September 06, 2010

Magnificent Maps: Power, Propoganda, and Art

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BL mapsJust a quick entry on the exhibition currently on at the British Library, Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art. This fascinating exhibition draws together a range of maps from c.1400s through to the present day; many of these were featured on the recent BBC series Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession which I noted back in April, so it was great to be able to see many of these maps up close.

The arrangement of the exhibition was such that the maps organised according to the contexts in which they were originally displayed: from palace galleries to the streets, schoolroom, bedchamber, reception hall, curiosity cabinet, merchant's house, and government office. In theory, I thought this was a good idea in opening up questions about how spatial context impacts upon interpretation, meaning and function of an object, and it was particularly appropriate for certain contexts: the street section, for example, grouped together maps used for propaganda purposes which gained from being placed next to other similar maps. Meanwhile, the gallery area displayed elaborate maps that leaned more on the side of art than of global knowledge, whilst the bedchamber opened up interesting questions about public/private spaces, the intimacy of the most private of spaces infiltrated with depictions of expansive other spaces.

Ultimately, though, I think the organisation of the maps in this way didn't add much to the display and, in some cases, detrated from it; whilst some of the maps were quite obviously suited to the room they were in, or the context might open up meaningful interpretations of certain maps, many of the types of maps displayed in each room were in fact quite similar. By going back to the "original context" you're dependent on what individuals decided looked best in their gallery vs. the entrance hall, the cabinet of curiosities vs the merchants house, and in many cases the maps displayed in differernt rooms didn't bear any special relationship to that room, only supported a general theme that maps work in different contexts to convey different degrees of power, wealth, and possession- which ultimately are often so entangled that it wouldn't have made much difference to swap many of the maps around. Whilst this wasn't a problem as such, it did mean the exhibits become a little repetetive between rooms and in some instances it would've worked much better to be able to see similar maps from different rooms placed next to one or near one another so that they could gain from comparative viewing, or that one could think about the similar themes or representational differences, and so on. In many instances I could also think of far more pertinent examples that related to the relevant room, such as the maps used in the school room, and a little more variety in the types of maps might have made for more interesting discussion (it was great to see Stephen Walter's The Islandbut some more contemporary examples would've been good); but I'm sure much of this was determined by what was in the collection and therefore perhaps an unreasonable complaint.

These are, however, small quibbles with what was nonetheless an enjoyable stroll around some fascinating exhibits, and some highlights included the fabulous Sheldon tapestry of the south east, the digitally enhanced version of the Hereford mappa mundi, wonderful globes, a tiny atlas made for Queen Mary's doll house, and many other beautiful maps. Well worth a look in if you're around that part of London or working in the British Library in the next couple of weeks (on until 19th September, and it's free).

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