Maps on BBC Four
BBC 4 seems to be having something of a map-week - last night, "Maps: Power, Plunder and Possession", the first of a 3-part series, focused on tracing the development of mapping techniques over the last 3000 years. Whilst the framing analysis tended towards the simplistic (although it's encouraging that the programme did at least raise questions and prompt thinking about representation and so on), I was interested to learn more about the more technical side of mapping and how the processes and techniques have evolved over the centuries. A variety of fascinating maps were on display from a range of historical periods and places, opening up fascinating insights into the ways in which different cultures understand and conceptualise space, location and movement. Throughout, I found myself coming back to the centrality of movement to mapping, and the role it plays in spatial experience, understanding, and representation- from the Roman map which privileged distance as the organising principle between places, to the Polynesian map drawn from the memory - the memory of travelling through and experiencing the spaces it portrayed. Movement is the precondition of mapping, one of the primary reasons for needing a map. And thinking about maps and movement draws out the underlying tension that all maps display: the attempt at (and pretence of) an accurate representation of space, and the unrepresentability of spaces which always resist containment in representable form. To travel through space which has been mapped is to experience the disjuncture between representation and reality- I'm reminded here of Hetty in Adam Bede, who sets out on her journey from the midlands to Windsor and finds that a distance that “that seems but a slight journey as you look at the map" is in fact "wearily long" to the traveller.
1675 map of a journey - from Mapping the Imagination exhibition
And yet despite their inherent problems and contradictions, maps have that continuing, irresistable appeal; as George Eliot notes later in Middlemarch, “a map was a fine thing to study when you were disposed to think of something else, being made up of names that would turn into a chime if you went back upon them”. The series starting tonight on BBC Four suggests the promise of the delights that maps hold, titled as it is The Beauty of Maps. The website contains some interesting info and links (Maptube looks intriguing), and there's also an exhibition at the British Library running until September, which I'll be sure to get along to.