Think of the British Library and you probably think of books. (Or a quirky shop, or an overpriced café, or a haven for free wifi, depending on proclivity). You probably don’t think of maps. Yet the great iceberg of Euston Road oversees a staggering four and a half million of the blighters. It’s the greatest collection in the world. The Library’s major new exhibition gives a mere hundred of them a public airing, in some cases for the first time in centuries.
Unlike most BL exhibitions, which have a tendency to cram, Magnificent Maps is perfectly sized and you can probably get a good look-see from one visit. The treasures are left to do the talking, and they have plenty to say. We see how maps have been used to gloat, to survey, to decorate and indoctrinate. We learn how cartographic techniques can be used for purposes of propaganda and even intimidation. Very few were put to the typical modern purpose of navigation.
The exhibition is grouped into areas of various size, supposedly representing the spaces (palatial audience chamber, bedchamber, school room, state office…) in which the maps would have originally been displayed. As a conceit this just doesn’t work and we suspect most visitors will barely notice a difference from room to room. The content, however, can’t fail to impress. There’s no arguing with an exhibition that includes the largest book in the world, the earliest Chinese globe and a vast tapestry of the home counties. Best of all, there’s a chance to see (and zoom in on) Stephen Walter’s astounding hand-drawn map of London from 2008 – for our money, the greatest cartographic feat to ever depict the capital.
As you’d expect, the exhibition is accompanied by a full suite of events and a pretty decent book. So get along to the library, get inspired, and then send us a hand-drawn map for the Londonist collection.
Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art runs at the British Library from 30 April to 19 September. Entrance is free.