The current map exhibition at the Britsh Library is still on and it is big, really big. There are far more examples and beautiful maps than I had expected. However I was a bit disappointed that there are exclusively old maps, apart from a few contemporary artists takes on mapping. The exhibition manages a few things, it brings together a large collection of very old maps, covering the past 500 years. It presents scientific aspects of mapmaking as well as cultural and social aspects. In fact there is a strong emphasis on the cultural aspect of maps, how they comunicate and manifest wealth and status. In this sense they are presented less in a scientific sense but an cultural. Maybe this explains the absence of modern maps and the presence of artists impressions.
For me the fascinating aspect of the exhibition are the many different roles maps have played and the much more holistic approach to map making cartographers applied in these early days. The rich illustrations the additional informations around the outside the characters that were as important as the symbols. Compared to this richness the clean and 'objective' maps of today apear really boring.
One of the most beautiful maps in the exhibition is Diogo Homem's 'A Chart of the Mediterranean Sea, 1570. A map of the Mediterranean only showing the shorelines, in a very imaginative abstraction decorated with colours and gold.
Another impressive object is the Hereford Mappa Mundi c1300. Its name meaning 'cloth of the world' and it is drawn on calf skin. The BBC documentarie discussed it at length. Fascinating is the way the map combines different times of past and present as well as eternity into the same picture. Also it combines knowledge and myths, believe and culture as elements of the same whole. In this sense it shows as much of the known as of the unknown and also presents the beginning as well as the end. This cyclical aspect ist the key to its power.
Image taken from Wikipedia / Hereford Mappa Mundi, about 1300, Hereford Cathedral, England. A classic "T-O" map with Jerusalem at center and east toward the top. Find a version with description HERE.
At the heart of the map is Jerusalem and the main orientation is East. Of course this reflects a very christian world view but historically this is important. In temporal terms the map depicts events separated by hundreds of years. There are activities such as the Caesar sending out helpers to map the world, the Arche Noah and the crucifixion of Christ in the same image representing the history of the world. Outside the disc of the world additional scenes put it into context. There is judgement day at the top of the map and the passage to another world at the bottom of the world. Interestingly the disc of the world is fastened to the surrounding eternity by the letters M, O, R, S - latin for death. This all sits in the context of the late medieval world view, but surprisingly to me this represents a sort of inside out understanding of life, a sort of progress from the centre to the edge and beyond. This narrative approach to mapping was for me the exciting and surprising part.
I have to say immediately after seeing the exhibition I was a bit disappointed not to see the art of map making progress through to the current state. However the more I thought about it, the more I realised how much of the detail and additional aspects of old maps would have been distracted from by new maps purely focused on technology.
The BBC does present the topic on their website, the Beauty of Maps, in two parts of them one are the old maps and the other part are the modern maps. This includes for examples Google Earth or MapTube, a platform to create and share maps.