Exhibition Review: Maps and the 20th Century – Drawing The Line @ The British Library

As you may have guessed from my nom de plume, cartography is a subject that fascinates me.  The decisions that go into how we represent our world, the political and artistic motivations behind them and the impact on the viewers’ perceptions are a subject that could fill a space even greater than the voluminous edifice of the British Library, but in Drawing The Line, the curators have done a fantastic job of filtering down and crystallising a many-faceted subject through a carefully chosen selection of maps of all kinds from the 20th Century.

These range from hand drawn World War I trench maps to a computer generated and constantly updating heat map of the very exhibition in which we stand, from painstakingly accurate maps to those intentionally distorted for the purposes of propaganda, from the fictional whimsy of Winnie The Pooh’s 100 Acre Wood to the heartbreaking reality of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The exhibition is arranged into five over-arching topics, beginning with ‘Mapping In a New World’, which looks at how technological developments as well as changes in lifestyle and ideals radically altered the way that we create and use maps.  Here we are treated to views of a Russian moon globe, some unfamiliar projections and maps, such as a poster promoting women’s suffrage in the US that show maps being used as part of a greater societal shift.

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Two linked areas, dedicated first to war and then to peace, host some of the exhibitions most poignant moments.  Red lines demarcate potential Luftwaffe bombing targets in London and Liverpool, munitions and barbed wire surround a map of besieged Sarajevo, while opposing powers are cast as demonic land-grabbing beasts in propaganda posters from the world wars.  Elsewhere we are reminded of the positive power of maps, in providing safe routes of escape, building cross-border relationships (though quite why the Financial Times thought that a post world war competition encouraging readers to send in their predictions for Europe’s new borders was a good idea I cannot comprehend) and giving an opportunity for escapism as illustrated by Bernard Sleigh’s wondrous Ancient Mappe of Fairyland, which locates the homes of Peter Pan, King Arthur and The Argonauts and by Cyril Phillips’ mouth-watering Breakfast Island printed, of course, on a breakfast tray, as well as Tolkein’s map plotting the Lord of The Rings story.

Entering the penultimate section ‘Mapping The Market’ provides an unexpected moment of nostalgic joy, with the appearance of The Weetabix Wonder World Atlas, a dog-eared copy of which kept my occupied throughout my childhood, though its rather un-PC representations of Weetabix characters as national stereotypes are another indication of how attitudes have moved on.  A similarly warm moment is triggered by a small screen playing a loop of footage from late eighties computer classic Sim City, though I found much of the rest of this area a little dry by comparison with the inherent drama and wonder of the rest of the show.

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The exhibition concludes with ‘Mapping Movement’, amongst the highlights of which is Harry Beck’s original hand drawn sketch for the London tube map – The BL has a habit of dropping in truly jaw dropping moments such as these into their shows, as anyone who visited their recent Magna Carta exhibition will be fully aware, and it’s a reminder of the staggering number of world famous historic documents held within its collection.

Whether you’re a cartography buff, a fan of 20th century history, or just looking for an enjoyable and enlightening way to spend an afternoon, Drawing The Line provides everything that you could want, and crucially doesn’t overdo it by overwhelming the viewer with wall after wall of near identical charts.  If you’re making the trip we can also highly recommend the Library’s current free exhibition of Victorian magic and music hall ephemera, There Will Be Fun, on the entrance hall’s upper floor.

Review by Paul Maps
www.bl.ukMaps and The 20th Century: Drawing The Line is open now and runs until 1st March 2017.  Tickets are priced at £12, free for members and under 18s.

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