately drawn houses. "And these beacons show rally points for
summoning troops against a potential Catholic uprising. The red lines show borders written in after the fact by Lord Burghley to be
used in the case of battle. It may look like a simple map, but it's also a map of war."
Originating from all over the world, the maps span hundreds of years and reflect many different cultures. What they have in common
is an element of decision making about what is and what is not included as well as how information is presented. Whether a
lavishly decorated Oriental map, a scientific drawing of the moon, defensive maps drawn up for Henry VIII, or World War II bombing
charts, they make some kind of argument, show some kind of deception, include some hidden element--what one London reviewer
of the exhibition called the "cartography of distortion" -- whatever the original motive may have been.
The examples on display fall into one of four broad, overlapping categories, all of which reflect to one degree or another the human
dimension of cartography. In the first are maps that portray social, political, military, or economic control -- even when such control is
more aspiration than reality. The Nazi and Elizabethan maps Barber pointed out are prime examples of this kind of assertive
cartography, as is a 1616 map of New England. Having named a part of North America "New England," Captain John Smith enlisted
the help of Charles, Prince of Wales, in substituting English place-names for the "barbarous" originals. The accompanying text
explains how, for example, the Indian village of Anmoughcawgen turned into Cambridge. By using the normal symbol for an English
town, Smith literally wiped the Indians off the map.
The second category includes cartography that distorts, censors, spins, misleads, or omits or includes features for reasons
unrelated to geography. In the third category are maps whose subject and representation reveal the view of the map maker and the
social context in which he operated. Such subjects include issues of faith and religion, projections, vanity maps, even moral and
psychological geography. Finally, there are those examples that contain small or hidden details that are often more significant than
the whole view.
Humor runs through the exhibition. There's the British naval officer who, in 1903, evidently was upset to be ordered by a certain
Captain Corry to map the land near the main port on the Greek island of Lemnos. He expressed his displeasure by labeling a row
of four hills near the port as "Yam," "Yrroc," "Eb," and "Denmad" -- names unknown locally but used by travelers from the creation of
the map until the 1920s, when someone noticed that the names written backwards spelled "May Corry Be Damned."
Similarly, in 1924 a surveyor mapping a remote part of the Gold Coast in what is now Ghana decided to make a joke out of one hill
he was supposed to survey, drawing the contour of an elephant in lieu of the true rounder shape of the hill. The elephant remained
as the official geographic record of the land for forty years.
Less amusing is an example of outright deception. In 1743 Charles Bertram sent a copy of what he claimed was a medieval map of
Roman Britain to the antiquarian William Stukeley, along with a manuscript history of Britain. The fake fourteenth-century map fooled
experts for more than a century, even though the cartographer didn't have a clear understanding of Latin and had simply fabricated
Latin-sounding names for several landmarks.
Grimmer still are propaganda maps, especially since governments usually produce them and pass them off to trusting citizens as
objective reflections of fact. A 1926 map of the British Empire, for example, was designed to make British-controlled territory look
even more ample than it actually was. The distortions inherent in the Mercator projection were further exaggerated to make Canada
appear almost twice the size of the United States and to magnify huge British territorial claims in Antarctica. Most strikingly, the map
is divided 40 degrees west of Greenwich, meaning that Australia appears twice, in both the east and the west. An 1815 map makes
a similar point by showing the levels of "civilisation and religion" around the world, bluntly labeling Africa as full of"negroes and
caffres" and Canada as populated by "English and French besides some cannibals."
Some of the most disturbing examples of propaganda date to the World War II era. A mid-1930s map warns of Germany's war
ambitions and supplies dates that turned out to be chillingly accurate: Austria would come under German control in 1938, Poland in
1939, and France in 1941. Britain was targeted to fall in 1948 -- one of the map's few significant errors. After the war, to cite another
example, the Czechoslovak Ministry of Information issued a propanganda poster, which included a captured German military map,
that highlights the infamous destruction of the Czech mining town of Lidice by German forces in 1942. The poster emphasizes "Nazi
savagery" at a time when the newly re-created Czech republic was forcibly expelling all Germans from its reclaimed lands.
The view of the map maker is most apparent in the well-known Macarthur's Universal Corrective Map, which was produced in
Australia. Instead of centering on Western Europe or North America, as is the current custom, Sydney is placed on the central line,
and the map's orientation is flipped, with the South Pole on top and an upside-down Australia occupying center stage. Although in
objective terms the orientation is no less accurate than the one most people use today, it is nonetheless disconcerting. The
exhibition also features an example of an ancient Christian pilgrim map, with Jerusalem placed in the center and drawn in such a
way that it could be read from any angle. Included, too, is Joseph Moxon's map of the Garden of Eden, of circa 1695, which locates
Paradise and other biblical sites.
Other maps on display more closely resemble detailed works of art than geographic tools. Elaborate borders as well as animals
and symbols used to decorate otherwise void areas such as oceans or unexplored regions give insight into map makers'
imaginations and prejudices. Later discoveries would make certain of these geographic speculations look primitive or even foolish.
Mercator's 1606 map of the Arctic, for example, blended fact, fiction, and hearsay in showing the North Pole encircled by four islands
separated by violent currents. And no one seems to know how or why the "Moon Maiden" appears on the celebrated astronomer
Giovanni Domenico Cassini's 1679 lunar map. A woman's head is clearly visible on the Heraclides Promontory, but who was she
and who put her there?
Peter Barber told me that, at least initially, there were no grand plans to expose historical inaccuracies or to correct any
longstanding misconceptions in the proposed exhibition. Early themes, such as "Around the World in 80 Maps," were, mercifully,
abandoned. After deciding to emphasize the human element of maps as well as deliberate deceptions, Barber and his colleagues
selected around 400 maps from the collection before pruning that number in half.
Even at the lower number the wide net the library cast makes for a confusing and overwhelming visit at first view. Some of the maps
illustrate aspects of horrible world-changing tragedies, such as the Holocaust or the Crusades, while others reflect only the idle
mind of a creative cartographer. Maps drawn with evil intent share space with those drawn with the cartographer's tongue clearly in
cheek (such as a contemporary postcard map showing Texas taking up more than half of the total land area of the United States).
The maps cover townships, countries, continents, the world, even the moon, and were originally produced for an array of audiences,
from soldiers to travelers and from rulers to voters.
But, slowly, it becomes clear that this diversity-- more than anything else -- is at the core of the exhibition and is also its greatest
strength. Despite the seductive temptation to believe that what appears on a map is true, the wide variety of examples on display at
the British Library amply demonstrates that all maps are human documents, the same as any book, painting, or musical score. If
something can be shown on a map, we learn, it can be shown in a way that praises, blames, misleads, frightens, or exhorts those
who read it unaware. Except now those who visit the exhibition may never be quite so unaware again.
Eric J. Lyman is a freelance writer based in Rome who specializes in European and Latin American issues. His article on the
cartography of the border conflict between Peru and Ecuador, "War of the Maps," appeared in the January/February 2000
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